Dateline Boston: Two-Gun Billy

KimGooi Photojournalist

Dateline Boston: Two-Gun Billy
First published in the Asia Magazine early 1981; Bangkok Post July 19, 1981

Author’s note: My favorite all time and most widely published story. Also printed by the National Echo, Weekender and Penang Club magazine.

I spent six months in the US  and contrary to the prevailing ‘image’ I was highly impressed by the Black people I met.  My Cambodian refugee friend and family were given three sleeping bags and a TV by his young Black neighbor the first day. He said it’s cold and you need a TV or you’ll be bored to death. One time I was boarding a bus in front of Harvard University and didn’t have no change, I took a dollar note and asked the approaching Black student to exchange for some coins. Instead he took out a handful  and said ‘no worry just keep it’. Black girls at ‘fast food’ restaurant teasingly strike a pose when I stole a picture. There were many others – meeting the guys and girls at the Black bars, the Rhythm n Blues club – fond memories!  Years later I found out the Blacks were the greatest contributor to America’s popular culture like music and sports which is the most endearing American contribution to the world, especially in the music field.  

Dateline Boston, USA: It was snowing heavily. The house was close to panic when we returned on a cold winter’s night after a few drinks in the neighbourhood Black bar.

“He has a gun! He has been sleeping here for two hours already,” the Cambodian excitedly said, “He just came into the house and we don’t know what he wants. He was talking but we didn’t understand a word. He took the telephone and started dialing, then fell asleep.”

With much trepidation, Kim Gooi photographed a sleeping Two-Gun Billy, with his partially concealed revolver tucked into his coat.

Slumped on the chair, with the telephone at his feet, was an Black man. He had a weather-beaten face which gave him a look of around 50. Sticking out of his heavy unbuttoned coat was the shiny white, ivory butt of a revolver. There were immense sighs of relief on the faces of the Ly’s family at our arrival. This was December 1980. The Cambodian family had arrived from a refugee camp in Thailand just three weeks earlier and was housed in the three-room apartment in Dorchester, a predominantly Black residential area in Boston. Apart from Ly, who was a former journalist in Phnom Penh where he worked as a stringer phtographer and translator primarily for the Associated Press, none of the family spoke a word of English.

“It’s good that you come back,” said a worried 71-year grandfather Chor. “He could be a bad man, we don’t understand a word of what he says and we don’t know what he wants. I’m worried and concerned about the children and women.

“I think he knows we are poor refugees… there is nothing we have for him to take (rob). What shall we do?’

After a few minutes silence, Ly said: “Let him sleep… while he is sleeping he is OK. Besides a gunman who falls asleep is not dangerous. I don’t think he had any intention to rob or harm us. He must be so drunk that he came to the wrong house.”

Ly’s reassuring words brought a general calm to the family. “It is lucky that you came back… I was so afraid,” said Mrs. Ly cuddling her three-month old baby in her arms. Pointing to her three-year old daughter, she continued: “Even little Outtara is frightened; little girl knows when there is danger.”

Thirty minutes passed and the gunman was still fast asleep. We decided to wake him. Crouching forward, Ly shook the right thigh of the gunman. “Hey mister! Are you alright?” he asked. There was no response. Ly shook harder. The gunman stirred a little, groaned and murmured incoherently. He rubbed and opened his eyes slowly. Members of the family stepped back a few spaces.

“Are you OK? Can I get you a drink… Do you want something to eat?” Ly asked.

The gunman straightened and started talking in a slow, drunken voice, ignoring Ly’s offer. “Man I have a Chinese friend down in… he is a good guy… He sleeps over there and I sleep over here…

“What’s your name?” He extended his hand and we shook it without hesitation. Ah! Lee (Ly)… you are alright. I like you. My name is Billy.” He dragged himself to his feet, dug his hand into his coat found the revolver and pulled it out. The members of Ly’s family disappeared into the back room, Billy flipped open the chamber of the revolver, poured the six bullets into his palm and put them into his pocket.

Playfully, Billy jabbed the revolver at Ly’s ribs and laughed aloud. “Ha ha! Don’t worry, you are a good guy. I have a Chinese friend. Here take this.” He dug into his coat, got out a packet of pills, popped one into his mouth, fumbled into his coat pocket again and threw down a brown packet. Take it, roll them up. I got plenty of them.”

We opened the packet. It was filled with marijuana. “Hey man, get some papers… roll a couple of joints…” Billy kept repeating. There were no cigarette papers around. The problem was easily solved by making do with airmail paper.

“Wow man, this is a bomber!” Billy exclaimed while admiring the king-sized conical shape joints, rolled Asian style. “Come on, light it up!” he added.

As the smoke drifted and the aromatic scent filled the room, Billy smiled and murmured drunkenly, stoned out of his head. There was a sense of lessened tension and a happy mood seemed to prevail. Billy picked up the telephone. “Man, I’ve to call someone.” It was obvious Billy was very drunk, stoned out of his head with a combination of pills, marijuana and God knows what else.

For some minutes, he dragged on, murmuring incoherently into the telephone. With Ly’s help we discovered that Billy’s friend was at number 22 on the same street. Indeed just a couple of houses away.

“Hey man, come with me to my place,” he said. Soon the three of us were trooping out into the dark frozen night, Billy’s arms around our shoulders. Three doors away, we rang the bell. The curtain above the door parted and the faces of a white woman and a young boy stared out in bewilderment at a drunken Black man and two Orientals. We made a hasty retreat.

At the next house we pressed the door bell and waited. A pretty young Black girl of about 19 opened the door. We walked in after Billy. The young Black girl stared silently. The room was dark. A tiny baby was sleeping in a crib in the hall.

Billy pulled out his revolver from the inside of his coat and handed it to the girl. To our surprise, he dug into his hip pocket, got out another revolver and gave ity to the girl. A pervasive silence seemed to prevail except for the incoherent murmuring of Billy who had by now slumped on a chair.

“Is he your father?” Ly asked. “No, No,” the girl shook her head in consternation. We said good bye to Billy and the girl. “Come and see me sometime,” Billy groaned.

As we stepped out of the house, a long sleek car pulled up and out jumped three Black youths. We almost banged into each other. “This is the house,” one of the youths said aloud. And in an instant the three young men dashed into it.

“Wow! This is like a movie,” exclaimed Ly.

There was a great sigh of relief when we returned to Ly’s apartment. The family members gathered around, anxious to know what went on at Billy’s house. “It’s lucky nothing ugly happened, you handled the situation well,” said Mrs Ly to her husband. “There are man bad people in this place.”

We never saw Billy again, and we never found out who he was, but the Ly family would never forget their introduction to America.

2 Comments

Filed under Asia Magazine, Bangkok Post (TH)

2 responses to “Dateline Boston: Two-Gun Billy

  1. Glad you like the story much thanks!

  2. FROM: Steve Heder
    TO: Kim Gooi Monday, February 13, 2012 2:54 PM
    I still use the phrase “two-gun Billy” or some variation (“two pomelo Steve”) whenever I find some opportunity, always thinking of you. My daughter, Nina, is studying in Boston, and am copying her in.

    Steve Heder
    Faculty of Law and Social Sciences
    School of Oriental and African Studies
    Russell Square London WC1H 0XG
    United Kingdom
    tel 44 207 898 4707

    kimgooi replies:
    Thank you Steve. Best wishes to you, family and Nina! Guess you must know Ly, the Cambodian journo. I spent a lot of time with his family in Boston but have lost touch over the years. Next time you’re in Boston visiting your daughter, check him out. He works for the Boston Globe.

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