Johnny Lam casts a farewell grin as he boards a bus for downtown Sacramento.

Sacramento Bee/José Luis Villegas
'I'm a cool guy'


Charming yet mischievous, Johnny Lam dares the world to catch him if it can


By Bob Sylva -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Johnny Lam is sitting in his wheelchair outside his apartment, a place usually choked with smoke and family dispute. He's trying to steal a little privacy so he can shovel some sweet-talk into the phone; the kid is a lady killer. It's a warm afternoon in late October 2001.

Despite the heat, Lam is wearing his prized black leather jacket. Beneath that, his scrawny frame is clad in a white T-shirt, upon which is draped a tinkling silver cross on a garish chain. He has on a pair of boy's jeans and fluffy white socks. Due to his polio, which has withered his limbs, he has never worn, or owned, a pair of shoes in his life.

At the time of this memorable first meeting, Lam is 18. He has dark brown hair with bleached streaks. He has a devilish, irrepressible grin.

His chestnut eyes are lively, watchful, brimming with mischief and glee. In a magnanimous gesture with urban flair, he extends his one good hand -- an indispensable right hand that is strong,
calloused, a muscular V-8 engine that propels him everywhere -- for a firm clasp.

Lam boasts that he bought his jacket at JC Penney for $250. He wears it constantly. It's his one adult-size fashion accessory, perfect for rolling down the street, riding RT, cruising Starbucks, hanging out at the mall. He has the collar turned up. He looks mildly dangerous. Mostly, he looks cool.

Suddenly, the phone rings. Lam, as though reaching for his billfold, calmly extracts the phone from his inside jacket pocket. It's not a cell phone; it's his family's portable phone, which is never far from his warm breath.

Lam's voice becomes liquid, cozy, wheedling; his spirit lithe, taking on limbs. On the phone, he enjoys long flights of convincing mobility. He whispers hello. He looks up, shakes his head.

Heaves an impatient sigh. Rotates the receiver away. Mouths the word "girlfriend," and rolls his eyes.

No surprise, that.

Girls, girls, girls.

The bane of his existence, the object of his desires, the subject of much imagination.
He mumbles a low "Loveya, gotta go."

"Where did I get the name Johnny?" he asks, in response to a blinking question put on hold. He scratches his chin with a thumbnail. He fashions a wiseguy look. "Vu Tu is my real name," he says.

"But nobody calls me that except for some of my old teachers. I think Johnny fits me better than Vu Tu. I'm not saying that Vu Tu is a bad name, but it just doesn't sound right."

He briefly flirted with Romeo, which is getting closer to the truth. And he thought Disco held some intrigue. But the name Johnny is casual, accessible, all-American. It's him.

So Vu Tu, at age 12, took it upon himself to change his name, maybe even improve his prospects in life.

"I had to choose something that fit my style," he says of trying on a name as though it were a leather jacket. "Something that looked nice, something that was kinda cool. And if you know me at all," he nods wisely, a cocky grin, "well, you know I'm a cool guy."

Over the course of more than a year of following Johnny Lam -- talking to him outside his apartment, visiting him at one of his infrequent cameos at school, spotting him rolling on a dark street late at night -- many things remain in doubt about him. But one thing is indisputable.

Johnny is a very cool guy.

He's also glib, conniving, manipulative and self-deluding. Yet, endlessly charming. It's not easy being a disabled teenager, especially coming from a circumspect Southeast Asian culture in which disabilities are often best kept hidden.

Thus, there is a smoldering anger that burns deep in his marrow.

Compounding his problems, he is poor, poorly educated and comes from a hapless refugee family who is financially dependent upon him for his Social Security stipend and subject to his tirades and antics.

Still, despite his behavior, there is an innocence to him, a promise. He is a boy worth steering in the right direction. He rarely complains about his condition or gets mired in self-pity.

Quite the opposite. He exudes elan and braggadocio. If you think all kids in wheelchairs are helpless -- pitiful angels adhering to an obedient path -- think again. Lam, for most of his life, has been a hellion on wheels. He has a long history of delinquency.

In fact, he takes a perverse pride in his brushes with the law, relishing the notion that he can behave just as stupidly as any regular kid. He loves to talk about his fights, of taking matters into his own hands.

Vu Tu Lam is a legend at Bowling Green Elementary School.

Not long after we met Lam, Dennis Mah and Ellie Boyce were sitting in Mah's office at Bowling Green, where Mah serves as principal and Boyce is a devoted special education teacher. Bowling Green has an acclaimed program for orthopedically handicapped children.

(Lam also sporadically attended a regular high school and a continuation school, and was briefly enrolled at a last-chance campus for troubled youth.)

Boyce brings out a yearbook. Opens to a page of gap-toothed first-graders in tyke-sized wheelchairs. There, up front, is Vu Tu, wearing a soup-bowl haircut, flashing his scampy, irresistible grin.

"He's so cute," sighs Boyce, her heart filled anew with tenderness and love for little Vu Tu.

Mah will never forget his first encounter with Vu Tu when the youngster was a shy kindergartner who didn't speak a word of English. Seeing Mah, an Asian man, Vu Tu assumed he was Vietnamese like himself. So, he fired off a stream of Vietnamese.

Getting no response, he switched to fluent Chinese. Mah was impressed by Vu Tu's verbal dexterity. Alas, being Vu Tu, his first words in English were "bull----!"

"He was the first disabled kid I ever suspended from school," laughs Mah, who worked hard to cleanse Vu Tu's colorful, profane vocabulary.

Boyce recalls Vu Tu's volcanic temper tantrums. How he would hurl himself out of his chair and spin on the ground, almost like a Fourth of July pinwheel. It was hard to contain his anger. She would cradle him in her arms and try to comfort him. Years later, Boyce still wonders what more she could have done.

Occasionally, Lam calls Mah on the telephone to say hello. It was at Bowling Green that Lam honed his phone skills. Somehow he would get hold of teachers' home phone numbers and call them late at night. He also would pester some of the girls in his class and get their parents upset.

Once his poor father staggered into Mah's office in disbelief, saying his son had run up a $6,000 phone bill on a sex line. What was he going to do? Mah helped to resolve that issue, and many others.
"He gives to you," says Mah, turning tender himself. "He was always very open, very honest.
And he had a great sense of humor. He was funny.

You had to laugh at the stories of Vu Tu. With his abilities, his street smarts, he was able to do things. But he just seemed bent in going the other direction."

Lam lives in a subsidized three-bedroom apartment in a complex brushed up against Highway 99. He lives with his mother and a younger sister. His father reportedly lives with other family members.

The apartment is clean, orderly, with a tile floor and paper-thin walls. A huge TV is blaring Asian-language news programs. There is an aquarium, a Buddhist altar, an old couch and an array of calendars from Asian markets on Stockton Boulevard. Typically, the apartment is acrid with a pall of cigarette smoke, a lingering haze of family grievance.

Thanh Nguyen, Lam's mother, is 49 years old. She is a blunt woman with a temperamental mood, a short crop of reddish-brown hair. She was born in Saigon; her father fought for the French against the communists. She married Va Lam, 69, who is of Chinese descent and served in the South Vietnamese army. The couple have eight children, Johnny the last to be born in Vietnam. His younger sister was born in Sacramento.

Johnny was a normal baby, Nguyen says. She shows you a cute baby picture. He is naked, lying on his stomach, chin propped on an elbow. His arms and legs are plump with baby fat. Then something bad happened to him.

"Paralyzed," she says, still mystified at the exact nature of his illness. Poor children in Vietnam are rarely vaccinated. Johnny never walked, and the family had to carry him around like a small package.

The Lams arrived in Sacramento in December 1989, sponsored by Va Lam's father, Lam Ke, who died in 2000 at age 90. Most of Johnny's siblings are employed. But up until the fall of 2002, Johnny never worked.

It's easy to get Nguyen going on her son's case. "He's crazy!" she fumes at one point. "He plays the music too loud! He stays out too late! He doesn't go to school! He doesn't listen to his father! He doesn't eat at normal hours!"

She glares at her son. He just smirks.
One evening in the winter of 2001, Lam is sitting on the cold tile floor in his bedroom; his wheelchair is in a corner. When he gets home, he likes to climb out of his chair and crab about on the floor. The wheelchair is his freedom, but it's also a prison.

His bedroom is spartan, his bed just a mattress and box spring on the floor. Understandably, nothing hangs in his closet; his leather jacket is part of a pile of clothes on the floor. He has a makeshift bookshelf, which contains his stereo equipment, a drawer of CDs, an old Playboy, a video of "101 Dalmatians," which, blushing, he denies owning.

Aside from girls (and Lam's claims of serial conquests defies credulity), his real love is electronics. He can rhapsodize about components. He keeps a long, updated list of his favorite stereo brands, their features and defects. His dream job would be to work as a sales clerk at Good Guys.

Later, when probed about his temper, he admits, "I remember me getting mad. Why? Just stuff. The world. People not understanding. Society not fully comprehending. Not feeling like I was part of the environment. I felt like I was left out completely. I just felt I couldn't relate to people."

Though his rapport with people has improved, he says he continues to get mad, even depressed. He says he sometimes has this fantasy of rolling his chair into traffic. But one suspects he says this purely for effect. "When I get angry," he says. "I come home and listen to music. Or I'll roll down the street."

Asked if he ever wishes he could walk, Lam turns uncharacteristically serious. "That's an always thing," he says. "That never goes out of my mind. When I go to sleep here, when I dream at night, I always see myself walking. I never dream or see myself in a chair. I know science and technology can't rebuild my tissue; atrophy and polio have destroyed my muscle. But I pray sometimes. Maybe I should pray more often.

"Where would I go if I could walk?" he asks, ecstatic at the thought. "I'd probably go out and hug and kiss everybody I saw! If I could walk, I would play baseball and football. But not basketball. I don't understand that game at all."

The talk turns to other mysteries, of girls and how credit cards work, the aural merits of Sony vs. Yamaha, and how he'd like to buy a pair of shoes someday. But he has a slight problem. One foot is bigger than the other. Lam laughs at his dilemma.

Call it false heroics if you want, but Lam often scoffs at his condition. "I don't have to hide, or be insecure, or feel bad about myself. I can even crack jokes about myself."

That's because you're a cool guy, Johnny.

"Always," he says.

Lam finally got a job last October at Resources for Independent Living, an agency that provides a range of services for disabled clients. An on-the-job trainee, he made $8 an hour.

His first day on the job, he arrived punctually, wearing a white shirt and tie, a man's sport coat. He slicked his hair back. He was polite. He made a good impression.

Besides performing a range of clerical tasks, his duties included a great deal of time on the telephone. The telephone! Talk about a job made to order. He chatted up clients and conducted consumer surveys.

"He has a charming personality," says Anson Houghton, Lam's supervisor. "He's a good example of a young man who can find out that he has potential. That he can find a place in the workforce. That he has skills. That he can be successful."

Lam reflected on his new job on an evening last December: "I feel things are going good for me. I'm getting a lot of experiences. I like coming to work. I feel comfortable in this environment. I think I can move further ahead here.

"I see myself getting more opportunities in the world."

On a late afternoon last week, Lam is sitting at the rear of his apartment complex. The winter sun is bright, the radiant sky full of clouds. He's rolling a cigarette and talking with Sergei and Dimitri, two Ukrainian immigrants who live in a nearby apartment complex. Lam -- now this is rich -- says he often helps the two struggling teenagers with their schoolwork. Welcome to America, boys.

Lam, now 20, is wearing a white T-shirt and has recently dyed a fluff of his hair a bright copper color. He's been sleeping in these cold mornings, and his suit and tie lie in defeat on his bedroom floor.

Last month, in a setback, Lam lost his job at Resources for Independent Living, after the funds for his part-time job expired. Welcome to the world of nonprofits. The agency hopes to get him back on the payroll next month. Lam feels aggrieved and has been sitting home, sulking.

"I'd like to go back," he says. "I'm getting tired of waking up and doing nothing. I've heard some people have given up on me. But I can't sit here and count on people to get me out of this situation. I have to get myself out of this situation."

Pensive, relishing a moment of adult consolation, he absent-mindedly picks chunks of dried mud from the treads of his wheels.

His bout of self-pity is short-lived. Soon, he turns jaunty. He mentions that with his last paycheck, he splurged and bought a couple of new ties. Just in case opportunity knocks.

"I'm always ready with a suit and tie," he laughs in mock triumph. "You know me, I'm always ready!"

Lam, a portrait of fragile cool, sits in his chair and smiles. He grips your hand. His hair is copper, his face momentarily golden in the sun.
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The Bee's Bob Sylva can be reached at (916)321-1135 or bsylva@sacbee.com.

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Partially paralyzed by polio as a child, Lam immigrated to the United States from Vietnam with his family in 1989. He soon became a source of mixed delight and exasperation to his teachers

Sacramento Bee/José Luis Villegas

In the apartment he shares with his mother and sister, decorated with calendars and a Buddhist altar, Lam often escapes the confines of his wheelchair by dragging himself around on the floor.

Sacramento Bee/José Luis Villegas

Dressed for work, Johnny Lam waits for a bus in December. His job at the nonprofit Resources for Independent Living ended in January when funding expired.

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