Like many other immigrants, the man his friends simply call “Old Li” came to America to pursue his dreams 20 years ago.
Now in his late 60s, though, Li’s American Dream never included the thought that he might idly spend his retirement years in casino shuttle buses traveling back and forth from New York’s Chinatown to gambling establishments in New Jersey, Connecticut and upstate New York.
And yet, he never gambles. Instead, Li, who is undocumented, ekes out retirement income by using free meal coupons and gambling vouchers given to seniors as come-ons to cast their modest incomes on the tables.
Day in, day out, now, these buses have become Li’s only home – their passengers his only family here.
Li, who was only willing to provide his surname for this report, is one of the nearly 50,000 Chinese immigrants ages 65-plus in the Chinatown areas of Manhattan and Queens, according to a 2009 report by the New York Academy of Medicine. He spent years of hard work in restaurants to repay his debts and send money to his family in Fuzhou.
But unable to achieve success, Li reached his retirement age feeling taunted by his feelings of failure and chose to stay in America instead of returning to Fuzhou, his hometown, with a sense of shame.
One of his fellow countryman, Lin Wen Hua, explained, “Fuzhou people never go home empty handed; Fuzhou people came to America to make a success. We’d rather save some money or send it home to fund construction of buildings, than go home without having achieved a remarkable success. In other words, we never return home unless we have made our name.”
Anything less, he said, would be “losing face.”
Living Off Rebates
Li decided to begin his never ending casino bus rides several years ago. He said he figured that the cheapest rent of a bed in Chinatown was burdensome at over $200 per month. By living on the casino shuttle bus, though, he realized he could earn a modest living – and even send some money back to his family in Fuzhou — from the gambling establishments, while never making a bet.
Several gambling establishments in the Tri-state area compete for customers by offering various promotions to attract visitors from New York. Casino goers might pay a nominal $15 for a bus ticket but receive a $15 food coupon or a $30 rebate voucher to get gamblers going.
Avid gamblers will often buy up $30 gaming coupons from others for $26 or $27. By eating and drinking for free, Li has been saving as much as $800 to $900 a month. He said that he considers this life in motion as a full-time job.
Over time, tough, Li’s unshowered body started emitting an unpleasant smell and other bus riders began to complain. To remain inconspicuous, he started taking the night shift, riding nocturnal shuttles where passengers were scarce.
Respite in Roosevelt Park
Li usually takes an early bus back to Chinatown. His favorite place to find respite from the long casino rides has been Roosevelt Park, next to Sun Yat Sen Middle School. There he sits on a bench in the shade of a tree.
When Roosevelt Park becomes too crowded with school children, though, he moves to nearby Hester Street to read a newspaper or take a nap. In rainy weather, he might go to the Fuzhou Senior Center to get some rest, or fetch a cup of hot tea and doze off. Li usually chooses a quiet corner to avoid any human contact.
Hua said he got to know Li at the center. He constantly urges him to terminate his casino-shuttle-bus life and return to Fuzhou to be with his former wife and family. But he knows deep in his heart that Li cannot get past his shame.
Hua frequently visits Li in the park with fresh milk and fruit, but Li always politely declines the gifts, even as his friend watched his body seem to age more markedly every day.
Li has not had a chance to stretch his body or rest properly on a bed for a long time, and his feet became swollen. To solve the problem, he bought a new pair of athletic shoes, which stand in stark contrast to his shabby clothes.
On a recent visit with Hua, he and this reporter approached Li in the park. From a distance, he appeared no different from other elders there. As we got closer, though, Li’s complexion and physical state revealed his long-time self-neglect.
Hua lamented, “Old Li does not have an alternate road ahead, nor does he have the courage to return home. He is very likely to live his last days in the casino shuttle bus.”
He added sadly, “Old Li’s is not alone in his loneliness; there are some old immigrants like him, who spent their retired years living in the casino shuttle bus.” They blend as best they can into the comings and goings of people in the casino world, day after day.