I hate the dirty, dingy, dungeon-like vibe of these neighborhood bars; the incessant yammering of knuckle-dragging men who traded away their best years for a quick fix and a six-pack of Budweiser. I hate the over-perfumed scent of desperation that wraps itself around women over-burdened with too many kids from too many men. These p1aces are hopeless, these people are hopeless, but without pretense--everyone knows the score. The drinks are cheap, though. Which is good because I'm a cheapskate who'll haggle over penny candy. Besides, the Main Street scene doesn't fit me at all. I find myself sickened at the Abercrombie & Fitch crowd, with their air of self-importance. It conflicts with my own sense of snobbery. I'm not looking to rub elbows with anyone higher than myself on the social ladder, or hoping that their mystique will rub off on me. I'm doing fine in the mystique department, thank you very much. No one likes me for a variety of reasons. That's my mystique. I come to this place to drink and be left alone. Nothing more, nothing less. If I wanted something exotic I'd fuckin' go to Thailand. If I wanted to impress Donald Trump I'd go to one of his gaudy mausoleums and take a massive dump in the lobby. Here I'm free to sit on the corner stool – uninterrupted - and scribble my thoughts on a gin-dampened napkin. That's my process: corner-to-corner on both sides; a collection of nonsense that my subconscious has vomited into words. This is how I exorcise my demons.
I used to be so peaceful with my life--or at least I thought I was. The mellow young philosopher, high as a kite with a joint hanging on my lips and the pearls of wisdom dripping off my tongue. The world seemed like such a nicer place then. It was definitely more fun. I’m on my way out... have been for a while now.
I was sixteen, sitting in a stolen car listening to Cypress Hill. '81 Oldsmobiles were in high demand back then, drug dealers and the ghetto fab were decking them out in custom paint jobs and high-end stereo systems. There wasn't all that fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly crap that gets spouted about nowadays. The bigger the ride the cooler the stride; that was the motto. Oldsmobiles were easy to steal, too. No frame around the window so they could be flexed out; a skinny kid could reach his arm in to unlock the door with no problem at all. Crack the steering column above the tilt bar and pull back the ignition gear and take off in less than thirty seconds. It wasn‘t a sophisticated operation, but at two hundred dollars a pop it was an easy way to earn a crooked buck. I figured someone was going to steal those cars; and with a busted moral compass I pointed to myself to be the one collecting the cash.
Here's a bit of irony: I never learned how to drive. To this day I won‘t get behind the wheel. It’s too much of a hassle and I'm far too impatient to observe driver safety. My luck would have me driving off the face of a cliff--and there aren't any cliffs around my neighborhood. No, a blind man would make a better driver than I would.
Back then I had a partner--Disco Danny, we called him. A real ladies' man, with his slick back hair and pearly smile. I mean, girls noticed him coming a block away, and they swooned like he was a rock star. I was jealous, and a little insecure, but what I lacked in looks I made up for with heart. I was a lion. Danny was a lamb. I'm not sure if the lion led the lamb or if it was the other way around, but at the outset we made for a good team.
Danny must've been hatched from a carburetor, with a timing belt for an umbilical cord for all he knew about automotives. He taught me the mechanics of an ignition system so that I could start the car and he could drive off. It was an assembly line process that we worked into a science. If a guy got out of his car to make a withdrawal at the ATM he might just miss the magic of the disappearing car act. Sometimes I felt like Danny‘s patsy. But the cash from a half dozen cars every week massaged my ego a whole lot.
We were parked in a driveway behind a cluster of row homes in Pottstown. Neither of us was too familiar with the neighborhood except for the fact that racial tensions were high after the killing of a white cop‘s son by some out-of-towners a few years earlier. It was hard to picture the neatly kept lawns and the modestly tended playgrounds as a source of such violence, but for two Puerto Ricans in a stolen car things could have turned skinhead in a flash. It was the blunt smoke that kept us calm in the moment. All we were supposed to be doing was dropping this car off, collecting our money, and rolling on to the next one. But when things started to look like they weren't going according to plan Danny started to get skittish on me.
"June, We've been here awhile. I don’t think he's coming."
"Just chill, Dan. Here, smoke this.... " I told him, passing along a freshly rolled blunt.
We were supposed to be meeting a guy named Kitty. He was a real piece of white trash that literally defined what it meant to be a dirty blonde. The only thing that he was consistent at was being inconsistent. It was his addiction to angel dust and cough syrup that made him so unreliable. But money was money, and Kitty was the man under the man who held our checks. Waiting was a minor inconvenience. If worse came to worst then we'd leave the car behind and hope for a future pick up.
The bass from the music was throbbing through my brain. I've never been one to turn the volume up loud. Danny, on the other hand, couldn't keep from adjusting the sound. It was all the same to me but I guess his ears were more finely tuned than mine.
Daylight was quickly fading; the blue sky was slipping into a purple-black as we reclined and enjoyed the second-hand smoke while considering the meaning of life as potheads often do.
"I wanna do away with labels," Danny said. "I mean, labels are what separate us as people."
"Yeah .... " I breathed out, along with a heavy cloud of smoke, "but labels are what help us to define things."
"I‘m not talking about things. I'm talking about people. People don't need defining. People just are," Danny coughed out through a lungful of smoke.
"People aren't that simple, Dan." I knew where Danny was coming from with this. People called him a white boy because he wasn't a stereotypical Puerto Rican. He didn't have the olive complexion of the island native or the soft textured hair. He didn't speak the language of our fathers, mostly because his wasn't around to teach him. He didn't hang with the other Puerto Ricans or listen to salsa music so he was treated as a mutt even by his own cousins. He preferred to date white girls, with their milky skin and clear blue eyes, whose attitudes were submissive and almost totally non-confrontational. The complete opposite of the girls in my neighborhood. "I’ve never committed a sin a white girl couldn't forgive me for," he once told me. Because he was raised in the suburbs he rarely ever ventured into the slums--and never after dark. He didn’t even like to drive to my neighborhood to pick me up for fear that he'd be carjacked. I'd have to walk a few blocks to where things got a little brighter and meet him there for a ride. Truth be told, Danny was more than a little prejudiced against people of color--though he'd never admit to this. To emphasize his distrust of those dudes--as he would refer to the corner dwellers in my neighborhood--he once told me that he'd never been robbed by a white guy.
"People do need defining, Dan. We're different. Different customs and habits, some good and some not-so good. Different ways of doing things. Being defined differently doesn’t have to be so bad. It's when we mistreat each other that things get ugly."
Danny sat in the driver's seat bopping his head, letting the music mix with his high. We weren't even thinking about Kitty or how much time had passed.
"Danny, man, you ever hear of that tribe called the Incas?"
"Yeah, from South America, right?" he responded lazily.
I turned and looked at him through red-rimmed eyes, my hat pulled so low I had to crane my head up to get a blurry view of him. The smile on my face was broad and the muscles in my cheeks were starting to ache.
"Well," I told him, "you and I, man, we're from a tribe called the Thinkas."
We burst out in laughter, shaking off any fear and lightening the mood. At the moment our fists bumped together to make our label official, the driver’s side door opened, rolling clouds of smoke escaped and drifted off like scattering ghosts. There, standing in their best hot shot poses, were two of Trenton's finest with their guns drawn--“DON'T MOVE ASSHOLES!” They barked.
We were caught completely off guard. High on life, but low on sense.
There I was, face down on the dirty concrete with the jagged gravel digging into my cheek. My wrists were twisted violently and a sharp knee was pressed into the small of my back.
"You got any weapons or anything sharp in your pockets that I might poke myself with?" the officer asked as he put his full weight on me. I could hardly breathe so my response came out as a tortured gasp. He grabbed me by my hair and pulled my head up so that the tendons in my neck were pulled tight and straining. "You better tell me now. If I stab myself with anything you're gonna wish a stolen car was all you had to worry about."
“I don‘t have anything, man!" I shouted through the pain. Oxygen, in short supply already, was being cut off and I was starting to see stars. Dizzy, lightheaded, and with my skin burning a deep red, the cop forced my face back into the ground before I could pass out.
"I'm not your man, asshole... and you better start talking like you got some sense," he said, as he roughly patted me down before jerking my arms up to lift me onto my feet.
The cops came in separate squad cars and Danny had already been placed in the back of one. As he was being interrogated I was pushed up against the trunk of the Oldsmobile.
“What do you think you're doing here?" the cop asked with a hint of frustration in his voice, changing up his approach to try and soften me up. He started to brush off some of the dust on the front of my jacket and folded my collar down. "Who do you know in this neighborhood? You know the papis have been getting their asses kicked around here lately."
I didn't answer him. I knew the less I said the better off I would be. My instincts told me to get a look at his nametag --CONNOR, that was his name. I was still a little loopy from the dope and the shock of the situation but my mind recalled the movie Terminator Q. John Connor was the name of the kid Arnold Schwarzenegger was supposed to protect. This cop didn't look like John Connor, but he didn't look like Arnold either.
It surprised me, the condition that some of these cops were in. This wasn't my first tangle with the police and I was learning that some of them were as soft as the jelly donuts they shoved in their mouths regularly. I mean, I was just a kid so it wasn't that hard to overpower me, but how would these cream-pies handle a real tough guy. Officer Connor was huffing and puffing just from the exertion of lifting me up.
I looked into his face, "Are you going to take us in, Officer Connor?" Damage control. For a moment I thought I could talk our way out of an arrest. They didn't have to arrest us. They had the car, it would be returned to the owner and the insurance company would cover the cost for any damages. It was common for a cop to slap a kid around some and then drop him off in rival territory so he could fight his way home. Even drug dealers were routinely extorted rather than arrested. Danny and I were too insignificant of a bust for them to do the paperwork over. They could've taken us to the nearest playground and left us for the locals to deal with. I would've taken my chances with them.
"Oh, we're taking you guys in,” Officer Connor stated in a matter-of-fact tone. "We'll let the two of you decide whether or not you're gonna get charged." He grabbed me by the upper arm and led toward his cruiser. "All you gotta do is tell me who you're working for." He leaned in close and gestured with his head, "If I were you I'd think about what your friend is talking about to my partner."
I knew better. I knew that no matter what I said I was going to get ran in. The truth is that once the cops get their hooks into a person they won't let go. They didn't really care if their informants got hurt in the streets. There were plenty of snitches to mine for information. Besides, what charges were they going to reduce for me? At the moment I was guilty of being a passenger in a stolen car. Danny and I had rehearsed our stories in the event of this happening. At worst we were looking at possession of stolen property. We probably wouldn't get anything more serious than a fine and some community service. I bit the bullet and stayed quiet. I sent up a silent prayer that Danny was doing the same.
The ride to the station was short one. They processed us by taking our fingerprints, general information, and mug shots before placing us in a holding cell. Danny was coming apart at the seams. "I told you we should've left when Kitty was late," he pouted.
"He's probably the one who sent the cops to us."
"Shut up, Dan," I snapped. ” The walls have ears. We're in it now so let's just wait it out and see what happens.”
"What‘s gonna happen is that we're probably gonna get sent to the Center."
Danny didn't cope well with pressure. It was always someone else's fault. Nevermind that he taught me the trade. Forget that he introduced me to Kitty. I was the bad influence, and like it or not, that was how the story was going to be told.
The hours went by without a word said between us. The cold cheese sandwiches and unsweetened tea they had given us were rumbling in my stomach. My nerves played a part in the cramping and my intestines were twisting into knots. Fear notwithstanding
I had to keep my cool, if only to keep Danny levelheaded.
Danny curled up under a bench to block out the light and tried to sleep away the time. He tossed and turned restlessly. I wanted to say something to reassure him that we’d be fine but he transmitted his accusatory thought by avoiding eye contact at all costs.
I don't know what time it was, or how many hours had passed, but fright and frustration had started to affect my body. I could smell the stale sweat coming out of my pores. Every time I heard the phone ring I pressed my face to the snot-smeared Plexiglas window, looking to see if some indication was being made towards the cell. I was completely disoriented when a female officer banged a clip board on the window, "Cruz, Daniel, your ride is here." Danny rolled out from under the bench and picked himself up. He left the cell without looking back at me. A sense of rejection washed over me in the form of a cold sweat. It dawned on me that I was going to be the last of the Thinkas.
I don't know how long I was alone for, but it was in that cell that I learned to hate the halogen lights; the pale glow bounced of the cold, concrete walls and made me feel like I was under observation, in that light my hands looked ruddy and ashen. I felt dirty, and in need of a shower to wash away the experience. To this day I can't stand halogen lights.
They called it the sweatbox but it was a psychological sweat. In fact, they kept the air conditioner on all year long because the cold temperature made it hard to think about anything else; the whir of machinery was hypnotizing. The conditions were made to keep a prisoner mentally off-balanced. An off-balance prisoner will look for any lifeline to save him.
Being alone, I only had my thoughts to keep me company. I spent much of that time fantasizing. But the mixture of fear and uncertainty gave rise to a paranoia that no healthy teenager should experience.
Was this it? Was this going to be the routine that would play out over and over again? I intentionally avoided selling drugs because I didn't want to be known as another Puerto Rican pusher from the barrio. I didn't carry a gun or a knife—just a screwdriver for the occasional pop-up--because I thought it was too cliché. But there I was... in a white room, under white lights, watching white police officers file paperwork to put away black and brown faces like mine. Maybe I was no good. Maybe the Calvins of the world were right about me.
I recalled a memory of riding the K bus down the avenue one early evening when a guy from my neighborhood got on at Lincoln Street. He was a good guy, clean cut with a shape-up that was rounded off to the nearest thousandth. He walked up the aisle with a straight back as if he were in the military. I thought of him as a poseur, an uppity black republican who looked down on the rest of us common folk. His name was Maureece but we called him Calvin behind his back because he had worked his way up from cashier to the manager at a local McDonald's. When he noticed an empty seat next to me he took it as an invitation.
"Hey, June, what's up," he said, smiling as if genuinely happy to see me. A heavy scent of cooking grease exploded from his body as he leaned in to shake my hand. “Where you comin' from?"
"School," I replied, knowing instantly that he would point out that it was too late for that to be true.
“Detention kept you later than usual, huh?" he said as he smiled in that self-satisfied way that made me want to rearrange his lips.
"Naw. I was just hanging out on the ave before heading home." It was my thing: smoke a little weed, chase a little tail, maybe scheme up a dollar or two. Of course I didn't tell Maureece/Calvin this. He was a few years older than I was so he had the habit of preaching that I-know-better-than-you crap.
He looked me over, "So, what you been up to? You working?" he asked. It was hard to tell if his interest was sincere or not.
"No," I said, “I'm still doing the school thing."
"Really!" he said with wide-eyed shock, "I thought you would’ve dropped out by now." He slumped down so that we were shoulder to shoulder and in a hushed tone, through clenched teeth, he said, "What I really meant was have you been putting in work?"
I was caught off guard by the question. Was he pumping me for information or was he trying to buy some coke from me? I really didn't know where he was going with this. "You must've bagged your first body by now.... " He let the words trail off while his eyes searched my waist for the gun he expected to be there.
"You got it fucked up, Reece. That's not my style."
“Come on. I see you going out in the middle of the night. You can't tell me that good shit goes on that hour."
"It‘s called a social life, Reece. You should get one and join the club,” I said without hiding my resentment.
“Not you're club," he said, sticking his proud chin in the air. “I'm sure one of these days I'm gonna see you on America’s Most Wanted.”
"Maybe you'1l be the case that gets me some airtime," I said with a straight face.
I pulled the cord to alert the driver that I‘d be getting off at the next stop. Maureece/Calvin stood up to let me pass, and as I walked by he grabbed my arm and pulled me close, "Some roads you can't walk back from, June. You need to recognize before you take those steps."
I shrugged off his grip as the bus chugged to a bumpy stop. I got off and looked back to see Maureece/Calvin staring at me through the graffiti~scratched window. His face was expressionless but his eyes were looking straight through me, reading my secrets and insecurities.
Several months later and I was on the other side of a different graffiti-scratched window being stared at by a short, stout police officer with a walrus mustache. "Hey! Wake up in there. Your brother's here to pick you up." I didn't know I had a brother. I was just thankful to be getting out.
Flaco June's face was a block of rage as he eyed me walking toward him. Flaco isn't my brother. He was the boss of the chop shop that Danny and I stole cars for. The fact that we shared the same name caused him to joke when we first met that he and I were brothers. But Flaco wasn't a man given to too many jokes.
Back in the 80’s Flaco was a young revolutionary with the Independentistas on the island. He ran guns from Trenton to Puerto Rico, but after a federal agent was killed he decided to take up permanent residence in Trenton. Not much was known about him other than a few dope spots he ran. He owned an auto shop that covered for most of his illegal dealings and this helped him to fly under the radar. His politics were anti-American but like most hypocrites he was a slave to the American dollar. "I love the color green, papito," he told me when we first met, "whether it's las palmas de San Juan or the American green-back.” A true convert to capitalism.
The police officer that looked like Wilfred Brimley handed me over to Flaco, along with a summons to appear in court the following week. Flaco thanked him and humbly apologized for my behavior before snatching me up by the collar and pushing me toward the door.
At first I thought it was an act; he was playing the role of big brother to sell it to the police. But when we got to his car his attitude changed. He got in the back seat with me and I knew I was in trouble.
Kitty was in the driver's seat, and before starting the car he turned to me and said, "You owe us a car, June."
I opened my mouth to speak and Flaco immediately punched me in the jaw. Instantly, the bitter taste of blood started to pool in my mouth.
“Shut up!" Flaco hissed. He grabbed me by the face and yanked me toward him. "I don't like your friend Danny. He called me, blaming Kitty for this mess, and he told me where you were at."
The car started up and pulled into the flow of traffic on Benson Avenue.
"Kitty, turn the music up," Flaco said.
He leaned in to speak into my ear so that only I could hear him. "You know how I feel about these white boys. They can't be trusted. This one--" he said, with a thumb pointing at Kitty, “is half out of his mind on that wet. And your boy Danny might as well be white as scared as he acts."
"But--" I started to say.
"No! I don't wanna hear shit,” he snarled as he wrapped his hand around my throat. I wanted to tell him that it was Kitty's fault; he was the one who was late for the pick-up.
But if Flaco didn‘t want to hear it then it was best to stay shut. "You‘re gonna find me another Olds. Right now. And this time Kitty's goin' with you."
"Are we picking up Danny?" I asked, as he uncurled his fingers from around my throat.
"Pero, muchacho tu no entiende!" he yelled. "Fuck Danny! He's out! The two of you better hope that the police don't come knocking on my door about anything."
Murphy's Law states that whatever can go wrong will go wrong at the worst possible moment.
As Kitty pulled onto the on-ramp of I-95 north a pouring rain started to come down, beating the windshield and sounding like small caliber bullets pelting the rooftop.
"Flaco, it's raining," I said, hoping he would change his mind about the mission.
“Then you're gonna get wet," he said with all the seriousness of a judge pronouncing sentence.
I could either deal with the rain or deal with Flaco. It didn't seem like much of a choice, so I zipped up my jacket and prepared myself for a swim.
Here's what I loved about the suburbs: back then the neighborhoods were so peaceful; the people thought they were far enough from the blight of downtown that crime couldn't creep on their lush green lawns. So naive. But it made carrying out petty crimes that much easier. There were actually a few times when Danny and I found a spare set of keys in the glove compartment.
Kitty drove us around until we found a car under decent cover. We found one parked on the corner of a small one-way, a quiet little strip with one street lamp far enough away that we could've spent the night without anyone being the wiser.
Flaco parked across the street and took his post as a lookout. Kitty and I ran up to the car and without even giving me a chance to do my thing Kitty smashed the window and unlocked the door. He started his ground patrol while I went to work on the steering column. The wind was pushing the rain into the car, making it difficult to see and causing my tool to slip on the plastic. I finally managed to crack the column and get a hold of the ignition gear. I pulled it back and the car started up; the radio came alive, tuned into a Christian broadcast. I felt a pang of guilt but I pushed it aside. All that was left was to make room for Kitty. I slipped out the driver's side and looked across the street.
"He's gone, man," Kitty said over the howling wind. I looked around, hoping Kitty was wrong. But he wasn't. Flaco only cared about his merchandise, and that's all that mattered to him. Kitty was disposable. Danny was disposable. I was disposable.
"Do you want a ride?" Kitty asked.
I didn't feel like pushing my luck with Kitty. I just wanted to get away from him, and the scene, as quick as possible. "No," I said, burying my hands in my pockets in search of bus fare. "I'm gonna catch the bus."
"Call me tomorrow and I'll have your money. Forget about Danny," he said, "this job was yours alone."
I nodded as he pulled off and I watched him coast down the block. I never called him for that money, and I'm sure he didn't care. I wanted him to forget my name. Maybe he did. The trip home gave plenty of time to think about where my life was headed. I had ambitions but I lacked the discipline. I knew had to do a better job of running my life or else run the risk of crashing. Unfortunately, I never really learned how to get things right.
Eduardo Ramirez DN6284
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426