The people of Brooklyn are humble. They are cautiously friendly. Aware of their surroundings at all times but they know where to place their suspicions and when to strike up a friendly conversation. That’s the environment we live in. One shared by the hard working, the hardly working and the drug dealers. It’s a study in urban communal living.
The dealers carry on their business in the shadows of the neighborhood. You learn to overlook them but you know where they are at all times. And you cross the street with your head down when you have to pass an exchange situation. Everyone minds their own business.
Every now and then, when they aren’t looking, I make a study of them. I try to place their faces. Two times I’ve recognized them. I went to junior high school with one. The other I remember from the projects when I was a kid. His family were regulars at my favorite pizzeria. I remember him because he was a cute kid. But now I saw the gray tone in his skin. He was skinny. Lips all cracked. Dark circles under his doll eyes. His back all hobbled. I wondered if it was just the drugs are if they had the “disease” from sharing needles.
When I pass I put my head to the side slightly so he won’t recognize me. I don’t want him to feel ashamed. They never make eye contact anyway. Always suspicious of everybody.
Once I walked home from school alone and as I entered my block I noticed a group of them hanging out and being loud. I tried to sneak past with my head down listening to my headphones with one ear. I kept the other ear open just in case. One of the guys, one who I’ve never seen before, a new guy, tried to call me over. The others tried to shush him, pulling the arm of his coat but he wouldn’t quit. He started to walk alongside me. Then I heard a loud whistle. It was their boss. He was in a wheelchair.
Everyone knew he was the dealers head honcho and nothing moved in this area unless he authorized it. He was an ex-gang member from the old school. In the 70’s or 80’s he got into a fight and someone stabbed him in the back. He was paralyzed thereafter.
The minute we heard the whistle the guy alongside me stopped and stood at attention looking at the old gang member in the wheel chair. He was waved to come over. I kept walking and was about to enter my building but I looked back out of curiosity. The new guy was getting chewed out by the old gang member. He never looked in my direction again.
I think it was because my dad was always respectful to the old gang member. He always said Good Morning or Afternoon. And when something went down on the block my dad would go downstairs and get the low down from the old gang member’s brother. He was civil, neutral, but civil with them. And when my dad’s car was stolen once, they made sure to figure out who it was and they ran him out of the block. Although they couldn’t save the car, they found it stripped some blocks away. They told my dad it would never happen again. And it didn’t.
Things were just understood in that way. You didn’t ask questions.
Another time I was walking back from the L train station. I walked straight up Lorimer Street everyday after school, mostly without incident. I liked walking that way because a lot of people get off there and there are a lot of street lights. But it was in the middle of wintertime and it had gotten dark fast. It was 5:30 but dark like midnight. And it was raining a little.
I got this uneasy feeling. Usually you feel the people walking behind you and they either trail to the side as they walk away from Lorimer into some side street to get where they are going or they just pass you. But when you feel someone constantly behind you, you start to get suspicious.
I tried the guy out. I knew he was a guy by his steps. His steps sounded like they were in line with mine. Not good. He was paying attention.
I walked to one side and then the other making believe I was dodging something on the floor. His steps shuffled. I noticed that all the people in front of me had branched off. I could’t look behind me but I could only faintly hear some people in back. My heart was starting to race a bit but no panicking was allowed.
I saw a couple walking across the street. I crossed the street and walked behind them. They guy crossed the street too. By dipping my head to one side I could see him as he crossed. Jeans and a gray sweatshirt with the hood over his head and his hands in his pockets, not tall but medium build.
I kept paying attention.
We got to a major intersection and I stopped to wait for the light. The couple turned right at the intersection. Not Good. The stinkin’ guy waits right next to me. I can’t see his face. It’s dark and he has the hoody over his head but from the movement of his chin I can tell he’s smiling at me. He says something in Spanish. I can tell he is Central American from his accent not a Caribbean like most of the people around here.
I pretend to look through him paying attention to the traffic so I can cross. I walk quicker. He is bold and that scares the sock off me. I pass a gas station which I know for a fact is full of the “Good Ol’Guys” if you know what I mean. He won’t dare grab me there. They’ll pound him.
But the next block is darker and I don’t know what to do. I start to panic but across the street is a well-lit bodega and a bunch of guys are outside. They see me everyday. I don’t think to go in because this isn’t my block. They don’t know me here. I can’t be sure. But I’m thinking of Jonatan’s Bodega just up ahead on the next block. That is my neighborhood. If I can just get there.
I pray the guys are there. If I can’t shake this stinkin’ dude… I can’t just walk him home with me. Then he’ll know where I live and I’ll never be safe.
I am walking slash running at this point. Dripping sweat and I must have had a panicked look on my face because when I get through the bodega doors Jonatan knows I’m in trouble. I nod in the direction behind me to let him know and walk all the way in. Jonatan sees the shadow of the guy through the plexus-glass. He is making his way toward the door. The guy looks around suspiciously before pushing the door to enter the bodega.
Jonatan had already whistled over to the guys in the back. They were playing dominos for money in the back room. As I walk towards the back they rush past me making sure they are between me and the door. Jonatan grabs my arm and rushes me towards the back. Out of curiousity I look back.
The stinkin stalker is walking in and when he lifts up his head, you should have seen this guys face. The guys were just standing there staring at him.
Jonatan tells me to hurry up and pushes me out the back door that leads to the street. He walks me half way up the block to my building and tells me to run. He waits for me to get through the first locked door to my building then he runs back to his bodega.
The next day I pass by to buy a gallon of milk. He smiles and starts up the usual casual conversation. I wonder if he is really gonna act like nothing happened. I come out with it.
“Jonatan, what happened to the guy from yesterday, the one that was following me?”
“Eso no es tu problema Princesa, we took care of it. You don’t have to worry. Buen dia, Princesa.” (That’s not your problem anymore, Princess. You don’t have to worry about that. Have a good day Princess. )
He told me just like that with a wink and a sly smile across his face. I went cold. He wasn’t going to tell me. This must be bad.
I imagined the guys from the bodega dumping the body in the East River… all because of me. Ok. It’s unlikely that’s what happened. But I have a feeling the guy didn’t make it out of my block without a busted face. I reminded myself not to tell my parents about this. They would lock me up for good. And I had an active social life to consider.
Needless to say, nothing was ever said and that was that. Neither Jonatan nor I ever brought it up. But boy was I glad for those few people in my neighborhood who had my back when I needed them.
Now that is a study in urban communal living.