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The man who got in the elevator with me had a scar on his upper lip, a scar so deep that part of his lip moved independently when he spoke. Our conversation lasted several minutes, but the first thing that always came to mind when I remembered it later was that upper lip. He had said something –perhaps about the weather- that was pretty normal for elevator conversation in the freezing cold at two in the morning, but as soon as I finished answering him, he changed the subject: “Oh, by the way, this is a stickup.”
That was when I began studying his lip. “You’re kidding,” I replied, and my eyes traveled downward from his lip, looking for his hands.
They were in the pockets of his jacket. “You’re fucking kidding me.” I watched his lip again as he explained that he was holding a .38. “I’ll fuckin’ cap you,” he said, stepping forward.
After living in New York for 11 years, it was my first time being mugged. The neighborhood had been a landmark drug dealing area for decades before, and my elevator had been a landmark drug dealing elevator, but nothing had ever happened to me until now, until after Mayor Giuliani’s police force “cleaned things up” and scared away the friendly cocaine dealer who had used the elevator as his office. “Bon,” as he was called, had had every interest in being on the best of terms with the residents of the building where he worked, so having him in the elevator was almost like having a doorman, except that you didn’t have to tip him at Christmas time, and if you ran into him at the store, he usually offered to buy you a beer. A roommate of mine had once observed that the wave of incarcerations around our neighborhood, rather than eradicating the drug trade, had led only to its fragmentation, or “Balkanization,” as she called it. Bon’s replacement by a random criminal who was threatening to kill me seemed to support this theory rather well.
I fumbled under my coat and handed him a dollar. “I know you’ve got more money than that,” he said, letting the bill fall at his feet. I reached down to pick it up for him and he jumped back, looking a bit nervous. He wasn’t very big. We reached my floor and I thought about knocking his head against the rusty steel door behind him, but I had had a few beers after a hell of a long day at work, and what I really wanted was to go to bed. Giving him whatever was in my wallet seemed like it would be easier than trying to get the better of him, and there was a slight chance that he actually did have a gun. I thought it over, then took out my wallet. “Yeah, man, gimme those fuckin’ chavos,” he said excitedly when I took out the 50 or so dollars that I had. He demanded more money then, and I began to worry, but after a bit more discussion he went away.
For my first five years here, bursts of gunfire, with some seasonal fluctuation, could be heard about once a month. Gun testing was apparently an important science practiced on the neighborhood rooftops, and it occasionally served a festive purpose as well, but people were sometimes injured or killed when shots were fired in anger. There had been a debt-related execution of a man dining at El Típico, there was the man who opened fire from a window on some cops trying to make an arrest across the street; and then there was the entrepreneur who tried to sell two-dollar crack on a designated four-dollar corner. According to legend, the competition shot him three times in the chest, but he got up a few minutes later and dusted himself off because he had expected trouble and wore a bulletproof vest.
The variety of such stories was endless, but it was understood that people who weren’t involved in the drug trade had nothing to fear. Well, except for the woman who walked out of the bodega when the Purples and the Yellows were fighting. A stray bullet got her in the ass, but her ass was so fat that she just kept walking as if nothing had happened, or at least that’s what everybody said. People were laughing about it for weeks.
The Yellows worked under the living room window, shouting “Yellow, yellow, yellow!” all night to identify themselves to potential customers. They sold crack in yellow-capped vials, and their song sometimes reminded me of an old Harry Belafonte record that tells the story of men working on riverboats in the Mississippi who would throw a rock tied to a piece of twine into the water, and then call out the depth to the captain. According to Belafonte, these men gradually turned “marking on the twine” into “mark twain,” and stretched the words out across several measures of improvised melody. The yellow cap song on Columbus Avenue had many variations as well, especially when dawn was approaching and the guys were bored. Sometimes their voices cracked into falsetto “Yellow yel-loouu!” One day a few years later, the New York Times reported that the Yellows had been rounded up in a massive sting operation, and were called YTC, which according to the Times stood for Young Talented Children, but I had never heard that name before. The article didn’t say a word about Mark Twain.
My only interactions with the Yellow guys happened when I got home late at night. If one of them happened to be standing in the doorway of my building, all I had to do was pull out my house keys, and he would jump out of the way, apologizing profusely. The Purples seemed even more professional, though that might have been because they didn’t work right below our living room window, so I wasn’t privy to their ups and downs, but they definitely had a clearer division of labor. Their crack also sold for two dollars a vial instead of four, so they had to deal with a higher volume of customers by giving them numbers as they lined up. There were lookout men a block away in all four directions, and if cops appeared, the line quickly dissolved into a milling crowd of skeletal figures, who would instantly snap back into place as soon as the cops went away. A friend of mine saw the Purples kill a customer who grabbed a handful of crack vials and tried to run, and another friend saw one of their leaders, recently back from Gulf War I, stomping a youth who lay in the street while a little boy pleaded with him “Please don’t hurt my brother!”
The police didn’t contact me about my robbery for a week or so after I spoke to them, but the guys in the bodega the next day solved the crime almost immediately. As soon as I mentioned the scar on the guy’s upper lip, Ernesto said “Oh, that was Pinky” and everyone agreed. Then a short man, black and very muscular, said that if I were a real Dominican, I would have knocked Pinky out. He also said that “the boys” had already “spoken” to Pinky about what happened the night before, and that it wouldn’t happen again. Pinky had just gotten out of prison and everyone knew he wasn’t worth a penny, the man told me. “What did he go to prison for?” I asked. “For everything.” I was intrigued, but the man said he had already told me more than enough. “Make friends with Pinky,” he told me, and he went to get another beer.
Several nights later, I ran into Carmen in the lobby. When I told her I had been robbed, she immediately said “I knew this would happen when they stopped letting people hang out in the building.” She herself had been a recent target of the neighbors’ crime fighting zeal because of her drug use and because she still hung out in the building with her homeless friends, even though she and her two little girls had been evicted from an apartment across the hall from me.
“Who did it?” she demanded.
“Well, they tell me it was this guy named Pinky, but…”
“Pinky!” she yelled, and stormed out the door.
“Pinky!” she ran across the street, before I could stop her, grabbed the guy by the arm and brought him to me.
“Wait,” I protested, but it was no good. “Did you hold this man up?” she asked him. She grabbed his collar. “Because if you did, you’re going to have a problem with me.” He was retreating up the street as she screamed at him, waving her finger in his face. “By my daughters, you’re going to have a problem with me. This man is my husband!”
A few hours later I came back and it was late at night again, and there was Pinky. He ran toward me. “Yo, don’t go around telling people that I robbed you, I don’t do that shit.” We talked for a while about whether or not he was the guy. He had some stuff for sale. Some of it was white powder, some of it had formed lumps and there was some stuff that was supposed to be pot as well. When I didn’t buy any, he asked me to take him to the bodega and get him a beer, but I went to bed instead.
When the cops called me in to see some photos, Pinky was hard to recognize without his baseball cap and hood, and in the photo the scar looked different than when he was talking. He had lived with his mom in the building next door to mine for the three weeks since finishing his 12-year sentence. It was scary being around so many cops. Over the years I had heard stories about them robbing the bodega across the street, harassing my neighbors or throwing my friend Chocolate into the Tombs for three days after an undercover agent persuaded him to buy an illegal cable TV box.
Two weeks later, the police called again. The man who robbed me had been “picked up” after two identical “jobs” in another building next to his, and one in his own building. When I went to talk to the detective, I was very reluctant about the idea of pressing charges. He called another detective into his office, closed the door, and asked “Do you use drugs?” My jaw dropped in disbelief. My heart was pounding in fear. They had asked Pinky why I had called the cops, and Pinky said it was because he had sold me some “bad shit.” Because of Pinky, I was sitting in front of two guys who really did have guns, and they looked angry.
Right after they let me go, I ran into Carmen again, who, surprisingly enough, told me I shouldn’t hesitate to press charges against Pinky if I wanted to. “Maybe you should talk to his mom,” she suggested.
“Wouldn’t that be a little awkward?”
“No, no, you don’t understand, he robbed her, too. He also hit her.” Carmen explained that Pinky’s mom wanted Pinky to go back to prison, not only because she was afraid of him, but because she thought he might get killed for selling “bad shit.”
A lot had changed by the time the DA called me to testify a few months later. Gulf War II had started, and I had witnessed a sham court proceeding in which a three-judge panel upheld a ban on marching against the war, citing an “Orange Alert.” Several days after the hearing, while police tried to prevent people from getting to the permitted, non-marching rally on First Avenue, they began clubbing the protesters at 62nd Street and Second Avenue who had made it through the barricade, while the rest of us gathered in a huge crowd shouting “Let us through!” As it started to look like I might get clubbed as well, I remembered the lawyers and judges discussing national security and the Orange Alert, and suddenly their absurdity acquired a new strength. The angry crowd surged forward and the poster board I was holding, with a lopsided peace sign scrawled on it, disappeared under thousands of marching feet as we overran the barricade. For the rest of that freezing cold day, we were repeatedly corralled, bullied, chased and threatened by the cops, but they never quite managed to erase the memory of that first victory at 62nd Street.
Back on my block, almost everybody wanted Pinky locked up again: his mom, my Balkanized neighbors, some people I knew from back in the day, even a few guys at the bodega. The cops asked me, a few weeks later, to go to the police station again and pick him out of a lineup, and I began to complain. Pinky had spent most of his 40 years in prison, I explained, and it obviously hadn’t done much good. I didn’t want to annoy the police again, though, especially on behalf of a guy who had stigmatized the community by selling bad shit, but when the detective showed me the lineup, I said, “If I do this, that’ll be the end, right?” He said yes, so I fingered Pinky. “We’re finished now,” I said pointedly, “right?”
But that night there was a subpoena under my door, ordering me to testify in the morning.
They introduced me to the Assistant DA, a young guy named Wolfowitz or something like that. “I don’t want to do this,” I said immediately. He argued that Pinky had “terrorized” my neighborhood. Wolfowitz didn’t say anything about bad shit, but he told me about the sentence Pinky had finished serving only a few weeks before, for pleading guilty to two out of the eight robberies he had been charged with in 1990.
Then they took me to see a touchy-feely guy in another office, whose job was apparently to persuade people to testify. He told me about how he himself had been a crime victim, and afterwards had remembered what happened over and over again, and was full of rage, wishing he had fought back. When I told him that I, too, had experienced those feelings, his face lit up. “We’re doin’ great, Alan, we’re doing just great,” he wanted to hold my hand while I worked myself into a patriotic frenzy and sided with the police, but when it hadn’t worked after 45 minutes or so, they apparently decided to change tactics. The detective came in and the others quietly left the room. He asked me who I had been talking to, the defendant’s mom, perhaps? Telling him about 62nd Street didn’t seem like a good idea, so our discussion continued for a while, but went nowhere. He gave up. “I still think he sold you some bad shit,” the detective said finally, making a last, half-hearted effort to provoke me. It didn’t work. The touchy-feely guy came back, then, and said “You’re going to have to live with this decision for the rest of your life.”
“I realize that,” I replied, struggling to conceal my delight.
Eventually they had to let me go, and I headed for the elevators with a bounce in my step.
The last time I ever spoke to Pinky was only a day or two before he was “picked up.” He was standing on the corner at about ten in the morning, swaying slightly, and his chin was turning orange from a bag of cheese puffs he was finishing off. I shook his hand, even though it was covered with orange crap. We stood, watching the cars go by for a moment, then I nudged him and said “Hey Pinky, can I borrow 20 dollars?”
“Wanna buy some crack?” he replied.
“Aw, come on, Pinky, lemme get 20 bucks.”
“How come you don’t buy my crack?” he asked. “What’s the matter, you don’t smoke?”