You could tell by the way that kid came screaming round the corner – all high knees and elbows – there was trouble closing fast behind. Seconds later, a pair of shirtless silhouettes appeared in his wake, twin aluminum bats reflecting in the moonlight.
The kid was a quarter of the way down the block before one of the silhouettes wound up and let fly, chucking his bat end-over-end, like a pickaxe in mid-air. It struck the kid square in the back, propelling him forward, where he fumbled for a moment, before falling to the ground.
Then the entire world went silent, save for the static thud of metal alloy, and the guttural screams of that scrawny, helpless kid, writhing wildly on the sidewalk.
I watched the entire episode unfold from a second-story porch across the way. Once both silhouettes disappeared, I put my beer down and hurried off toward the steps.
“What the fuck are you doing?” my roommate John asked.
John was one of several roommates I was living with at the time. He had orange hair and pasty skin. He was staring down at me from above, a 12-ounce bottle in his hand.
“We gotta go see if that kid’s OK,” I said. I stood frozen at the bottom of the stairs.
“The fuck we do,” John said. “Get back up here, man. You’re liable to get yourself killed down there.”
I looked over at the kid, struggling to his feet. He made it two steps, maybe three, before collapsing to the sidewalk. The kid was beaten, and bloody, and you could tell by several abbreviated movements crucial ligaments were no longer making full connections.
“C’mon, man,” John said. He kept urging me up with a wave of his hand.
I did an about-face, started back toward the porch. Before I reached the top, a flatbed truck came zipping around the intersection – a pair of shirtless silhouettes standing upright in the back. The driver stopped just short of where that poor kid had been struggling. One of the silhouettes leaned down, picked up a brick from the tarp, then launched it at the back of that kid’s head, delivering what appeared to be a knock-out blow.
The flatbed truck peeled off into the night, followed less than 30 seconds later by the sound of slamming doors, EMTs arriving on the scene. Drunken neighbors went filtering out into the street.
“You see?” John said, patting me on the shoulder. “No matter how bad it might seem, you don’t ever get involved. Ever.”
“I don’t know, man,” I said. “I still feel kind of bad.”
“Why?” John asked. “You don’t know who that kid was. You don’t know what he might’ve gotten himself into. In fact, you don’t know whether that kid just got exactly what he had coming to him, which is exactly why you do not get involved.”
This was revolutionary thinking to me. I came from a place where we had 12 years’ worth of Mary Magdalene drilled into our heads, “Let he who is without sin,” and all that other good-book bullshit. Regardless, looking out across the street as a pair of EMTs wheeled that kid into an ambulance, I found it difficult to dispute anything my much-more experienced roommate was saying.
During the first few weeks of that summer, John taught me how to work a job for a couple off-peak hours, then quit and suggest petty cash in lieu of paperwork. He taught me how to make a proper fist (I spent 18 years sandwiching my thumb inside four fingers), and he taught me about the Christian House – a nearby homeless shelter that offered cost-free meals three times a day.
The Christian House represented an ideal way to keep from starving. The only trade-off being that the food was stale and shitty, and volunteers read from scripture at the beginning of each meal. Other than that, the dining area offered a pretty fascinating subculture, rendered all the more magnetic given the constant stream of nuts.
“I was dying,” one guy sitting next to me insisted. “I’d been sleeping in this shed for damn near a month, without any food or water. Then one day, this asshole comes along and tosses me, for real. That same night a big ole’ snowstorm hit. That shit came piling down in droves, man. Real hard. Like so hard I got this frostbite all the way up on the foretips of my fingers.”
He lifted both hands to show.
“In the moment just before I was about to pass out, I looked down into this snowdrift, see. And I saw Jesus’ face there, just staring right on up at me. There it was, man, plain as day. As soon as it appeared, I didn’t feel so cold no more. And when I looked back down the road, I could see this pair of headlights blarin’. Them headlights were attached to somethin’ big, man, a big ole’ fuckin’ truck, see. And so eventually, this truck driver, he slowed down to ask me if I needed a ride. Took me into town, man. Found me a warm bed. Saved my fuckin’ life, man. To this day, I truly believe that man to have been my Savior. I ain’t never been the same since, man. Like, not ever. Never.”
Most of the mid-summer tourists were still tending to their lives back home, which meant dire straits for a rambler like me. What little scams I’d learned – counting cards, upselling beer for a dollar a can – required a constant flow of traffic, both up and down the block. To make matters worse, all three floors of the house I was living in ran empty. We had four people on the lease, 15 people paying rent, and another dozen piling in come every weekend. All of these people – with the exception of me – would pack it up and disappear come Sunday evening.
The loneliness didn’t bother me. I had become friends with Lou, the property manager, and I could always wander over to his place for free beer and weed. It was through Lou that I initially met Vince – a black guy from Brooklyn who was built like a bank vault. Vince grew up working on a drug corner in Flatbush. Vince had stories that would make your throat dry, and he spoke in such a way you kind of knew he wasn’t lying.
One night Vince told me the story of a rival drug dealer. This dealer had beaten Vince’s brother for a minor bag of weed. A week later, Vince and his crew tracked that dealer down, jumped him from behind, forced him to the ground, and then hacked into his kneecaps with a machete. “You want to sever that motherfuckin’ ligament at just the right angle,” Vince assured me, demonstrating the downward motion with his arm. “Sometimes you even gotta step on that fucker’s hamstring for leverage, cause pulling a machete out the flesh is a little like pulling a goddamn axe out of a tree.”
Alone and hungry, I would regularly break into the apartment upstairs, using a kitchen knife to slip the lock. Most nights, I’d steal either a handful of loose change or a 5-ounce box of macaroni and cheese. If I stole a box of macaroni and cheese, I’d boil it on the stove in our apartment, then eat it raw out of the pot. If I stole a handful of change, I’d walk across the street to the Maple Deli, where I could afford either a pair of soft pretzels or a pack of Ramen noodles.
The first week in June, I found a job that would pay me under the table (I had no photo ID). I became a cashier at Curley’s – a popular boardwalk fry joint that boasted a full-time staff of 30 Mexicans. As soon as it became apparent I’d have some cash flow rolling in, I found it easier to talk people into lending me a few dollars. This way I could afford the occasional cheeseburger or a 12-pack of beer.
I was living with a group of slap-happy joes, the majority of whom had graduated from a rival high school back in Delaware County. John, who seemed to emerge as the unofficial leader of the house, agreed to let me stay there. But he also quoted me a price that was double what the other tenants were paying, a detail I did not become aware of until a few weeks down the road.
The situation escalated. I started hearing rumors to the effect that my roommates hadn’t ever made it an entire season without getting evicted. The prevailing wisdom was that if they could see their way until July, it would represent some kind of victory. In the meantime, why not see what utter mischief they could manage?
I discussed the situation with John, who insisted it was bullshit. I was persistent, pointing out that there was significant evidence to the contrary. There were holes in every wall of the apartment, our kitchen table had collapsed, and there was even a gaping tear inside the ceiling … a tear that had appeared after one of the guitar dudes upstairs had slammed his foot through the floor.
I started holding back on rent, giving John $50 a week instead of the agreed-upon 100. Money was tight, I reasoned, and if I continued paying John at that rate, I’d still have the remaining balance finished off before September. Shortly after, what little possessions I owned began disappearing. One week, a hand radio, the next, a bag of cassettes. Battle lines were being drawn, with me standing along one side, and a brood of drunks along the other. It didn’t take long before the majority of my roommates started ignoring me – walking away from me in mid-sentence, threatening to “beat me down” if I tried to interact with them.
One afternoon toward the end of June, our landlord showed up with a pair of class II police officers. He slapped an eviction notice across our living room door. “Vacate the premises no later than July 5th, 1992,” that notice read.
My roommates planned one final blowout to coincide with the 4th of July. I packed my bags, then walked them to a friend’s house on 24th Street. I spent the next few weeks looking for a job (I’d gotten fired from Curley’s after calling out drunk). Some nights I would pass out on a couch; other nights I’d simply camp out on the beach.
One night toward the end of July, I wound up walking the streets past 2 am with a summer girl named Tonya. There were “too many drunk people lying about,” for us to crash at Tonya’s place, so I decided to take her over to the apartment on East Maple. There was no way the landlord could’ve completed all the necessary repairs, which meant the place would still be empty. On top of which, I knew three different ways to break into that apartment without a key.
The two of us made a left onto Pacific, two blocks south of Maple Avenue. A trio of drunk dudes fell in behind.
“You lookin’ for somebody to walk you home?” one of the drunk dudes called to Tonya.
“I’m fine, thanks,” I responded, extending one hand across my right shoulder.
“The fuck d’you say?” one of the drunk dudes shouted. He sprinted parallel to me, elbowed Tonya out of the way. “The FUCK d’you say!?” he asked a second time.
This dude had a ridiculous haircut, and he flicked his cigarette against my shirt. He made a proper fist, tight and white. He was backing me against a window. I could feel my fight-or-flight response. And that’s when something struck me, something strong and solid with the force of a wave. It sent me stumbling to the sidewalk, where I curled into a ball.
“Are you FUCKIN’ with him?” I heard a gravelly voice demand from above. “I said, are you FUCKIN’ with him? Answer me, motherfucker. Are you or are you not FUCKIN’ with that white boy on the ground?”
It was Vince from Brooklyn. He had that dude jacked up against a window, both of his buddies scampering north along Pacific.
“Look at me,” Vince said, his tone a smidgeon calmer. “I want that you should look at me. Are you lookin’ at me?”
The drunk dude was.
“I want you to remember this face. You think you can remember this face?”
The drunk dude did.
“I want you to remember this motherfucker too,” Vince said, forcing the drunk dude’s face down next to mine. “You think you can remember this motherfucker?”
The drunk dude did.
“You fuck with him,” Vince said, pointing to me with his index finger, “You fuck with me. We clear?”
“Now get the fuck out of here,” Vince tossed the drunk aside.
“Thanks, man,” I said, clapping the gravel off both hands. “Seriously, thanks. Those guys would’ve killed me if it hadn’t been for you.”
“Tell me about it,” Vince said. There was a vein pulsing out of his neck. “I didn’t even realize that was you until I got up in that fucker’s grill.”
“You’re kidding,” I said.
“No, sir,” Vince told me. “I wouldn’t kid about no shit like that.”
“So why bother?” I said.
“I turned the corner and saw three wet-back motherfuckers about to roll some skinny-ass white dude,” Vince said. “What the fuck was I supposed to do?”
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB)
©Copyright Bob Hill