And We Thought...
I don't know if he was lying to me, but he seemed serious when I met him on the street, frowning over something that he didn't seem to understand.
I normally didn't hang out on this far down Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City. I had come to pay a ticket, yet couldn't find the proper door to the courthouse.
The street percolated with life, old women wheeling baskets full of groceries or laundry along a sidewalk loaded with fruit and vegetable carts and store fronts with windows displaying dead fish on ice or collections electronic junk kids ogled at on their way to or from the local school.
Most of the people were Latino, and shy of white-faced strangers like me, who might have an INS badge in my pocket and a warrant to deport someone. Each time I approached someone to ask for the court, they shook their heads and mumbled "no English," then hurried on.
After a long frustrating time, I spotted this character who was clearly Anglo, although had spent so much time in this part of the city that he dressed and even acted a little Latino, wearing a thick gold chain around his neck, and a mustache that made him look like Carlos Santana.
He did not run away when I crossed the street towards him, or even avoid my gaze. He just frowned at me, his thin lips stretched into an odd expression. At night, on a dark street, I might have avoided him, his t-shirt, dirty jeans and heavy leather boots symbolic of a culture I didn't trust. But his expression so intrigued me, I nearly forgot what I wanted when I finally reached him.
His frown grew more puzzled when I asked him where I might find the court, and he took a few moments to answer, as if he needed to clear his head of his own problems before dealing with mine.
"I thought you were a cop," he said after he had given me directions. "But I figure if you don't know where the court house is, you can't be."
"Is that good or bad?" I asked.
He shrugged. "I don't have much use for cops," he said. "But then, they don't have much use for me either."
Something in his gaze suggested a deeper meaning behind his words, some recent event that still plagued him.
"I'm not sure I understand," I said, trying to calculate how much time I had to squander on listening to his tale.
He shrugged again and mumbled something about life being a bitch and told me to have a good day. When I didn't move, he sighed, and asked me if I wanted to buy him a drink, pointing to a liquor store where as I gathered he expected me to buy us a bottle to sip on the street.
"Make it a malt," he said as I mounted the three crumbling steps to the glass door, and inside I bought two large cans of Colt 45, and returned with them, condensation dripping down my fingers like sweat.
He popped the lid on his and sucked down half the can in an extend draught, his Adams apple bobbing madly until he finished. Then, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked at me again.
"You got a cigarette?" he asked.
When I told him I had given up the habit, he fished a crumpled pack of Lucky Strikes from his pocket, drew out a remarkably undamaged filterless cigarette and lighted it sucking the smoke in the way he had the malt liquor. When he exhaled, no smoke showed.
"Lucky you ain't a cop after what happened around here," he said finally. "Me and my pals wouldn't take kindly to it, if you were especially the way we got treated."
He took another long sip, about half as long as the previous one, again wiped his mouth with his hand.
"It started right around the corner here," he said. "We was hanging out like we usually do, me and the boys from the project. Just standing smoking a little reefer, bullshitting about nothing, when we see this tall guy chasing this short guy up the street. It looked bad. I mean, we don't usually cause much trouble around here except when we're drunk, and even that's mostly just horsing around. But that tall guy was serious when he was chasing that small guy, like if he caught up he would kill him or something.
"That small guy kept screaming at us to do something, saying that he was being robbed, and this tall guy grabbing him by the hair shouting for him to shut his mouth.
"Look, we don't mess around in other people's bullshit, but this was going on right under our noses, and we knew if we didn't do something, the cops would come around afterwards and hassle us for letting it happen.
"Maybe in the back of our heads we figured we would a reward or something. That little guy had on some fancy clothes, and we thought maybe he was a Jew from Hoboken or somewhere that would give us a little something for saving his life.
"Even then, we didn't do anything until that big guy started rapping on that little guy's face, smack, smack, smack, drawing blood from his lip and nose with each hit. The big guy looked real freaked when we hopped all over him I guess he figured none of us would care what two Anglos did to each other. So he didn't fight back right away until we'd had a few pops at his face and he was bleeding nearly as bad as the short guy was.
"Maybe if we'd had a little time, we might have patted down both those fools to see what kind of cash they had in their pockets, and cursing ourselves later when the cops found wads of cash on the little guy that the big guy was trying to get. But before we could do anything the cops showed up, slapping us against the walls with their nightsticks.
"That small guy yelled for 15 minutes before the cops took the cuffs off us, getting it in their heads that we were heroes, not bums.
"I guess it took us some time to get used to the idea, but the most of the neighborhood got it, treating us better than we'd ever got treated before. Storekeepers that used to tell us to get away from their doors, gave us coffee and cake. Little old ladies, who crossed the street to keep away from us, actually smiled and yapped at us in Spanish something about thinking we were good boys.
"So when the cops brought the detectives around to talk to us, pointing us out in the crowd for the detectives to see, everybody got freaked. Suddenly, we were on the hot seat again and made us go over to the station to have a long talk, each of us going off to a small room where the cops badgered us with questions about the little guy, where we had met him, where was he now. The cops didn't like our saying we never saw the fool before or since, and didn't want to. Even after the cops let us go, they had someone following us on the street, watching us over the next few days, until we'd all just about had enough, and went over to the squad car and asked what was what.
"These guys were only the street cops, not the detectives, so they told us though later we heard they got in trouble for it. They said it was the money. They had decided to keep it until the lawyers could straighten out who it belonged to but some fool of a police captain asked to have the numbers checked, and found out the money was from some bank heist out west, and that the short guy was likely a bank robber, someone the cops would like very much to get their hands on again."
"So what's the problem?" I asked.
The man shrugged. "Maybe there ain't one. But we're certainly getting shit again, everybody from the cops on down think we had something to do with the robbery, even though none of us ever left Jersey City except to cop dope in Manhattan."
Yet, from the look on his face, I could tell even that wasn't what was really bothering him. It was something deeper in his consciousness that he didn't have the words or the education to explain, and seemed puzzled over whether or not his act of kindness was someone diminished by the circumstances surrounding it. Were they really less of heroes for keeping a bank robber from being mugged?
I didn't have an answer. I just finished my beer, wished him good luck, and went to pay off my traffic ticket, before the state as the mailed warning indicated issued a warrant for my arrest.