“Monkeys come cheap,” Don Patricio liked to say.
My old neighborhood, St. Agnes parish, was Crazy Joey Gallo’s turf. You made a mess in AgnesLand, you cleaned up after. One piece of litter—a candy wrapper, a cigar butt—anywhere near where Joey’s mom might pass on her way to Mass, and he’d have your guts for garters, like kiss your knees goodbye. Crazy Joey’s mom lived over on Wyckoff Street, not quite Brooklyn Heights, but close. The real estate speculators who hoped to cash in on the Brooklyn Renaissance dubbed it “Boerum Hill,” this ex-urbanite Eden of ours. The old-time residents still referred to it as downtown. Boerum Hill was an ethnographic checkerboard—black and white, Latino of every complexion, and mostly school department staff, the working poor: teachers, custodians and academics of whatever stripe from the City University system. One fine summer day in 1985, it was there that I watched a murder unfold. Crazy Joey was nowhere near the scene, having been murdered himself a decade earlier.
I was a sound engineer at a midtown studio. I had taken a sabbatical to study music where I hoped my destiny lay. As things turned out, it didn’t. I was around the house a lot.
The neighbors took turns jockeying cars from one side of the street—double-parked three hours earlier—back into their regular spaces, blocked off with garbage cans. This was alternate side parking; the sanitation department sweeper truck came by for the even side on Tuesdays and caught the odd side on Thursdays. If a householder could not afford garage space, and none of us could, he left his keys with a neighbor and hoped for the best. The City ticketed then towed, a ransom scheme. The car pound poured lavish sums into the City’s general fund.
There was a commotion at the bodega down on the corner of Hoyt and Warren streets. I ambled over.
Miguel Santandrea was a baseball bat specialist. The nine-millimeter semi-automatic tucked in the waistband of his pants was for show. A deterrent. Patricio called him the King of the Down-and-Dirties. El Barato. It bothered Miguel that Patricio would got a cut of the local action while he picked up cash handouts. Five hundred, a thousand. Charity, chicken feed. Miguel did not bother to count. Miguel was an artist.
Miguel strode across the intersection. The bat hung leisurely at his side from calm, relaxed fingers. He walked on a pavement of bottlecaps embedded in the asphalt. The bodega could pop open your bottle but was forbidden to allow you to consume even soft drinks on premises.
“Cómo te llamas?”
Frutas tropicales, cuchifritos, Heinecken beer and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream beckoned with many colors in the windows of the corner bodega. Budweiser, Dr. Pepper.
“Who wants to know?” The question was from behind black polarized plastic. Miguel swung his bat from a crouch.
Serengeti sunglasses shattered from the blow and flew into the street. The man, blond, with a mullet-cut hairdo, was not yet in shock.
“Monkeys come cheap,” Don Patricio liked to say.
Miguel loved the ripe melon sound made by a human head impacted by a metal softball bat. He had heard it often. Miguel’s favorite bat was spun aluminum anodized blue. Miguel himself had wrapped the grip with electrical tape. In the off season Patricio loaned him out as an enforcer in the barrios. Just where the barrios were depended, location was a day-to-day, month-to-month thing. Squirming lines on a nebulous map defined the imponderables of the upper-income exodus from Manhattan. This day he was in Brooklyn, New York with red-lined real estate where gentrified neighborhoods popped up—white walls, freshly sanded floors and hanging ferns encroached upon the botánicas and bodegas.
“Hey man. I’m sorry.” The dead man was apologizing. The hit was puzzled. But in death a faster study than he had been in life. “Patricio. You from Patsy?” It was good that he should know why he was dying.
“Sí.” Miguel took a second swing.
The delinquent dealer stood against the metal pole, still talking. His face was puffed out to twice its size and, as he tried to step down the four inches from the store to the sidewalk, he clutched at the pole. One eye was loose in its socket and he was trying to push it back in.
The supporting column held up two floors of ramshackle apartments above the bodega’s entrance. There were no faces at the windows. The pole that held up Freddie and the building both was now stained with blood and a brown, milky fluid. He had been holding a Yoo-Hoo. His head was bloated with the edema that would kill him as indifferent EMTs hung over him in the ambulance.
“I won’t hold out again, man.”
In the crowd of mixed yuppies and Latinos, only faces, a bystander trapped by the moment said, “Call nine-one-one.” Nobody moved except to make the circle larger, pulling away but unable to leave the tableau of a dead man talking and his assassin calmly walking off. The crowd turned on the speaker. “They’ll know where we live. They know everything.” The face that had wanted to call the cops shut up. Miguel hitched up his team jacket to display the Ruger tucked at the small of his back. He strode away, fulfilled, diagonally across a public school parking lot. It was summer, the lot was empty of cars and a softball game was in progress. The circle dispersed to its various homes, ever widening.
“Yo, greaseball.” A face called after him.
Miguel turned, “Fuck you, you dumb fuck.” He hitched his red and blue jacket as though to pull the gun. Miguel wore his hair shoulder-length and loose, pomaded and permed. He was proud of his Indian blood and of his enforcer status. The man paled and stood silent, hands at his sides.
The two teams, Dominicans, had chosen not to notice the fracas 50 yards from their play. Miguel intercepted a line drive, a grounder, in left center field and shagged it to the pitcher.
Miguel ended up in Midwife in the Tire Swing and in the novelette, The Runaway Bungalow, where he is a more sympathetic character. On that day, I did call nine-one-one. Nothing happened. If the masterminds of free-lance pharmaceuticals did know everything, they didn’t care. I was small potatoes.
Imagine my chagrin when some years later (2016) I discovered there are millions of folk in North America who have never heard of alternate side parking. Huh. Here’s an excerpt from Atlas Obscura, a purveyor of online oddities that looks like a clickbait farm, but is straight arrow (for the Internet):
“...one of the stranger rituals of New York City life is alternate side parking. Every street in the city has a designated period when parking is forbidden and the street cleaned. When ASP kicks in, the cars parked on one side of a street move, en masse, to double park on the other side. It’s a strange phenomenon: I once saw a car with Alabama plates crawling down the street during ASP, its occupants clearly baffled, the person in the backseat filming the whole thing on their phone, as if they had encountered crop circles or some other disturbing sight. This practice is also illegal. If you look at the city’s website, the most frequently asked question about ASP is ‘Can I double park when ASP is in effect?’ The very clear answer: ‘No, double parking is illegal at all times.’”