That Purse Snatch in 1968

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

The following narrative was published in Medium earlier this year. We are republishing it in advance of a submission to my Short Story class based on this piece.

It seemed simple enough. I would be a lookout at the corner of 142nd and Willis Avenue. Hector’s Barber Shop was two doors down, where Hector himself would give me a razor cut every two weeks on any Saturday. Sitting in that chair as if I was on a throne listening to Doble-OOO radio station and traditional Puerto Rican music and Spanish-language chatter oozing out like milk from momma’s breast. Next door was Sammy’s Pizza, where, on a good day, Sammy would give us small paper cups of water for free instead of filled with the Italian Ice they were meant for. He knew why we wanted them: to drop clean water through an eyedropper into a bottle cap filled with a small blob of cotton and a five-dollar bag of smack in the belief that we could purify the death created in the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost. At least the water is clean. We would buy a slice for fifty cents when we could to say thanks. Bless you is all Sammy would say as if it was the last goodbye to us. Just in case, the water drops into the bottle cap full of smack, and a small blob of cotton heated over an open flame turned out to be the final act in our dangerous and tragic play — the End.

It was winter, and I was cold and shivering. Seven o’clock in the evening, and people were shuffling home from bus stops and train stations and dead-end jobs that paid the rent in rundown apartment buildings where they had to step over the deadbeat bodies of junkies during the dope epidemic of 1968. Hands in my coat pocket wrapped around my works (eyedropper- check, bottle cap-check, needle safely sheathed, so we don’t stab ourselves-check, a recycled blob of cotton that will not purify anything-check) bundled together with a brown rubber band in a decaying brown bag. A matchbook with 4–5 matches left with the hidden message written across the inside cover “Use wisely sucker. This is all that is left.”

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I’m standing guard looking up and down Willis Avenue and 142nd Street and across the street up to the 14th floor to make sure my fiancé, Chicky, is not looking out the window where she could see me and wonder, ‘Why is that fool standing out on that corner in this cold weather without a hat on and probably doesn’t have any gloves on?” Yeah, that’s not what she’s thinking! But I know she’s thinking “he’s looking for dope again. I’m done with him.” And she be right. She and I should be done with me because I can’t believe I’m standing on the corner of Willis Avenue and 142nd Street in this damn cold ass weather on the lookout for La Hara as Carlito stalks an elderly woman up 142nd Street toward Willis Avenue while eyeing her black purse with the determination of a beast stalking its prey. All we need is ten bucks to split two five-dollar bags of dope, smack, skag, the white horse. Carlito has done this before, he says. “Plenty of times. I grab the purse and run. They ain’t going to stop me. If I have to, I push them down. Not hard. I ain’t no animal.” I’ve never done this before. I don’t want to do this now or ever. But the call of the main vein, the road to a good feeling, is just too strong. Stronger than the guilt that I would feel if Carlito had to push some old lady down on the ground because she refused to let go of the goddamn purse. Let it go, damn it.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Suddenly, I hear a shout and a scream shooting up 142nd Street, landing in front of me, shutting out the Willis Avenue noise of buses, cabs, folks just trying to get home before threatened snow piles up on the streets. They don’t have any boots because they just got here from Puerto Rico or Santo Domingo and they ain’t got no snow down there.

Damn Carlito, why you have to push that woman down? She’s screaming madness in Spanish, and I can’t quite make out what the fuck she’s saying as I scope Carlito running up 142nd street towards Willis Avenue. I pray (not really pray) that he’s got that woman’s purse when I see this guy in a doorway of a rundown apartment building on 142nd street. He’s just standing there, hands in his coat pocket, looking down the street. He’s gotta see Carlito running and hear that old lady screaming mad as hell shit in Spanish, “¡Detenlo, por favor!” (“Stop him, please!”) Damn it, shut up. I’m freaking out looking for a way outta here. Run mofo down Willis toward 149th Street and home. “¡Me robó!” (“He robbed me!”) Why ain’t you running? Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I see the guy in the doorway step down and lunge at Carlito. I figured he was trying to grab him, but his arm was swinging like he missed, and Carlito let out a scream stronger than the woman’s, “Mother Fucker, why you stab me?”

Carlito is running but tripping, holding his left arm. Now, the guy in the doorway is joined by other men from down the street running after Carlito. He ain’t waiting for the light to change as he scrambles across Willis Avenue dodging cars and people towards the projects. To this day, I don’t know why I joined the procession of chasers across the Avenue as they’re screaming “¡Detén a ese hijo de puta!” (“Stop that Motherfucker!”). I know where Carlito lives, and I tell the men when I catch up with them that I saw him cut behind the 242 building to run down 141st. They turn the corner and haul ass while I pretend to look exhausted and when they’re out of sight, I run into 242 and take the elevator up the 12th floor and knock on 12B, and I see blood on the door.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Carlito’s mother can be heard screaming behind the door. Carlito’s sister opens the door, and she’s crying. I push my way in, rapping some shit about, “I saw some guys try to rob Carlito, and they chased him to the building, but I told them that he ran down 141st street,” and I wanted to make sure that Carlito was okay. Momma is still screaming. Sister is still crying. Carlito has his coat off, his shirt off, holding a towel against his left arm full of blood dripping down his arm onto the black case on the floor that he had taken from the old woman. It was open, and I could see that there was a bible inside. Carlito was huffing and puffing. He looked at me and then looked at the zippered black case with the Bible book peeking through the unzippered opening and back to me, and I’m like, What the fuck? His mother is on the phone calling someone to come over and take Carlito to the hospital, and I back out through apartment 12B talking about how I’m going to see if I can find a cop so I can give them a description of those Ladrones de mierda (Fucking thieves) who tried to rip off Carlito of that zippered black case with the bible inside that he had found in the street and was trying to find the owner when a bunch of junkies tried to rob him.

I stepped out into the hallway, found the stairs, and slowly made my way down 12 floors hoping not to run into those guys who were chasing Carlito or my girlfriend or anyone from her family or anyone that knew her. When I got to the first floor, I turned to go out the back way that would take me into the playground where I would walk across the project complex to St. Ann’s Avenue and then Third Avenue where I would walk to Westchester Avenue to take the number 26 bus to 156th and Westchester and home.

Image by Лечение Наркомании from Pixabay

My nose was now running, shivering from more than the winter cold. I was not high and would not get high until maybe the next day. But, I learned two lessons: one, I’m a terrible lookout that is never going to be good at committing a crime, and two, from now until the day I die, I will respect all old ladies that I see walking down the streets with their bibles and purses and ask that they forgive me even as they look at me and wonder, “¿Qué te pasa, chico?” (“What’s wrong, boy?”) is wrong with you, Nada, solo necesito tu perdón para siempre. Nothing, I just need your forgiveness forever.

Author: Antonio Pedro Ruiz

Antonio Ruiz is an ex-junkie-alcoholic, former seminarian, one-time radio host-producer, past community organizer, continuing to be a media advocate, retired television reporter, ex-commission executive director, once a street vendor of jewelry and gloves, waitron (waiter to you), a former bartender who drank too much on the job, an ex-motorcycle courier who learned to ride a bike just for the job, ex-airport shuttle driver, former Entertainment news director-producer, the best time of my life, one-time live TV events red carpet producer-executive producer, ex-small business consultant, ex-youth media and journalism mentor, and now a college student who also has been married three times (thirds the charm), and just couldn't help living with two other women because well, that's part of my story.

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