Earlier this week, I traveled into the future exactly three hours and landed in New York City. I was contracted by the Museum of Sex to give a lecture on the historically violent nature of intercourse entitled, The Wound and the Weapon. But I also came to find and document a personal fascination of mine: gangs.
Not that kind.
New York City is a steely monument to the American dream. For over a century it has spewed its arsenal of riches and glory up and down the island of Manhattan and out across America like the bullets of some automatic weapon. A weapon made of opportunity.
Yeah, that kind.
Yet the city also has an unsightly byproduct. Poverty and destitution sleep in doorways or pee on subway stairs, reminding everyone that they exist, and weren’t fortunate enough to be shot in the face by success's opportunity gun from my previous metaphor. Whole boroughs belong to poor communities where violence and crime is rampant and, more importantly, where the American gang incubates.
Real gangs, Cholo.
Providence shined my first day at the museum when I met Carl the janitor. He was dusting souvenir vibrators in the gift shop. A 30-year-old with a shaved head and narrow eyes, he had recently lost his night job for defecating on the desk of his boss following a heated argument. Apparently in this concrete jungle where dreams are made, there are some things you can’t do. Carl had all the telltale signs of a gang member: a toothpick in his mouth, a white tee-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, converse shoes. Also, he told me he deals drugs.
We chatted for a while and played the which-girls-on-the-2-oclock-tour-we-would-pay-to-see-naked game. I slowly earned his trust and finally invited myself to stay with him in a small apartment in East Harlem. He didn’t say no. I assured him that it didn’t matter how small or dingy it was, that I wanted to immerse myself in the lives of the downtrodden working class, that I would be no trouble at all as long as he had toilet seat covers and ample space for my air purifier.
And it can really tie a room together.
On the way to his place he explained what it was like growing up in Hell’s Kitchen. He told me about the limited choices he had as a young man to make money, about his emotionally distant, abusive father and a hundred other equally boring stories. I don’t remember most of them because I fell asleep behind my sunglasses twice and because I started feeling sick every time I scribbled something on the train.
“Did you ever kill anyone in the name of love?” I asked him.
He laughed and looked at his feet. “I... I broke down my girlfriend’s door once. But I just wanted to scare her.”
“Did you and your crew ever have to dance your way out of a potential scuffle?”
“You don’t have to tell me now. We’ll get there.”
Carl’s apartment was much bigger than I had hoped. It had track lighting and art on the walls. An unused entertainment center pouted in the corner while leather couches circled a bookshelf like sharks that had sensed blood in the water. “Books!” I laughed. “That’s funny. Nice touch.” I winked at him and ran a finger over the couch. “These items are hot, aren’t they?” I whispered. Carl shrugged and offered to turn on the AC.
While he tinkered with the central air I explored briefly on my own, dipping my head into the kitchen and behind closed doors, until I stumbled upon two thieves in a bedroom. I screamed, not loud, like a man.
“Sharks!” I warned Carl from where I was hiding behind the couch.
“Those are my roommates. That’s Esteban and his sister, Maria.”
Still wary, I dusted myself off and shook Esteban’s hand. His shorter and stockier sister sniffled and wiped at her nose before offering me the same hand. My heart soared as I shook it. She seemed like the kind of girl I could love, if I was willing to try really, really hard.
Somewhere in between these two.
Esteban simmered a traditional Puerto Rican stew while I grilled the three of them on race relations and local gang activity. Esteban was annoyingly articulate. He explained that the great melting pot of New York, like the pot of stew, just needed time to mature and blend. It was becoming more homogeneous. People of different backgrounds weren’t just tolerant of each another anymore, they grew to like and complement one another. I listened and smiled politely, still holding out suspicion that Esteban might just be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Or, more literally, in a New York Jets T-shirt.
Later that night I stole away with Maria to the fire escape for some face time. She sat airing out her armpits while taking drags of Carl’s weed. We watched the lights on distant apartments flicker and heard tinny Latin music chirp through some open window. I wanted to talk to her about her dreams for the future, about whether she thought about love, and at the very least, some nail polish and a swig of mouthwash.
“I just gotta be me,” she said.
“Are you sure?” I pleaded.
“Fuck it,” she announced. “I feel pretty.”
I spent several hours with her, scouring her character trying to find a foothold, something with which I could fall in love.
“So, you’re like a writer or something?”
“A treasured one, yes.”
“Then tell me a poem.”
“I don’t do poetry, it’s self indulgent and intentionally obscure. Plus it’s hard.”
“Pssshhhh, treasured my ass.” She leaned to the side and released a less than gentle fart into the night.
“What do you do?”
“Box,” she said.
“You work for a shipping company?”
She threw her had back and cackled. “Shiiiit. That’s some shit right there. No, I make people bleed.”
That was my third guess.
I asked her if she ever thought of leaving the oppression of New York. I wanted to find any semblance of whimsy in her heart that I could latch onto. She told me she’d thought about moving to Newark once. It was enough.
“I know how you feel,” I told her. “This city will chew you up and spit you out if you’re not careful, especially a girl as bea- so close to beauty as you.” She pounded her chest with one fist until something popped inside and a burp escaped. “Maybe I could get you out of here, get you out of this crazy life your brother and Carl are mixed up in,” I told her.
“Yeah, alright,” she sighed and crawled back through the window.
I stood and stared out over the city of giants, wondering how many crimes were being committed at that exact moment. It broke my heart to think of the poor fighting the poor, keeping each other down over silly turf wars. “I’m not afraid of you,” I shouted. “I will see your ruthlessness and raise you love!”
“Hey asshole!” a child’s voice shouted from across the alley. “Keep it down, some of us have jobs in the morning.”
Probably a newsie but I like this scenario better.
The next day I confronted Esteban about his sister over breakfast. He stood in front of a scrambled egg pan with his mouth open.
“You love my sister?”
“What? Is that so hard to believe? Just because we come from different backgrounds? Just because it might cause bad blood between our crews?”
He turned his head to the side and squinted, “What?”
“Look, love is a weird word. I think I could really start to appreciate Maria but she is a complex woman.”
“I’ll say,” he scoffed. “Well you should be telling her that, she could use a good guy.”
“Wait, I’m confused.”
“Frankly, I’ve been trying to get her out of the house now for a few years. She’s got no ambition.” Esteban tended to his eggs.
“So, do we need to schedule a knife fight or something?”
“A knife fi- No. Nonono. I’m happy for her. You’re a good change of pace for her.”
Carl came into the kitchen in boxers and a shirt reading “Fit for Life!” that couldn’t quite cover his stomach.
“This guy has a crush on my sister,” Esteban laughed. Carl joined in the laughter which seemed to wake Maria from the kitchen floor, where she had presumably spent the night.
She rubbed her eyes and squinted. “What’s so goddamn funny?”
“The writer says you two are running off together,” Esteban wiped the tears from his eyes.
“Ugh,” she swooned.
I reminded her that we had discussed it all the night before, that this was the best thing for her, and most importantly, that I was willing to fight her brother.
“Fuck that,” she shook her head. “You want to kidnap me, there’s only one person you have to fight.” She poked a thumb into her pimpled chest.
Carl and Esteban laughed harder. I didn’t want to fight her. It was antithetical to my plan of loving her someday, but I wasn’t so sure I wanted to do that anymore either. The circumstances were nearly out of my control and I tried to rein them back in. “Let’s everyone just calm down.”
Maria pushed me once, hard, and likened me to an unmentionable piece of female genitalia. She was not backing down. Cornered in the kitchen I had no other choice but to go through with it now. We were going to tussle over a girl, over her. I straightened my back and leaned over with my arms fully extended toward the ground.
I started snapping.
I knew this to be a symbol among New York gangs signifying the beginning of a battle. I took a rhythmic step toward her with each snap. Carl and Esteban could no longer breathe they were in such awe of my quick assimilation into their culture. Maria stared as well. It was working.
Four hours later I sat on a plane with only one functioning eye. The seat next to me was empty. I couldn’t figure out how things had gone so wrong so quickly. Perhaps the tribulations of New York slums were too intricate to understand in a single trip. I would have to return someday, perhaps there would even be an award winning novel in it.
A stewardess passed through the isle and stopped to look at my face. “Oh my god,” she said. “Your eye.”
I scoffed and gave it a “this old thing?” point. She touched it gingerly and winced for me.
“Gang fight,” I told her, and without anything left to say, we took one another by the hand and made our way to the rear lavatory.