“It’s a concepto among Latin peoples,” Tito tells me. He is trying to explain the mutterings between the guys who huddle together nightly a few doors down. Our little block once was quiet at night. Then one day, seemingly out of nowhere, they appeared with their boasts, guffaws, groans, and rattling beer bottles. It doesn’t help that our bedroom window overlooks the street. The peace of my night is ruined, and I fear it will never return. Their raucous chatter has become my nightly vexation. By most bedtimes I am pacing, counting the minutes until eleven when I feel at liberty to slip on a shift and go down and ask them to take their banter elsewhere.
“Relájate, mujer.” Relax, woman.
“Who are these guys? With all the empty spaces at night in Blissville, why do they have to hang out here?” Tito sighs and rolls over because he can sleep through anything.
“Don’t they have day jobs?” They all look able-bodied. One may still be a teen, but the others are long past that, easily in their thirties. El Apache, only an occasional visitor, is the oldest.
“Cálmate, mi querida.” Calm down.
How can I? These guys have become so regular I could set my clock by their gatherings, starting at nine and disbanding after midnight. Only rain keeps them away. I twist in the sheets against Tito.
He turns to face me and tightens his arms around me. “They like to talk.”
I break free and sit up, fluffing up the pillows. “But what? What do they say to each other night after night?”
“They smoke marijuana.”
He is describing what I already can smell for myself. “I know.”
Each morning I see their beer bottles lined against the wall like trophies and smell the stench of ripe beer as I pass. I snort. “But why do they have to be here?”
“It’s an esquina.”
“But the corner is down the block, not where these guys are hanging out, flat in the middle of our block.”
“It’s an open-air club. Free to anyone. Where I lived in Chile, we had one on every block.”
I lie back imagining Tito on the corner with guys like these. I try to picture him heading up the hill after work, stopping by esquina to esquina, resting only long enough to catch the daily events from each block. “So why don’t you join them?”
“You know I don’t like groups. I want to be with you, not them.”
“Okay, but could I join then?” I picture myself in jeans and a t-shirt, swaggering towards them with a beer bottle of my own.
“Listen.” He turns off the light, gets out of bed and puts his ear to the open window.
From where I stand, behind him, I make out only their cackling. But Tito is man of the port and a man of the street. “What are they saying?”
“I don’t know.”
I grew up in a household of three females and one distant father. Tito, by dint of his gender, surely understands more than I. “Come on. What do you think they’re talking about?”
“Oh, they go on about the news. Sports.”
I can see them musing on the economy and the stock market. And certainly I can see them reciting the stats in whatever sport they follow. But these subjects must tire soon. If they were women they would talk about home, relationships, colleagues, recipes, makeup, and decorating, all the way to desperation and love.
I hold my breath, but I hear only their inflections.
“They talk about cars.”
This feels even truer than the news. “What do they say about cars?”
“No sé.” He grows quiet, and I wonder if he’s still trying to discern what they’re saying. “I don’t know. How fast they can go? What new chrome they want to add? The cars they dream of?”
We lie in the darkness listening to the rise and fall of their chattering boasts and groans. Part of me wants to hold on to some deeper mystery, to resist his simple explanation. But one thing is for sure. They will talk all night like this, and tomorrow night, and the next night too. They are not so different from the birds I wake up to each morning, at the same regular hour, whose trills I’m not meant to fathom either.
But come Sunday morning, the whole block rests, the equina, the neighbors, and the children. Even we stay in bed late. We wake with the sun, but we don’t get up. We lie together in our own private worlds, where images and thoughts pass through uninterrupted, tracing idly the contours of the other’s face. Despite all the months we’ve lived side by side, I still have no idea what he’s thinking. His closed eyes and relaxed face tell me only that he’s content, enjoying the lines my fingers make along his forehead and down the edges of his cheeks. I listen to the chatter of the birds outside. Sometimes I can hear the chik chik of a house sparrow or the woos of a dove. If I’m lucky, I might even catch the cheeps of a robin or caws of a crow. They are the commonest of birds, but in this neighborhood, catching a call of even one is special. A car starts up and drowns out my birds.
“Beth’s car,” Tito says softly as if it were fact.
Beth lives on the bottom floor and drives a red pick-up truck. I suddenly realize that Tito listens to cars the way I listen to birds. I touch his ears. “How do you know?”
“It has a sort of medium tone that coughs every so often. You don’t hear it? Escúchalo.” Listen. But to me it sounds like any other car.
“Ves, ves, mis amor?” He looks at me as if the rumble of Beth’s truck were obvious.
“Cómo conoces los carros así?” How is it you know the cars so well?
“I know all the sounds of the cars, Rebecca.”
I am awed. I’ve spent years learning the calls of the few birds I now can recognize. In just a year Tito’s learned the sounds of the cars here. Another car starts up. It drowns out the chirps of the birds. If Tito weren’t next to me explaining their sounds, enjoying their character, I wouldn’t like these cars at all. “So which one’s that?”
“The big car across the street. The old Pontiac.”
There are many big old cars on this block, however.
“Ese es el de las abuelas.” It’s the one the grandmothers drive. Its motor roars. I’d like to appreciate it as Tito does, but I can’t. All it does is make me restless. Even Tito, with all the love he has for these relics, concedes that our morning peace is gone. I lift the screen. The air is sweet and soft with the leftover blossoms of honeysuckle, all the more fragrant from the day’s warmth.
I suggest a hike in the woods. Tito hungers for the sea. I suggest Jones Beach, and suddenly it’s a plan. He rouses himself. We slip into our roles as quickly as we slip into our clothes. I make sandwiches, and Tito goes out and cleans the car.
When I open the front door I see my neighbors. In front of our building one of them vacuums his parents’ Jeep. He is the teen who hangs out on la esquina at night with el Apache. Usually we greet each other with a short nod. But today, in the immaculate morning, we smile at each other. “The car looks good,” I say.
“Yeah, it’s family.” The front doors are open, and a salsa melody floats out from its tinny speakers for everyone to hear. That vehicle is one of the most cared-for cars on the block, shining bright and new even on the dustiest of days.
From where I stand I can see to both ends of the block. In one direction, a few doors down, the Koreans are soaping up their van. They own a little warehouse sandwiched in between two houses. It holds all sorts of piping, but for what, I have no idea. We know each other by sight. They don’t live in Blissville, but have driven here today to wash their van. Its dark blue body is now frothy and white. They catch me watching. I wave hello, and they wave back.
I look in the other direction and see Tito. He’s standing in front of the garage. As I walk to him I come across el Apache. He’s polishing his Mustang in front of the deli. “Hermoso,” I say to him. Beautiful.
He straightens up and gives me one of his radiant smiles. His car is so old the paint is practically gone, but no matter. He works on his car whatever the season, whatever the weather, with a bottle of beer never far from his hand. “It’s not new like your car, but it works real good,” he says as he straightens his back.
I want to tell him that my Saturn is almost as old as his Mustang. But mine is made of plastic that makes it appear forever new. But he’s gone back to his polishing. His tattoos of hearts and Madonnas ripple as he rubs in more wax.
“Que te vaya bien,” I call before I cross the street to my watchful Tito. Good luck with it.
Tito stands by the Saturn, now so white and brilliant that it practically hurts to look at it. He opens the trunk. He’s vacuumed even there, collected all my maps and notes that normally carpet the trunk, and stored them in a bag. He’s made it like new. I set down the picnic basket and we wave goodbye to el Apache, the young man, the Koreans, and the whole block.
Out on the highway we find ourselves among others heading out to Long Island, whether to the mall, to the park, or to the beach. To pass the time, Tito and I make up a game. It’s an easy, wordless game. One long tap on the other’s thigh means we see a car we would never buy. For a model we like, two taps. And three taps for a vehicle we love.
We pass a Land Rover. Tito taps out three taps. We pass a Prius. I signal back with my own three. We pass a Mercedes Benz. “That’s the car Nicolás drives,” he says, and he gives me three firm ones on my leg.
We leave Queens. We are now officially on Long Island. All of our values emerge in this game. Tito likes the big, sturdy German sedans.
“You just like them because Nicolás does,” I say. Nicolás’s son drives a Volkswagen Passat and his daughter an Audi.
“They’re well-made, Rebecca.”
If Tito’s loyalties are with the luxury models, mine lie with the fuel-efficient ones. This changes when we spot a Mini Cooper. We tap away on each other’s thigh in unison. The traffic has thinned and I can smell the salt in the air. We pass vistas of scrubland, and up ahead I catch a line of blue. All I want now is for Tito to step on the accelerator. But the car slows, and for a moment I wonder if something is wrong with the car. Then I see that Tito is driving side by side with a long, white limousine. It stretches at least the length of two cars. I can’t imagine how much it must cost to fill its tank. In its multiple windows I see reflections of our little white car.
Tito takes in a breath. “Wow, wow, wow,” he says. “Wow, Rebecca. A 2002 Lincoln limousine.”
I work to repress all my urges to tell him to just pass it. All day long Tito works on Lincoln Towncars, poor cousins to this glamorous coach. From the seat of my Saturn, a Lincoln Towncar is a luxurious sedan in its own right, cushy and commodious. It’s obvious that my humble Saturn will never carry the status of this limousine. We travel another mile in its shadow, and all the while Tito taps furiously on my leg. Then he speeds up and we pass it. We are racing towards our destination, the twinkling beach. When I look in my sidemirror the limousine is just a fading white dot.
One bright day, when I run out the door for a sandwich from the deli, I see the flashing lights of a police car outside. Because the police never come to Blissville, I stop to see what is the matter. The officers are already out of the car and in the street, talking to a young man with pale skin and frizzy hair.
I hear the tone of the officers’ voices, but nothing more. Whatever they’ve asked, the young man seems to be ignoring it. He rolls his head around with half-opened eyes. He looks too relaxed, his gestures too exaggerated. He lights a cigarette and pulls on it hard. And then he exhales. He blows the cloud of smoke straight into the officers’ faces.
In that moment I want the police to take him away. I am sure I don’t know him, and I know almost everyone on the block after living here for fifteen years. Perhaps he works around here, or perhaps he’s lost. I just want him gone. But the police have more questioning, and I turn down the street for lunch.
In Blissville our outpost is the corner deli. I think of it as a general store and where we trade the news of the day, with a little bit of everything, including refrigerated cabinets dating from the early 1920s. It’s also a lunch stop for the neighborhood’s day workers—mechanics, UPS drivers, factory assemblymen, loaders—waiting their turn for a hot meatball sandwich or a cold Italian hero.
The reassuring scent of frying onions greets me when I enter. The little deli is packed, and I make my way to the end of the line. All around me men banter. I’m not a part of their jokes, but I look around and chuckle with them anyway.
Then the door opens, and I see the outline of a slimly built man with frizzy hair. He stands with the door open and the sun streaming in behind him. And I realize he is the same person I saw outside with the police.
“Fucking police, fucking white people!” He roars, and the power of his rage punctures the conversations in every corner of the deli. He steps in and lets the door swing behind him. It slams shut and seals us all in.
I distract myself with the menu overhead in front of me, just as I might with the ads on the subway when confronted with a beggar. Egg salad, $2.25, cheese sandwich, $2.75, ham, $3.00, ham and cheese, $3.25, tuna salad, $3.25. Its offerings are my refuge.
I feel the heat of someone close. I glance down. The frizzy haired man from outside is staring into my eyes, daring me to look back at him. He is so near I can see the green hazel around his irises. The whites of his eyes are bloodshot and twitching, but he doesn’t drop his gaze. “You white people. You don’t like us, do you?” He is looking at me, but he says it loud enough for all to hear.
I know I should ignore him as I would a crazy person on the street, but everyone is looking at me. “That is not true,” I say. I can feel the feebleness in my voice.
He wags his head at me. “Yes you do. You hate us.”
I scan the room without breaking eye contact. I am the only white and the only woman standing there in the deli this noon. Humiliation and fear flush through my veins. I send out a silent plea for someone to intervene, but no one does anything. I am on my own.
And now, in contradicting him, I’ve given him the fuel he was looking for. I have fed his self-righteousness and prolonged his tirade. My only recourse is to agree with him in front of the people I pass on the street each day. “Okay, I do,” I croak.
Even the people behind the counter are still. The entire deli has just witnessed me proclaim myself a racist. From the edges of my eyeglasses, I spot a neighbor across the room. I have helped his daughter with her math homework. I raise my eyes to his, but he looks away.
The frizzy haired man moves into my field of vision. He is so close I can smell his cigarette, already stale, on his breath.
“I’ve got news for you. There are more of us than there are of you. But you—you should know better.”
I nod as he expects me to, and I feel, more than see, how the men in line with me look away.
“Because when it’s dark outside, and someone is robbing you or has a knife to you—even if we’re around, we won’t be watching out for you. You understand that now, don’t you?”
I try nodding back, but my neck is frozen.
He spits at my feet and looks around. No one is looking at him any more. He pushes his way through the line to the counter and curses white people all the way. I hear the counterman offer him a beer and cigarettes. He grabs them, lays down a few crumpled dollars, and strolls out. The door bangs behind him. From my place in line I can see him pop open the beer. Then he steps out into the street.
Someone cracks a joke about brotherly love, and everyone’s shoulders shake until the room is deafening with laughter. When it recedes, everyone goes on as they had before, as if nothing at all had happened. A counterman asks me what I want. I tell him a Swiss cheese sandwich on toast with mayo, lettuce, tomato, and extra cheese. I cast around for potato chips, then an apple, and then a package of Twinkies. I am stalling. I’m not ready to go out into the street. I’ll do anything not to run into that man again, and I add a banana, an iced tea, and a Hostess cherry pie to my order. Now there’s nothing left to do but pay.
Outside, I look all around, but the street is empty. I wonder if he is hiding in a doorway, waiting for me. My apartment is only a half-block away, but I walk looking around me the whole twenty steps. When I reach it, I lock every door I can behind me.
The rational part of my brain knows that the people in the deli didn’t want things to escalate. He was itching for a fight, and anyone’s interference would have been his excuse. This is what I tell myself as I gobble down the sandwich. But I am shaking as I open the potato chips. I can’t forget that no one came to my rescue. They didn’t even try to comfort me once he left. I crunch on the chips one by one, then squeeze the bag into a little wad.
I pull out the Hostess pie and bite into it. The cherry liquid oozes out. When I was little, these factory pies were forbidden. Too expensive, and bad for your teeth, my mother said. She couldn’t have known the indulgence it would become. But for all of its magic, it can’t overpower all the bitterness for my neighbors that spreads inside of me, for the workers I pass in the street, Mohammad the deli owner, the countermen, and everyone there with me today. They have betrayed me.
I relate everything to Tito as soon as he arrives. He listens with an intensity I have never seen before. He doesn’t think he knows my hazel-eyed, frizzy haired man either. “But I’ll ask around tomorrow about him. No te precupes. I won’t let anything happen to you.” He holds me in his arms until I grow restless.
The next morning I wake up with sodden dread. “What if I see him again?”
“Pretend it’s nothing. Ignore him. If you’re frightened, just come to the garage. You are always safe with me.”
I don’t question Tito in this regard, even though he’s lived here a fraction of the years I have. In this short time, he has made the acquaintance of everyone, from the workers to the neighbors. He knows their names, their professions, their habits, their cars.
Over the following days, Tito learns more about this tipo, as he likes to call him. He lives around the corner and is married, with a daughter. His wife wears suits and high heels to work each morning. Tito thinks he uses heroin, and to Tito I start to refer to him as el Adicto. But none of this comforts me. Fear slips through the locks and into the apartment. At Tito’s suggestion, I change my route. I zigzag across streets. I vary the times I come home, and I make sure it is always in daylight. Now I see him everywhere. Most of the time he is idling in the doorways along the block. How could I never have noticed him before? He is one of the loose group that whiles away the afternoons with el Apache on the stoop next to ours.
The days I don’t see him I worry more. His absence is as unnerving as his presence. What if he is lying in wait for me? Maybe he is right, maybe none of my neighbors will help me now. I am more alone than ever.
“Be alert, of course, but never show him you are afraid,” Tito counsels. It’s what he’s learned from growing up in a tough neighborhood, and then later when he worked in the port, where, like port towns everywhere, violence lies at its edges. “In Blissville I am known and respected. You are protected because you are with me,” Tito tells me.
“But you’re not always with me.”
“You are still safe. No one would dare hurt you. Trust me. I know this.”
Trust me are words that make me uneasy, but I let it go.
The weeks pass. I don’t let up my guard. One cool evening we are walking around the block. We pass by the faded hopscotch squares and the empty seats the grandmothers have abandoned for the warmth of indoors. The fragrance of baking pot roasts hangs in the air. We turn up another street and down another. As we turn down our block I spot our esquina, and among them, el Adicto. I pull on Tito’s sleeve to push him around so we can approach our apartment from the other side. But Tito shakes his head and puts my arm through his. We walk by together, giving them the barest of nods.
“Con la jerarquía, sigue todo.” Everything has its own order, Tito explains inside the safety of our apartment.
“El Apache is on top because he killed someone.”
This is the same el Apache I know from the garage, who I see most of these afternoons drinking beers on the stoop next door. The man who always asks after my car, and who, when he learned that I was a photographer, offered to introduce me to his Apache people so I could do a photo essay about them.
“Next in line is el Dominicano. He is next because he deals drugs.”
I stiffen. I don’t like the idea of any drugs on our block.
“He sells marijuana, na’ más.” Nothing more. I associate him more with his bicycle that he rides each Sunday. He is tall, fit, and looks to be in his thirties. During the week he washes the windows of skyscrapers. And every night he sits on his stoop, a door away. When I ask him to turn down his music, he always obliges me. He has told me how much he appreciates me speaking to him directly, instead of calling the police.
But there is only one person I really want to know about.
“El Adicto? Oh, he’s at the bottom.”
I frown. How can this be? He has terrorized me for months.
“Rebecca, who can trust a drug addict?”
One late night, I hear a whine from outside. It sounds like an power saw stuck in a knot of pine. It could be someone working late, but there’s something about it that doesn’t quite sound mechanical. And it’s too late for electric tools anyway. It’s a grito, I decide. Part shriek, part shout, part scream. When I first came to Blissville, I often saw feral dogs at its fringes, and I hope tonight the cry is from one of them. I call to Tito. Maybe he will recognize it.
But by the time he arrives, the wail has dimmed to a whimper. And then it stops. “Es máquina,” he pronounces. I shake my head. I want so much for it to be something wild and untamed. I wait, but I catch only my heartbeat and the honks of the traffic in the distance. Tito loosens his fingers from mine. But I squeeze his hand to still him for one more moment. It begins again and then stops. Tito shakes his head. Once more it starts up. One clear arf. Another follows, higher in tone. A veritable howl. And then a chorus of syncopated woofs. Whether they are tame or feral, I rejoice in their presence once more.
In Blissville there are all kinds of gritos. Cats yowl nightly out the back window. Almost human in their pitch, when their cries penetrate my apartment’s inner rooms, I raise the window, to be sure. They are always from cats, but I rarely spot them.
Then there’s the factory worker who makes gritos while everyone in the deli waits for their eggs and bacon on a roll. He lets out a panoply of quacks, clucks, cackles, and cockadoodles, grunts, bleats, brays, and whinnies, all of which transport us to his backyard in Santo Domingo.
And then there’s the man who makes weekend gritos, a summons I have heard for almost fifteen years. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaah Uaaah Uaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah,” he cries. His cry echoes across the concrete patios, over the picnic tables and puddle pools, and through the socks and sheets waving in the morning sun. Everyone in the neighborhood knows about Tarzán’s presence in Blissville. Now on Sundays we have come to wait for those gritos together. When we miss them, we wonder. Were we too busy to hear him or did Tarzán stop?
Tito learned of Tarzán’s identity through Junior at the garage. Mouna is Tarzán’s stepdaughter. One night she gave away her father’s secret to Junior—a cheap trade, I think, for his attention, since he left her in the end. These days I recognize Tarzán by his van with a penguin painted on it because he’s an air conditioner repairman. He parks his van each night behind Tito’s garage.
As usual, Tito sees more than I do. Lately he’s noticed Tarzán’s hands shaking when he comes into the deli every morning. And in the evenings when we go out, we both see him, locked inside his Penguin van, drinking. Yet the cry we hear on Sunday mornings sounds the same. Only now I hear its anguish.
He makes me wonder if gritos, underneath, are calls for help. I never heard the shrieks of one neighbor, a five-year old girl. Instead I woke up one madrugada to red lights circling around my bedroom walls. I lifted the shades to see a police car. I watched, but nothing was happening, and I went back to bed. I learned in the morning they had arrested that little girl’s father. He had killed her in the night.
I never saw the family again. I presume her sisters went into foster care, but her mother and grandmother? Perhaps they journeyed back to Mexico.
Neighbors left flowers outside the door. Tito and I lit candles to keep her spirit safe. Even living she was barely a shadow, a shy waif skipping down the block. For weeks we kept her flowers fresh and her candles burning. And then they, too, disappeared.
The house stayed empty for months, until one day I saw furniture stacked outside on the sidewalk. A sagging sofa, a frayed chair, a scarred table, a shattered lamp, a couple of listing stools, and broken toys scattered everywhere. Hardly anything for a family of five, I thought. For weeks their belongings stayed outside on the sidewalk for all to see, and no one touched any of it. Finally the Sanitation Department carted them away.
The next installment will be posted Friday, Jan 4.