From the February 23, 1970 issue of New York Magazine.
Twelve years ago, when the moon was made of paper and a pleasant old man was the President, Hector Diaz moved with his mother, his grandmother and a platoon of assorted relatives from the slums of North San Juan to El Barrio in the slums of North Manhattan. None of the Diazes spoke English and there were 10 people in three rooms, but the rooms were big, the plumbing was inside and the older Diazes took strength in little Hector, who was 9 and had eyes the color of ripe olives and who seemed to learn English faster than he grew. On Hector’s 11th birthday the family moved to Simpson Street in the South Bronx and Hector moved to the streets, where along with more English he learned the ways of the IRT and of airplane glue.
Two years ago Hector moved from Simpson Street to Avenue C on the Lower East Side, where he changed his ecstasy from glue to red wine in brown paper bags and then to heroin in glassine envelopes. Hector is still the only Diaz who can speak English and his eyes still look like olives, but green ones now, stuffed with red pimento. The Diazes, or what’s left of them, still live on Simpson Street and Hector visits them occasionally. But Hector spends his days on the streets of the Lower East Side, where he and a friend named Louise share their nights in burnt-out buildings and support themselves by mugging their neighbors.
For a time, in the fifties, the streets that run east of Avenue A to the river and below Houston Street to the Brooklyn Bridge on New York’s Lower East Side were almost a shrine, praised as the breeding ground of armies of doctors and lawyers all of whom looked like Harry Golden. Praising the tenements of their youth (“Sure it was tough, but we had love and desire . . .”), Lower East Side alumni sounded like Nixon talking about his astronauts. Today the incipient Jewish judges are gone, and the hippies of a few years ago are mostly gone, departed for communes or the suburbs. The streets and the buildings, exhausted from generations of bright, aggressive youngsters followed by stoned hippies, look tired, as if they need a rest after 65 years of social ferment. Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall are gone; the streets are lined with garbage now—human and automotive—and the people are mostly Puerto Rican. The billboards are in Spanish and in every store window a red sign screams “How do you know you don’t have V.D.?/ ¿Cómo sabe Ud. que no tiene enfermedad venérea?” The old-law tenements are crumbling, collapsing, burnt-out hulks. Their windows are covered with tin and plywood and their roofs are ripped away so that the sunlight floods into the upper stories like shrapnel.
When Hector and Louise aren’t mugging their neighbors, they live in these buildings, moving easily from a deserted tenement on Avenue D to another south of Houston Street, near the Bowery. Always a few steps ahead of the wreckers or the Board of Health, they squat their way across the Lower East Side like spiders, spinning a chaotic web, leaving bits and pieces of themselves in each apartment. Sometimes they stay a month, sometimes only a few days. As they leave, Hector and Louise set fire to the building, and as their house and with it their past burns, they head for the next block.
Louise is 17, and although she has not been there in some time, she is, for the record, an eighth grader at J.H.S. 71 on Avenue B. Louise was born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, but grew up on Avenue C, where her grandmother still lives. Hector met her about a year ago in Tompkins Square Park, where they were both listening to a rhythm concert in the band shell. Louise was moving to the Afro-Latin sounds drummed on resonant empty 55-gallon oil drums and Day-Glo-blue bongos. The six stoned Lower East Side drummers and triangle man were deep in a private communal riff when Hector got up from a bench and began moving with her. They’ve been together ever since. Louise is slightly taller than Hector, heavier, and more muscular. Her skin is deep black and her short natural hair gives her a masculine look. Louise usually wears blue jeans cut off like pedal pushers and wedge-heeled sandals that expose her silver-trimmed toes. She has a bullet pendant that dangles from a rawhide loop around her neck and settles gently between her breasts. The fingers of her right hand are decorated with Cracker Jack and midway claw-machine trophies: a red glass ruby, a skull and crossbones and a narrow aluminum band that Louise says has the entire Lord’s Prayer inscribed on it. C-H-I-C-O is tattooed on the knuckles of her left. These days Louise dresses in loose-fitting sleeveless blouses that expose her muscular biceps. The flowing blouse drapes easily over her swelling stomach and rests on the denim-covered haunches. Louise is five months pregnant.