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Mugging as a Way of Life

It’s not hard to throw away a car on the Lower East Side—in fact, it’s hard not to. Park it, take off the license plates, and 24 hours later it will be stripped, an engineless metal shell, covered with children swarming like ants, jumping on the roof, trying to cave it in. Like an executioner offering his victim a last cigarette, a car vulture on the Lower East Side will always slide a metal milk crate under the axle, so that the machine doesn’t fall to the pavement while it’s being stripped of its wheels. The fleecing is done by children and adults in search of spark plugs, hub caps and the like for fun and profit. Hector and Louise have escalated the war in order to equip their panel truck. In need of windshield wipers, they found them on a delivery van on Avenue D. Since that first set of wiper blades, Hector has taken to stripping loose parts from any car he sees, abandoned or not, and attaching the trophies to his truck. The truck now has four aerials and a myriad of reflectors, mudflaps and tail lights. Much of the time Hector is not sure what he’ll do with the parts. It’s hard to sell spare auto parts in his neighborhood, where they are in endless supply, parked by the curb, free for the taking.

Hector and Louise, restless and broke—Hector with heroin but no reason, Louise indifferent—follow an old man in a long gray topcoat east on Houston Street past “Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes,” toward First Avenue. Hector walks casually, almost bopping to amuse Louise, keeping plenty of distance from the old man. Louise watches Hector’s eyes follow the man’s progress. Louise remembers what happened that day:

“What you looking at, boy?”

“Thass dinner up there.”

“That’s a nickel bag, that’s what that is. That’s a nickel bag of Snow White.”

“Thass what I mean. Dinner. Comprende?”

Hector, staring at the man’s back, walks a little faster, his hand in his hip pocket. Louise tugs at her bullet pendant and quickens her step to keep up. She touches Hector’s elbow as they gain on him.

“He looks pretty old.”

“Sure.”

“Maybe he’s a police.”

“Some old man is all.”

“A police, like an old man.”

“Maybe.” Louise recalls the rest, with obvious pleasure:

As they pass an alley near First Avenue, Hector moves up on the man’s left. Louise steps to his right, slides her arm into his, and begins to pull him gently toward her. As he turns to Louise, smiling and starting to tell her “No, no, I’m not interested,” Hector pushes him sharply into the alley. Louise changes her gentle grip to a yank and pulls him into the dark. Hector follows with his knife open, swearing. Louise drops his arm and puts a tight yoke grip around his neck as Hector holds the knife to his stomach and fumbles for his wallet. The man begins to gag for breath and flutter his free arm. Louise tells him to shut up and draws the yoke tighter. Hector presses the knife against the man’s stomach, cutting the fabric of his coat. He turns the blade upward and in one sweep slices the buttons off the coat. Louise knocks his wire-rimmed glasses to the ground and smashes them as Hector pushes the old man backwards, across two open garbage cans. Two five-dollar bills. Hector pockets the money along with some loose change and he and Louise run for Avenue D.

Louise leans heavily into a broken door near the end of a dark and private hallway at her current address. She pushes it open with her shoulder and looks for Hector. He is sitting next to a shaft of light that melts through a broken window overlooking Seventh Street. Nodding in the corner, his knees drawn up tightly against his bare chest, his electric-blue net polo shirt wrapped like a tourniquet around his left arm, Hector looks but doesn’t notice her. Hector stares at the dust in the light, then moves his arm carefully into it, watching the specks settle on his forearm. He stares curiously at the red hole just below his elbow. The sores on his shoulder drip white fluid down his arm underneath the shirt tourniquet, to blend with the heroin on the lips of the monumental “cannon” he is carefully cultivating to avoid needle marks on his arms. (Hector is always very careful to insert his needle in exactly the same spot each time. The result is a red crater just below the elbow on his inner arm.) Hector touches the opening, caressing its edges. He purses his lips silently. As Louise stares, a pair of roaches crawl over Hector’s works on the floor next to him. The bugs work their way across his needle on the way to the tin spoon, where they stop and stare at each other in the stoned safety of the spoon’s bowl. Louise, carrying two cans of collard greens stolen from the shelves of the Pioneer Supermarket on Avenue B, stands in the doorway and smiles at him. “You want some food to eat? Greens?” She holds up her trophies and crosses to him so he can inspect the cans more closely. As she walks, her sandals sink into the carpet of roaches that covers the floor. Louise, amused at the sound, listens to her weight crush the brown shells. Halfway across the room she stops and turns her heels on the wooden floor, as if she were doing the Twist. She looks at Hector’s eyes, lifting his lids to peer at the traces of burst veins. Hector mumbles in Spanish and smiles back at her. Louise tugs at his short black hair and says, giggling, “Man, are you stoned.” She pokes through his pocket for matches. “I’ll make some greens.” In the kitchen, she fills a tin saucepan from a gallon jug of water and lights a small wood fire in the sink. She adds the greens to the water and rests the pan in the fire. As Louise’s makeshift stove flares up, it heats the greens and broils a geyser of roaches and ants that burst up from the drain into the flames.


Related:

  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Feb 23, 1970 issue of New York
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