Mugging as a Way of Life

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.

Hector’s jaw, pitted with clusters of bullet-hole acne marks, hangs open and occasionally dribbles a stream of spit across his delicate throat where the scars give way to bubbling, festering sores. At 21, Hector is compact and wiry, and although his eyes are usually glazed and he often spends days on end in one of his apartments picking at the scabs on his arms and face, shooting up and nodding out, Hector is actually in better shape now, on heroin, than he was a year and a half ago when he was living on red wine. Hector, juiced out at 19, according to friends, was so filled with wine that his brain started going soft. Hector had been living on rotgut for about three months before he wandered over to the rhythm concert in Tompkins Square. Louise, who admits to having had her eye on him for some time before the concert, recalls his state easily, saying, “He was so drunk that if you would cut him, his veins spurted Dago Red. Guys would go after him with a knife just to get a drink.” Louise, who finds wine disgusting, changed all that when she introduced Hector to her very old friend, Snow White. Louise says she first took heroin when she was 12. Unlike Hector, she seems able to take it in small doses and stop when she cares to. Hector says proudly, “Since I got on the horse, I didn’t take a drink at all. Juice is bad for you, make you mushy. I’m all over that now.”

Hector and Louise usually work whatever neighborhood they’re living in. They knock over every old man on the block, every young man who follows Louise’s swinging hips and pocketbook, and every young girl attracted by Hector’s olive eyes. They rough up all of them, take whatever money is there, and then move on.

Their procedure is classically simple. Louise swings her purse and her hips and walks casually down the street. When someone starts following her, and someone always does, Louise wanders aimlessly toward Hector, who steps out of inner space and puts a knife to the man’s throat. Hector tells him—only once—to keep his mouth shut. Louise, who has been standing there looking confused, starts to grin and steers her new friend into the shadows or into an empty hallway to rifle his pockets and take his wallet. The whole thing takes two minutes and then Hector and Louise leave as suddenly as they appeared. Occasionally a victim screams and Hector covers the man’s mouth to shut him up. If that doesn’t help, Hector must make a choice: cut or run. If he cuts, he usually gets excited and cuts again. If he runs, Louise will laugh at him. Usually he cuts. Not to kill, but to silence. Hector doesn’t know if he’s killed anyone. He remembers cutting one old man pretty badly, but he doesn’t know if the man died. “He bleeded a lot. Like anything—thass all I know.”

When Louise has picked up a likely candidate and wandered into Hector’s shadow, she stops, lets the man catch up, and smiles and lets him move in. On Avenue D, that means a few sweet words and then some action. The victim starts pushing Louise into the shadows, pawing and babbling what he thinks is smooth talk. She giggles and protests mildly. Then Hector moves in. If the man has been rough with her, Louise sometimes takes the opportunity to spit in his face or kick him in the crotch. If it’s a woman and she turns out not to have any money, Hector occasionally rapes her. Louise helps him by gagging the girl and holding her arms or spreading her legs. Like the cook who loved Mother Courage, Hector usually takes his women standing up. Often he threatens to rape the girl and then instead of consummating it, he and Louise kick her and run. If her clothes look good, Louise takes them, leaving the girl to wander Avenue D bruised and naked.

Although Hector and Louise have no permanent home, they have established a bit of middle-class comfort in their lives. Hector and Louise are car owners, or more precisely, truck owners. Several months ago a dry cleaner on Avenue B left the ignition keys in his delivery truck. Hector jumped in, and he’s been driving the truck ever since. Hector has no driver’s license and in fact can barely drive, but he and Louise practiced, careening around the streets, until now they can both manage to maneuver the truck, a Ford, without too much trouble. They hid it in a garbage-covered lot on Sixth Street until Louise produced three gallons of blue house paint appropriated from a renewal project on Avenue C, and the two of them painted their mobile home with rollers and a whisk broom. When they can afford gas, Hector and Louise joy-ride around the Lower East Side at night. When they can’t find an abandoned building, they sleep in the back of the truck. With a can of red spray paint Hector has scrawled “Quiere me” on the right fender.

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.”


“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.

Hector, moving down Avenue C away from his current home on Second Street, turns suddenly and heads west, searching vaguely for Louise. Suffering from extreme morning sickness, Louise has awakened early and headed toward First Avenue looking for a free clinic she has heard about. Hector can’t remember for certain whether Louise has left this morning or the morning before. Up till now Hector has been casual about becoming a father, preferring to let Louise worry about it. Sometimes he claims not to know about the pregnancy, other times he seems pleased with it. When Hector gets to Avenue A he begins to get edgy—anything west of A is alien territory and Hector knows it. Alien to Hector, and the home of the Alien Nomads. But this morning none of the Nomads seem to be out. It’s a little past eight a.m. and the street is empty. Hector, following a private signal like a bloodhound, Louise’s scent in his nostrils, turns suddenly and heads toward Tompkins Square. “She gone to the cleen-ik, the cleen-ik,” is all he can say. He keeps repeating it as he scans the streets. Near A and Seventh Hector finds what he’s looking for. At the south end of the park Louise is curled on a stone bench, a few feet from a group of old men playing cards and rasping to each other in Ukrainian. Louise is moaning softly, a dark wet stain is traced on her lap, and her throat is heavily bruised. The skin on her legs is shredded, hanging loosely, and a pool of vomit, flecked with collard greens, is on the ground in front of her. A trickle of blood drips steadily from her nose down onto the bullet pendant. Sensing his presence, Louise looks up at Hector, stares dully at him and says, “Nomads.”

“They beat you up?”

She nods and says, “I don’t think there’s no more baby, honey.”

Hector sits on the bench, in the crook of her knees, touches the wet stain on her pants and then dabs delicately at her nose with his sleeve. “You get to the cleen-ik?”

“A whole bunch of Nomads. Gangbanged me. Over there on Sixth Street.”

“Sixth Street, huh?”

“There’s some good houses in there. I was looking at the buildings. A whole bunch got me.”

“You wanna move there? Sixth Street?”

“No, I wanna go to the clinic. Go home, get the truck so I could go to the clinic.”

“Okay. I get it.” Hector touches his sleeve to her nose again and walks past the card game. At Avenue B he stops for a moment to talk to a man who wants to buy some heroin. Hector tells him he doesn’t have any and then heads east toward Avenue C, trying to remember where he lives.

Mugging as a Way of Life