photos by Andrew Hodges
There’re a lot of ways to deal with what "The Stuy" doles out. Some drink. Some get high. Some beat the shit out of the spouse within closest reach. But me, I fuck.
This is not to say that I do not engage in the act of making love. Nor is it to imply that I’m one of those dudes who suffers from that meeting-in-the-ladies’-room catch phrase known as emotional unavailability. I just know that when you’re bending her legs back as far as they go, aiming a stiff rod toward the uterus while her head indents the drywall, as your sweat lines the valley that runs from between her shoulder blades to the crack of her ass, that it cannot be considered an act of intimacy.
They like it because what I have to give isn’t as watered down as what they get at home, the sum of what’s left after their men’s hard days at bullshit 9-to-5s. I don’t care if she leaves traces of my semen on her kids’ cheeks. I don’t care if she picks up another ten pounds from eating Doritos and watching Divorce Court. I only ask that she leave before I start caring.
"You got any more of that tea?" Jenna asks.
She’s the only one I’ve ever let stay, because I love her, or at least I used to, until she left me for another dude after she caught me in a three with Sarah and Dahlia, these two bi-broads I’d met at The Five Spot the night of one of my little book things. They were in the mood for dick and I had one, not to mention a dub of weed and a queen-size mattress with fresh sheets.
Jenna didn’t live with me but she had keys, the unavoidable side effect of my dislike for feminine whines and complaints. Nothing gets to me more, not even the inevitable loss of privacy that comes with giving someone carte blanche access to your home. One night she started missing me just as I wasn’t missing Dahlia’s g-spot, with Sarah adding a little tongue to the mix.
I can’t even say that I remember their faces, only a fleshy set of buttocks and thick nipples harder than granite. One Cuban, one Jewish, and both light on their feet when Jenna started swinging the antique coat rack.
My friends in other boroughs don’t believe me when I tell them stories like this one. They dismiss them as something like the fodder passed off as correspondence in the pages of Penthouse Letters. But they don’t live in The Stuy. They don’t understand that anything out here is possible as long as you believe it is, a crisscross grid of blocks and corners waiting to be remade just the way you want them, as long as you got juice, dough, or even better, both.
I’m a writer, if you haven’t figured it out yet. The words are the way I live, except when the freelance checks come late, or sometimes not at all. Then I’m left to the mercy of the streets, and a pile of manuscript I’ll probably never sell. But this isn’t about writing, this is about money, money on a Thursday, and how I ended up with it. The "what" I needed it for comes six graphs away from this one.
Flakes of jasmine in the metal ball you drop into boiling water. Add exactly three tablespoons of honey and let it steep. This is what makes Jenna happy. She comes to see me whenever her man’s away, or when there happens to be a hole in my busy schedule, which is rather often. By the time I get the cup back to the bedroom, she’s already clasping the bra behind her lovely back.
"It’s gonna take a second for this shit to cool," I say as she takes the cup. Her skin is the color of coal and without a single blemish. Narrow shoulders and torso spread into wide hips and delicious quads that could choke a small animal. I still love her, even though she ain’t mine no more.
"I might have to take it with me," she says, tucking the cranberry blouse into jeans of the deepest blue. "I got people in the chair all day."
Of all the women to fall in love with, I had to pick a braider. Twelve-hour days and one Saturday a month off. Her man sees less of her than I do, even though he works at the home where they now live, three blocks over on Marcy and Jefferson.
If you have to know, I stay on Halsey and Bedford, though everyone will say it’s Hancock and Nostrand, where the more famous author happens to live. We’re both the same age and from the same town, and yet we’ve never been in the same place at the same time. But perhaps that’s a good thing. I read his last book and would be really tempted to hurt his feelings if he happened to ask me for a critique.
"He wants to take me to Brazil next month" she says, after sucking the hot liquid down to half. Her tongue has always been made of fire-retardant foam.
She says this only to make me jealous, knowing that I hate when she goes away, not to mention with him. It is my punishment for that night two years ago. I can have her body for the rest of eternity, but someone else will always hold the title to her soul.
"I’m sure he wants to do a lot of things," I say. "But that kinda trip costs the kinda cake he has to save up for a year for."
She zips her bag and wraps the butter-smooth leather I bought her around the blouse, and then smiles. She knows something that I don’t.
"He doesn’t have to save anything. He put his tax return in a nine-month CD at seven percent. He’s gonna cash it in on Monday." And after that bit of data she departs, down the three flights of stairs to the inner door, followed by the outer, and then to the street.
And now she is going with Mr. Right, a four-inch one-minute man who a few of my homegirls have sampled over the years, all less than impressed. She is doing it just to spite me. Jenna does everything just to spite me.
She has no intention of going on that trip in those weeks ahead. If that’s what she wants, she never would’ve told me about it. She knows how determined I am. And she knows that even though I write, I am also a man of action when it comes to handling my business. So she also has to know that there’s no way in hell I’m going to let her roll anywhere below the equator with that clown. I’ll have this sewn up by the end of the day, no problem.
"Twenty-three-hundred, forty-seven, ninety-six," Winston utters, his eyes never leaving the calculator on his computer screen. "You want me to book it now?"
The Bogart Travel Agency is a custom-made 2000-megahertz computer system hacked into the DSL substation box at Fulton and Classon. In other words, Bradley siphons all his business and info from the big travel agency up the street. It’s nothing personal. They just happen to have what he needs for this season’s hustle. Come December he’ll be into something else, somewhere else.
I’ve got about six yards in my stash box over at Carver Bank, which is far from enough. Winston doesn’t have a layaway plan, nor does he accept bad checks. And his price is the best I’ll ever see on such short notice.
Winston’s almost forty years old and he still lives in the house he was born in, not far from the room he’s renting to accommodate his bootleg travel setup. Lewis and Madison used to be a whole lot worse than it is, which just means that you no longer need someone to cover you with a pistol every time you get the mail. He always talks about moving back to Guyana with his grandma, even though she’s on oxygen and hasn’t left the house for years.
"How long can you hold the fare?" I ask.
"End of the day, max," he replies, his eyes now locked on Judge Hatchett’s new hairdo, which means it’s after 11 and I need to get moving.
"So that’s 5 p.m., right?"
"It’s actually 6 in the travel biz."
"Then I’ll be here at 5:55."
"White people got ahold of everything now," Shango Alafia tells me between bites of french toast at the Doctor’s Cave, this little hole on Marcy where I take a meal every once in a while. Shango’s there every day though, mainly to eye Jean, the dreadlocked and beautiful better half of Tim, who prepares all of the meals he loves so much. Shango also happens to be Winston’s brother-in-law and third cousin twice removed. But that’s an entirely different story.
"I put in the best bid on that pair of brownstones down on Greene. Had the shit locked for like three days, and then eight hours before the cutoff some whiteboy coalition comes in and chops my head off."
"Hey, real estate’s a cutthroat business," I say. The frown on his face softens into a smile. He knows something I do not.
"You’re right. That’s actually why I called you down here."
Shango and I never use land lines, cells, or even e-mail. If he needs to see me, the right corner of the front page of my Daily News will be missing. If it’s a little piece, I’ll find him at the gym over on Kingston. If it’s a lot, he’s over at Jean’s.
Shango’s sort of like my agent in this maze of a neighborhood, and has been ever since I moved here five years ago. He helped me out with a certain situation, involving certain people that you don’t need to know about, or at least not in the context of this particular tale.
"So what’s the deal?" I ask him.
"Reuben’s got a problem," he says, dabbing his lips with one of the moist towelettes he carries everywhere he goes.
Reuben Goren owns a nice piece of Fulton Street, mostly storefronts that have been in the family for almost two generations. Needless to say, any problem he has is likely to be an expensive one.
"What kind of problem?"
"Yardies want that corner building he’s got on Fulton and Nostrand, you know the one with the optician and the furniture store up top?"
"I see it every time I go to the train," I say. "So what, they’ve got him under pressure?"
"You could say that. But more importantly, they’ve got us under contract."
"Under contract to do what?"
"A little FYI."
"We need to let him know they’re not fuckin’ around."
"And let me guess, he wants me to come up with a plan."
"Plan and execution."
"For how much?"
"That’s a little low, isn’t it?" I say, knowing that it’s more than I need. Greed is the most deadly of all sins.
"It’s more than what you need for those Brazil tickets," he says, signaling Jean for coffee just so she can show him her behind while she pours.
"Always ahead of my game, huh?"
"I gotta take fifteen percent." My brain calculates options at the speed of light. Then my compass points me north. "I already took my fee out of the number by the way."
"Figured as much," I nod, still pensive. Then it comes to me. "I’m gonna need to see Sam."
Shango smiles again. "I told him you’d be there in thirty minutes."
"You know anybody that needs four .45s with no firing pins?" Sam asks, twenty-three minutes later.
He’s a barber by trade. But he picked up a few other skills during the early nineties, when that nappy ’fro trend kept a lot of his usual cake out-of-pocket. On the table before him are four lines of coke and a plate of short ribs. He snorts and chews in twenty-second intervals, using the nostril that isn’t outlined with crusted blood.
"I might," I say, the most strategic answer to give.
The rear of Sam’s Shears is the local arsenal. You come to him for both offense and defense, for gaining ground and covering your ass. For pistols, rifles, hollow-tips, and even explosives, he’s the undisputed motherfuckin’ man, and the key element to my equation on this particular Thursday.
"But what I need," I continue, "is something that blows. Compact with high impact."
"It’s on a need-to-know basis, my friend," I say with the wave of a finger. "Besides, curious cats end up in the carry-out."
"You make any money from that writing shit?" he asks, just before doing another line, his gray t-shirt now smeared with barbecue sauce and pork grease.
"Sometimes," I say.
"What about the rest of the time?"
"I do this. But look, Sam, I’m kinda on a schedule. Can you get me what I need?"
"Did I hit the nail on the head?" he asks.
"More like a fly with a hammer. But I’ll take what I can get."
Sam and I don’t deal in cash. Favors are our particular currency. So while such equipment would easily go for five figures on the Stuy market, I’ll take it off his hands for no money down, as long as I get him what he wants.
"You know, there’s only one cruiser in each precinct with a shotgun?" he asks, as if making small talk. But I know what’s next. I’m finally one step ahead of somebody.
"Nabors," I begin. "He’s the dayshift patrolman for the Marcy projects. Pump-action Mossberg with a wood-grain slide. Takes a large curry chicken for lunch at 4:55 every day. Corner of Fulton and Nostrand."
"Right across the street from the optician and the furniture store."
"What a coincidence," I grin. "That’s what you want?" He nods. For some reason the coke makes him subdued instead of hyper. He doesn’t want the gun to sell, but for something more inventive. Perhaps one of his clients would enjoy the irony of killing the officer with his own weapon.
"Yup, that’s it."
"I’ll send my man by for the hardware," I say on my way out. "And pencil me in for a shape-up tomorrow at 4." Arsenal or not, Sam gives the best cuts in The Stuy.
"I miss jail," Brownie tells me from the beanbag recliner by the window. He did six months in Otisville for intent-to-distribute before they gave him time served for rolling over on some whiteboys, one of whom, Brownie had discovered, was fucking his girl.
He is the clinical definition of a sociopath, a man who has raped and killed, six feet and 295 pounds of evil that just happens to deal the best weed in the neighborhood. Thus, I allow him into my home from time to time, for as long as the high lasts.
"What do you mean, you miss jail?" I ask, pulling on what that remains of the once-ample spliff. He is called Brownie because of his fudge-colored face. His real name can only be found on the lips of his elderly mother or on the rap sheet longer than my bedspread, or duvet, as Jenna describes it.
"A nigga like me needs some discipline," he says. "I realize that now. In there they told me what to be and where to go. Kept me in a cage and made me follow the rules. Out here I just get into shit. Out here I’m a fuse ready to blow."
Sam used to be married to Brownie’s older sister, but that was before she divorced him and moved back to Panama. Sam had apparently been tapping some high school girl. But Brownie and Sam are still like brothers. The local arsenal even had a chrome Desert Eagle with a filed serial number waiting for him the minute he got out of the clink.
"You sound like you’re itchin’ to get knocked," I say, swigging bottled water to wash away the taste of smoke. "What you gonna do? Go out and fuck up on purpose?"
Instead of answering, he climbs to his feet and goes over to one of the windows to look down at the street.
"That’s the only thing I hate about the inside," he grins. "You never get windows this big."
"You don’t get to leave either. You don’t get to see your kids. You don’t—"
"Fuck my kids!" he explodes, turning to me. "Neither of them bitches won’t even let me see’em no how, unless I got some cash. Besides, it ain’t like I’m even close to bein’ a good daddy. I’m a street-nigga man. That’s the only shit I know."
On any other day there might be a speech for me to offer, something about him not needing to go back to jail to find the happiness he seeks. It would be this existential rant about how what he does isn’t wrong, that he only does what God wants him to do. I would say it all with conviction just so he’d have that thirty-dollar bag for me every other Thursday. But I’m trying to cut down. And besides, I need him to play a part in my plan.
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Shoot," he says.
"If you were gonna get yourself knocked, how would you do it?"
He turns to me with a pensive look, like a child trying to solve a Sajak puzzle.
"I don’t know," he says. "I been thinkin’ about it though. Why? You got an idea or sumpin’?"
I connect four just as he ends the question.
"I might," I say.
"Where you goin’ with all that food?" Miel Rodriguez asks me, her bedroom eyes narrowed to slits outside of the Splash and Suds on the corner of Nostrand and Halsey. I am carrying two large bags of food from Yummy’s carry-out, a half-gallon of shrimp fried rice, three small wanton soups, four egg rolls, and a six-pack of grape soda.
Miel is beautiful though, with those dark brown eyes and golden flesh, long Indian hair shiny with oil sheen. The man of the minute is a lucky one, if he can hold on to what he’s got.
"I got some people in town," I tell her.
"From where?" she asks.
"Atlanta," I say. "I went to school there."
"Oh," she replies, interested in nothing beyond the five boroughs. Twenty-three years old and she suffers from the worst ailment of them all, Hoodvision, that inability to see past the blocks where she was born.
Behind the front seats are two different shopping bags, each topped off with a folded knit sweater. Beneath one is her current man’s stash of product, the other, his take for the week, to be dropped off at an undisclosed location at the end of the day. Heroin has been in short supply since the DEA raid on Jefferson a few days ago. Her boy was suspiciously the only one to make it out before the siege.
It’s not that I don’t know his name. I just choose not to use it. He’s an X-factor in the day’s proceedings, perhaps a catalyst, perhaps a not-so-innocent bystander. We’ll know soon enough.
"How come you never try and talk to me?" she asks, offering a sexy smile, her slight overbite gleaming in the sunrays from above.
"I’m talking to you right now."
"That’s not what I mean," she says.
"What about your man?" I ask.
"His days are numbered," she says.
"What’s he doing in the laundromat anyway?"
"Droppin’ off his clothes. We gotta come back and pick ’em up at 5."
I glance at the bags in the rear again and know that Miel is carrying. There’s no other way this guy would leave her alone in the ride for this long. I see him starting out of the building and know it’s my cue.
"Well, lemme get this food, home girl. I’ll see you around." I start away, knowing she’ll do anything to have the last word.
"You didn’t answer my question," she says, just as her boy hits the sidewalk."
"I know," I yell back, picking up the pace. It’s almost 3:00. I have to move quickly.
The Le Starving Artist Café has barely been built, but there are already rats living in the basement. Not the disease-carrying rodents that infest the city, but four motherfuckers who I have a score to settle with. They are two sets of brothers, Trevor and Neville of Gates Avenue by way of St. Kitts, and Steve and Stacy of Harlem by way of grandparents that moved there from the Carolinas in the 1940s.
Weeks ago they took a stab at looting my crib while I was away at a speaking gig. They jimmied the front doors and came right up the stairs to the cheap wood my landlord assumed would keep out thieves. He was wrong. They made off with some DVDs and my 100-disc changer, ignoring the original Basquiat and twin lamps from Tiffany’s.
Tesa Forsythe saw them from across the street and told me about it. Now the time has come to make things right.
They live in the basement beneath this café. Blankets and space heaters have kept them alive since the autumn chill began. Various hustles keep them fed and functioning. But what’s money worth when there’s no product close by? And the prices in Crown Heights are already through the roof.
"Good lookin’ out," Stacy yells, draped in the same Pittsburgh jersey he’s been wearing since Monday. They’re all short on costumes since most of the dough vanishes into the good veins they have left.
Food won’t make their jonesing any easier. But it’ll give them more energy, which they’ll be needing shortly. They immediately tear into what I’ve offered.
"Anything I can do for my peoples," I say. The "peoples" part is not fully untrue since we all used to play ball together in the summer, before they started sniffing and shooting, before the Internet crash that killed their entrepreneurial dreams. But that’s another story. Seems like everybody in The Stuy has a story.
"Besides, I know y’all sufferin’ right now."
"What you talkin’ about!" Trevor demands, pulling a sleeve down over the arm he punctures most often.
"It ain’t like he don’t know," Neville argues between mouthfuls of shrimp fried rice. "The man looks like he got somethin’ to say."
"Only if you want to hear me," I reply, watching them tear into the food.
"We want to hear you," Steve assures me as he slurps his soup. The warm liquid returns the yellow to his fair skin.
"You need powder and I need money," I say. "Somebody’s got both less than a block from here."
"Who?" Trevor demands.
"I can’t say. But I can say what he drives. ’03 Escalade. Twenty-two-inch rims. Two shopping bags in the backseat. He’s picking up his laundry at 5. Just him and his girl."
"How do you know?" Neville asks.
"I know the girl," I say. "And she says this dude’s days are numbered, if you know what I mean."
They all look at each other, some trembling with the shakes, others shivering from the chills. Like most addicts, they don’t think things through. They just react, moths drawn to the proverbial flame.
"But we ain’t got no heat," Stacy laments. "I mean, we can’t just run up on the car with nothin’. You know he’s gonna be strapped."
"Yeah, and ain’t no way to get four gats in a hour and a half."
I clear my throat. "I might be able to help you there."
It is a quarter to 5 when I get the urge for something to drink. It happens every once in a while during Texas Justice, and today is no different. But for some reason I’m also in the mood for yoga. So I grab the carrying case for my mat on the way out the door, but forget the mat itself.
Both sides of Nostrand are packed with beings headed in every rush-houred direction. From their trains to their homes, from those homes to stores for the ingredients to make meals in time for the best that TV has to offer. Kids of all ages journey from one block to the next to bond with friends and more-than-friends alike.
I see patrolman Nabors enter the Golden Krust carry-out at the corner. I see Miel Rodriguez and her man pull up to the laundromat between Halsey and Macon. I see a gypsy cab slow to a halt in front of Reuben Goren’s precious storefront. Then it all unfolds.
Brownie emerges from the cab’s rear with a half-liter nitro glycerin charge. He kicks a hole in one of the storefront windows and tosses it in. The boom all but deafens everyone in a four-block radius and coats the entire street in shattered glass. The blast knocks Brownie to the ground, but he gets up quickly and begins to run down Fulton Street and into patrolman Nabors’s field of vision, knocking over a grandma and a pack of teenage moms with an endless supply of strollered kids.
Officer Nabors IDs the perpetrator and calls for backup, dropping his large container of curry chicken to the ground as he begins to chase the man on foot. Fulton Street, or at least the people on it who are not still climbing up from the explosion, cheer both men on as the chase moves westward.
I then turn around to see four armed men surrounding the Escalade that’s just pulled up in front of the laundromat, their .45 pistols trained on the driver and passenger. Moments later they are chased off by the loaded weapons of those inside of the vehicle.
The thieves are shocked to find that the pistols they’d gotten on loan from a man called Sam were without firing pins. They should’ve known better though, especially since the quartet stiffed the very same man for a pair of Glocks the previous summer, having sprayed him with mace before making a run for it with the merchandise. Addicts don’t think. They just react.
Backup units arrive to aid Nabors, and some splinter off to chase the armed men fleeing from the laundromat. But none of the blue boys notice that the driver’s-side window on Nabors’s squad car is down. Nor do they see the young writer reach through the opening to commandeer the Mossberg shotgun in the holster next to the shifter. The writer slides the weapon into a nylon sleeve normally used for his yoga mat and slings it over his shoulder before disappearing into the local Bravo supermarket for a bottle of Snapple Peach Iced Tea. People see him, but they are not the kind to snitch to the authorities.
Brownie is tackled, clubbed, stomped, kicked, and then arrested by several white officers who don’t have the brains to make it in any other profession. Trevor and Steve take one for the team as they too are apprehended by officers with few other career options.
Twenty minutes later the fire department is taming the blaze. Three men are on their way to Brooklyn central booking and the young writer is on his way back down Nostrand to his residence, having never earned as much as a glance from the authorities during the entire mêlée.
Sam has his Mossberg by 5:35 p.m. Shango has my money fifteen minutes later. Reuben Goren has a concussion and a cake of shit in his pants. And by five to the hour, Winston will be handing me my tickets.
I am smiling on the inside as I turn onto Madison, anticipating the surprise I’ll find on Jenna’s dark and lovely face. It’s the last house on the left at the end of the block. She lives with a thirty-eight-year-old man who still rents. Tsk tsk.
But then I notice the taxicab in front of the rented residence they share, the place she moved into to remind me of my past transgressions. Perhaps he’s heading into the city to buy some testicles, or maybe a rug for that hairline that keeps going back. Then I see that he’s carrying bags. And she’s right behind him, holding what appears to be a pair of plane tickets.
Another rock rolled up that long steep hill, another show of cunning and strength, before I stumble and fall, bouncing all the way back to the beginning. Jenna and I are the only loop I can’t escape, the only checkmate that always evades me. She is like the sound Coltrane chased in his dreams, never to be had, never to be held, never to be won, in a season of games that lasts forever.
Kenji Jasper was born and raised in the nation’s capital and now lives in Brooklyn. He is the author of three novels, Dark, Dakota Ground, and the forthcoming Seeking Salamanca Mitchell.
The story is from Brooklyn Noir, edited by Tim McLoughlin (Akashic Books, 2004), a collection also featuring work by Nicole Blackman, Maggie Estep, Nelson George, Pete Hamill, Norman Kelley, Arthur Nersesian, Neal Pollack, and many more hardboiled writers.