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At a time when money-hungry slumlords were burning down apartment buildings with the tenants still inside to collect insurance, my family was moving into a spacious three-bedroom apartment at 60 East 196th Street, apartment 5F, at the corner of Creston Avenue. None of us had any idea that apartment 5F would eventually become a kind of headquarters. If the graffiti that plastered my bedroom walls at the time could talk, it might just say we were destined for a life of lunacy the likes of which most don't live to tell about.
The year was 1978. There were few Puerto Rican families in the neighborhood, and none in our building. At the time, 60 East was predominantly Italian and Irish. My family had the privilege of being the first Hispanic tenants. Although racial tensions existed at the time, we managed to be welcomed into the neighborhood, despite the "spic" comments. Growing up in the Bronx, my mother had seen her brothers get chased down the block and beaten because they were Puerto Rican. To protect us, she "Italianized" us. She did a good job. My mother very rarely spoke Spanish at home. If she did, it was because she was hiding something from us or she was very upset about something and most likely cursing up a Spanish storm. If you ask her today, she'll tell you she can't even speak "real" Spanish. She speaks more of a Spanglish -- a dialect that mixes Spanish slang with English slang and melts them together with a New Yawk accent.
Since we weren't taught how to speak Spanish, we didn't have the ju accent you heard from the other Spanish kids who would eventually move into the neighborhood. The best example of the ju accent was in the I Love Lucy show, when Desi Arnaz would come home and say, "Lucy, ju got sung splaining tu do."
We were second-generation New Yorkers and we dressed, walked, and talked like any other Italian or Irish kids walking the streets of New York with Catholic school uniforms and attitude to match. It would be years before the movie Donnie Brasco would make the catch phrase fuggedaboutit popular, but I'm telling you if you messed with my family...fuggedaboutit. It's a lucky thing for me I wasn't really born Italian, because from the time I turned fifteen to the time I turned twenty, my biggest dream was to be in the Mafia.
When we moved into apartment 5F, my mother, Patricia, was twenty-four years old. She was a beautiful single mother of three children: my brother, William, was eight; my sister, Tanya, was four; and I was six. We were a young family on welfare, but my mother very rarely allowed us to see what we didn't have. My mother always wanted to provide a better life for us. It was her reason for living, and she always said, "If I can raise you guys in a nice place and make sure you get a good Catholic school education, then I have no doubt you'll all make it to college." The word college was equated with success for my mother, and although my father's side of the family wasn't educated, my mother came from a family of doctors and lawyers in Puerto Rico. It was only natural that she have those same hopes for her children.
Before apartment 5F we had lived with my abuela Francesca and my uncle Georgie for a while. Moving to Creston Avenue marked a new beginning for my family, but especially for my mother, who was escaping from an abusive relationship with a man named Mike, whom we knew as our stepfather at the time. Mike drove for Pepsi and eventually went on to become the first Puerto Rican to have his own million-dollar Pepsi route.
Years later my mother would say she regretted leaving Mike because, in her words, "He was wonderful to you kids." Financially he could have given us a very different life, but it wouldn't have been worth seeing my mother be tortured, so I'm grateful she found the strength to leave an abusive relationship.
The neighborhood was rough, but the apartment felt more privileged than our surroundings. All of the rooms were huge and we always had more space than we really needed, even if my brother and I had to share a bedroom. My mother's bedroom door had glass on it, giving it an elegant feel, and the living room was big enough for Tanya and me to dance around in it while imitating the moves on Disco Fever. There was no elevator, so we had to carry our bikes down five flights of stairs when we wanted to ride, but if nothing else we stayed in shape the entire time we lived there.
My mother might have been single and raising us on welfare, but she knew how to make things look good, and the apartment was a perfect example of just how far my mother could stretch a few dollars. She took pride in her home. I wish I could've said the same thing for her kids.
After having lived there for a while, Willie and I discovered that by opening the window in the hallway between the fourth and fifth floor landings we could throw the garbage out, instead of carrying it down five flights of stairs and around the corner to the alley. The bags never landed in garbage cans, though. They usually exploded on the sidewalk, splattering anything nearby. No one actually saw us do it, but when the superintendent accused us of it, our poor mother always defended us and couldn't believe the man's audacity in accusing her Catholic schoolboys of such a thing.
Sorry, Mom, it was true. Your sons did it. We were lazy.
When we first moved in, the building was completely surrounded by lush gardens. In the late '70s, it was rare to see a building in the Bronx with flowers all around it and a large fountain in the center of the courtyard, complete with water running out of the mouth of a lion. It stayed beautiful for a few years, but by the early '80s the building was made up of more minorities than Irish and Italians and the gardens had been stomped into submission. The neighborhood kids would run relay races right through them, over one staircase and down the other side and right back through the other gardens.
The Puerto Ricans, including me, who now occupied the building seemed to care more about beautifying the building with their own brand of artwork -- graffiti art. I remember my mother finding out my graffiti tag was stud, which was written all over the building. She gave me the beating of my life and told me it was because she didn't want me calling myself a stud. I was only about nine years old, ten tops. I wasn't getting it for defacing the building but because I was calling myself a man-whore.
Eventually, all the gardens turned to concrete and instead we had a milk crate hung off the fire escape, which served as our private basketball court for hours on end. This was our hood, and I was comfortable even if we were destroying its natural beauty.
One day I heard what sounded like a big explosion. Turns out someone had thrown a dresser off the roof. The crash woke the whole building, and I laughed once I realized the building wasn't collapsing. The culprit was a kid named Ray. His family was the second Puerto Rican family to move in. Eventually we became best friends. Growing up, Ray and I spent most of our time playing on the rooftops and generally getting ourselves in trouble.
Ray and I had a lot of fun, and even today we haven't settled the egg argument. One winter night a few days after it had snowed, Ray and I stole eggs out of our refrigerators and peered over the edge of the roof in search of victims to pelt. I tapped Ray on the shoulder and pointed down Creston Avenue at a young man walking up the block carrying a Christmas tree. Ray gave me the nod. As the man walked below us, we each dropped our eggs at the same time.
We ducked beneath the ledge of the roof and began to quietly laugh as hard as we could. Something was different about this time, though. Usually when we pelted someone with eggs they stood on the street below, wildly waving their fists and cursing. This man wasn't yelling anything.
"Yo, Ray, what's going on? Poke your head out there and see what's up," I said.
Ray looked over ever so slowly and then dropped back down and said, "Oh shit, I think we killed him, man."
"What do you mean we killed him?" I asked.
"He's dead, man. He's lying on the ground. The tree is lying right next to him, and he isn't moving," said Ray.
I was scared and wondered how things would be in juvenile hall for a ten-year-old. I was never a good fighter. My brother had only taught me how to take a punch after several years of beatings. I collected so many black eyes from Willie that my mother must have thought I was the clumsiest little bastard she had ever met. Although my brother tortured me for many years in that apartment, I never saw reason to rat him out. I figured that eventually I would get the best of him in one of our fights. One day I finally did.
I don't remember what the hell we were fighting about, but I remember running through the long hallway trying to get away from him, and he was coming at me with everything he had. I reached my mother's room and Willie was trying to throw a punch just as I slammed the door. His hand went right through the glass, and he began to bleed profusely. Tanya witnessed the whole thing and she was creaming bloody murder.
My heart just about beat right the fuck out of my T-shirt. I didn't want my brother to bleed to death, but I also didn't want to be on the receiving end of another vicious Ill Bill beating.
As my brother went into the bathroom and wrapped his arm in a towel to stop the bleeding, I went close to cop a plea. "Bill, can we call a fucking truce, man? I didn't mean for this to happen. Are you okay, bro?"
"If you don't get the fuck away from me I am going to pound your face into the fucking windowsill and throw you off the fire escape to the street below."
"Come on, man. We're both going down for this shit if we don't make something up. Let's just tell Mom we were playing tag and you ran into the door, man. Puhlease, bro, I'm begging you."
My brother, being my brother, had to get the final word in. "Just know this, you little faggot. One day when you least expect it, I'm going to fuck your shit up."
"Yeah, Bill, so what else is new?"
By the time Mom got home, we all had the story rehearsed and ready for prime time. Even Tanya was coached to perfection. As always it worked like a champ, and Mom was none the wiser that her little Bill was the bastard terrorizer of the house.
We always covered for one another. I loved my brother to death and hated his ass at the same time. But the last thing I wanted to witness was him getting his ass tore up by my mother and her chancleta. As we got older we came to realize that if we ran around the dining room table long enough, Moms would get tired of chasing us and eventually just throw her slipper at us.
At the end of the day we were brothers, so I silently endured his torture for years, much as my poor little sister, Tanya, endured mine.
"We have to try to cover these footprints. If the cops come up to the roof to find out who killed this man, they're going to trace the footsteps in the snow back to us and we're going to jail," I said.
Ray agreed, and we carefully tried to kick the snow around and smooth it over. When we got to the rooftop door, we glanced back to make sure there were no more footprints. When we felt safe about covering our tracks, we ran down to Ray's place -- apartment 5H.
After spending half an hour talking about what the likelihood was of the cops figuring out who killed a man with an egg, we started to argue about whose egg had hit him.
"It was your egg, man," I said. "My egg was off by a mile."
"Fuck you, man! It wasn't my egg. I dropped my egg closer to the building and you threw your egg right at the guy," Ray reasoned.
Either way, we knew we would both go down for murder-by-egg, so we decided to go outside and investigate and see if the cops had any leads on the killers.
We walked very cautiously out of the building and as we turned the corner onto Creston Avenue, we were both a little amazed to see there were no cops, no crime scene tape, no dead person, and no Christmas tree. Ray and I just looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and decided to go back up to the roof and wait for another victim.
Eventually we graduated to throwing D batteries. We'd call four or five different cab companies and ask them to send a cab to 60 East 196th Street. Once the cabs lined up on the street below to pick up their fares, we launched as many batteries as possible. I can still hear the thuds on the hoods, trunks, and roofs, along with startled shouts and profanity. I wouldn't be surprised if we gave one of the cabdrivers a stroke, since it must have seemed as if they were under guerrilla attack. The cabdrivers would sit there for hours waiting for the cops to come investigate. They never caught us. We'd sit in the house laughing hysterically about all the commotion we had caused. For better or worse, Ray and I remained best friends for years after that.
Contrary to what my mother believed, I was a bad little motherfucker, always trying to get away with something, no matter how small. I guess I enjoyed the adrenaline rush I got from getting away with things. Being mischievous was a rite of passage in my neighborhood, and each successful criminal act I committed made me realize that I could do worse and get away with more. There were no rules when it came to living in the hood, with the exception of one: Don't get caught.
In New York City, it's a tradition on hot days to turn streets into swimming pools. We couldn't actually swim in the water rushing out of an illegally opened fire hydrant, but it still provided a wonderful way to cool off on those ninety-degree days. The FDNY would show up and close the hydrants, and we'd reopen them seconds after the truck pulled off. We had a lot of fun playing in the water, but those hot summer days were dangerous, and one day things got out of hand and led up to a mini neighborhood war.
When I was about eleven years old, Willie, Ray, and I had just finished playing Wiffle ball and were walking to the bodega to buy some Popsicles. Depending on how hot it was, cooling off in the fire hydrants came second to Wiffle ball, which was our favorite pastime. We would paint a strike zone on a garage door and pitch the plastic baseball what felt like 100 mph. If you were small like me and you got nailed by a pitch from one of the older guys, you'd be left with a huge red welt, which would eventually turn blue and burgundy.
If we weren't collecting the baseball cards of our favorite players, we were imitating them in the streets. Our casualties were the plastic balls, which would often be run over by passing cars, or hit into the sewer systems or behind barbed-wire fences, where we had no chance of retrieving them. In order to hit the ball farther, some of the guys wrapped the plastic bat in black electrical tape. Later on, the bat would come in handy as a weapon when fights broke out in the neighborhood.
On this day, as we got closer to the bodega, we noticed a Dominican kid named F-CE and his cousin using a gutted Goya bean can to aim the water from a hydrant wherever they wanted it to go. They were shooting water at anyone who tried to pass on the sidewalk, soaking the shit out of them. Willie told F-CE that if he wet us he was going to have a problem. F-CE put the can down and motioned for us to pass. The second we got to the front of the store, F-CE picked up the hollowed-out can and used it to shoot water at us.
Willie ran across the street to F-CE, who was twice his size.
"Why the fuck did you wet me, man?" my brother asked.
"I know you are not talking to me, little man. You should take your ass back across the street before I stomp the shit out of you," said F-CE.
My brother took a swing at F-CE and they started to throw each other around like rag dolls, bouncing from parked car to parked car. F-CE was getting the best of Willie, and he cut my brother's face using that bean can as a weapon. I tried to jump in, only to meet with a vicious beating from F-CE's cousin. While my brother and I exchanged blows with F-CE and his cousin, Ray was nowhere to be found. Once the older people in the neighborhood broke up the fight, my brother and I walked back to our building, defeated but with our pride in place. Unfortunately, my brother hadn't thought to use his Wiffle ball bat when he was fighting F-CE.
When we reached the stoop, Ray ran up to us.
"Yo, what happened to you guys? I was looking for you," he said. During the fight I hadn't realized that Ray was gone, but we could have used the additional manpower. Ray told us he was looking for the Wiffle ball, but later we heard from people who were there that Ray actually threw the ball down the block when the fight started and then chased after it. I have to admit, it was a clever plan. Why help your friends in a fight when you can chase a Wiffle ball? This was the first time Ray left us stuck, and it wouldn't be the last.
We retaliated against F-CE by sending our cousins Herman and Johnny over -- along with the rest of Bailey Avenue, where they lived -- to even the score with baseball bats and brass knuckles. The mothers of these kids didn't take kindly to their sons being beaten to the point of Elephant Man-ugly, so eight Puerto Rican and Dominican women came to Creston Avenue and waited for my mom in front of our building and jumped her.
I didn't see the fight happen, but my mom was barely bruised when I saw her. Word on the street was that she'd held her own against all of them. Soon after, she'd squared off with some thugs from Morris Avenue as they tried to stab my cousin Johnny one afternoon. She took a bat to one of their heads and saved Johnny's life. She was tough.
And Ray would be paid back for abandoning us on at least two separate occasions. The first time was when my cousins Lulu and Fufi were babysitting Ray. They lived on 196th and Grand Concourse, just up the block from Creston Avenue. Lulu put a spoon in a pot of boiling water and let it heat up for a while. She then asked Ray to grab it for her. Ray wasn't the sharpest kid on the block, and my cousins used to laugh every time they told the story of Ray burning his hand on the obviously hot spoon. It wasn't exactly payback for leaving my brother and me out there to get our asses kicked by bigger guys, but it was a start. It was wrong, but my cousin only did it so she could laugh.
Years later, when I was about fifteen and living on my own in apartment 5F, I almost shot Ray by accident. My cousin Richie had lent me his 9 mm pistol, and I was lying down on the sofa with the gun on my chest. When Ray walked in, I removed the clip from the gun and pointed it at Ray as I talked shit. I told Ray I should blast him and that he was a punk. Of course I was only joking, and he knew it. Still, I was pointing the gun at him. I loved him like a brother and would never have intentionally shot him. As I waved the gun and prepared to pull the trigger, something told me to move the gun a little to the left. Something didn't feel right about pulling the trigger with Ray staring right down the barrel.
Ray was screaming. My cousin Richie ran out of the bedroom asking what the fuck was going on. I froze and couldn't hear jack shit because my ears were ringing. When things settled down, my cousin grabbed the gun off my chest and began to call me all sorts of names. I had the hot shell casing lying right on my chest, and I was still somewhat confused by what had just happened.
"What the fuck, Rich?" I shouted. "I took the clip out of the gun!"
Richie told me that there was still a bullet in the chamber. That day I learned a few things about guns. Thank God I didn't have to learn them at the expense of my friend's life. The wall in apartment 5F had just taken its first bullet.
As time went by, things got worse in the neighborhood. My mother had a reputation as a tough woman, but even she had a breaking point. I don't believe she could have possibly done a better job raising us in that environment, but she eventually left for a better life in Virginia. My brother and I decided to stay behind, in our home, in our neighborhood.
At the time, Willie was seventeen, I was fifteen, and Tanya was thirteen. My mother was hurt when my brother and I refused to leave, but she had had enough of the Bronx and she was determined to save at least one of us, that one of us being my sister.
The turning point came when from the window of our apartment my mother witnessed some gunrunners shooting at me.
It was early one summer evening and I looked up from the stoop of my building to see Tanya talking to two grown Dominican men in a nice sports car.
When I reached the car in the middle of the street I said, "Tanya, what you doing talking to these guys?"
Tanya, as feisty as ever, shot back, "Mind your business and leave me alone."
The man standing in front of the passenger-side door said, "Yo, my man, you heard her right, get the fuck out of here."
I looked to the corner, where all the fellas were hanging out, and when I saw we had a full crew, I turned back to the guy and smacked the shit out of him with everything I had.
The guy fell backward into the car, the car door shut, and they took off, headed toward the Grand Concourse.
I told Tanya to get the fuck upstairs while she cursed me out for messing up her game.
About ten minutes later, I was standing in the exact same spot when I heard someone yell, "Yo, Ive, get the fuck down! Get the fuck down now!"
Normally I would have looked to see what the commotion was about first, but something in the yelling made me duck down immediately behind the parked car I was standing beside. As soon as I did, I heard shot after shot.
Someone was mad enough to try to end my life. I looked up just in time to see that same sports car peeling off back toward the Grand Concourse.
My mother heard the shots and looked out the window in time to see the attempted assassination of her son in broad daylight.
The car disappeared and I talked to my guys for a few minutes about what had just happened. All of a sudden, I heard what seemed like the entire neighborhood yelling, "Get down! They're coming back!" With that, another barrage of bullets lit up the streets.
This time when I got up and dusted myself off, P-Funk said, "We're gonna get these motherfuckers. Enough is enough already."
P-Funk was one of my closest friends at the time and had been a neighborhood drug dealer from the age of thirteen. We ran up to P-Funk's second-floor apartment and his mother handed us a sawed-off shotgun.
As we were running down the stairs of the building P-Funk said, "You need to take care of this," and handed me the shotgun. My mother had to watch helplessly out the window as her son went running off with a shotgun, headed for trouble or death.
I remember thinking that I didn't know if I could do it. And I didn't even know how to use a shotgun. How was I going to find the balls to pull this off?
I had adrenaline working for me, but I was shaking uncontrollably while running up Creston toward 198th Street, where we figured they were headed if they were going to make another pass. It must have been a sight to see a little dude like me running down the middle of Creston Avenue holding a sawed-off shotgun like I was out hunting prey. When we got to 197th Street, Frankie, the neighborhood car thief, grabbed the shotgun right out of my hand and said, "Give me that. You ain't gonna do shit with this, little man."
Phew. I was off the fucking hook, and I ran feeling so much better that Frankie had the shottie.
When we got to the corner of Creston and 198th, we ran smack right into the car. I couldn't believe it.
Frankie pumped the shotgun to load a round and as soon as the car got to the middle of the intersection he pulled the trigger -- BOOM!
It looked like he had hit the driver's-side door, but when he pumped the shotgun again and again he said, "Oh, fuck...no more bullets!"
The passenger and driver of the sports car jumped out and stood in the middle of the street, T.J. Hooker-style, and just started blasting from two or three handguns. It sounded like the Fourth of July: pop, pop, pop, and pop....I was ducking and diving and running, and when I hit 197th Street I dove into some thick shrubbery behind a house and lay there until I heard the cops showing up and all their doors slamming.
When it was clear the cops were canvassing the neighborhood, I cleaned myself off once again and calmly walked back toward 196th Street. Out of the corner of my eye I saw arms flailing, and when I looked closer I saw P-Funk in the back of a police car.
I stood there frozen. P was the one who had come to my defense and now he was sitting in the back of a blue-and-white, about to be locked up.
As if by divine fate, a call came on the cops' radios: "We have a Puerto Rican male running down the middle of the street carrying a shotgun."
With that, all the cops took off on foot, running up toward 196th Street. I took a few looks around the neighborhood, inched my way over to the police car, opened the door, and let P-Funk out. Once he was free we both took off running in the opposite direction from the cops, toward the Grand Concourse.
We showed up in the neighborhood about twenty-five minutes later, much to everyone's surprise. My mother was elated; she thought we had been arrested. But it was the final straw. She no longer had the heart to see her children like this.
When she decided to move to Virginia Beach, my brother and I never even entertained the idea of leaving with her. Why would we? The streets around Kingsbridge Road were all we knew. This was our life. My girl was there, my crew was there, and my heart was there.
"Sorry, Mom, I hope you enjoy living in the boonies, but I'm staying here with Bill," was all I could say as the door on the back of the U-Haul truck came crashing down. This marked the beginning of the toughest lessons I would have to learn on the streets. And it was the end of an era for my neighborhood.
The day my mother left the Bronx, the borough lost one of its strongest and toughest. Things would only go from bad to worse once Mom was gone.
I lived with my brother and my cousin Richie in apartment 5F for a little while and things were good. But not long after my mother left, my brother decided to move down to Heath Avenue to live full-time with his girlfriend, Tina, and their newborn daughter, Meghan. At the time I felt as though my brother was abandoning me, but once I had a daughter of my own I understood. Since we grew up without a father, it was important to my brother and me that we be good fathers.
Tina was a cute girl with the reputation of being a big-time gold digger. I don't believe there was a day that passed when someone didn't warn my brother about falling in love with her. But after the baby was born, my brother would go to extremes to keep his family together. He walked the same fine line I walked for many years, between having a job and robbing anything not nailed down at night to give Tina the extras.
It was just my cousin and me left in apartment 5F. But that didn't last. The end came when my biological father knocked on our door and asked if he could stay for a few days. I barely knew him, but I wasn't the type of person who carried grudges, so I let him crash. I was fifteen and had no steady job, so Richie now had two freeloaders to take care of. I came home one day and saw Dad wearing my clothes -- even the new sneakers I'd bought after robbing an audio place. It was a good thing he'd showered and found something to wear. That alcoholic stench always brought back bad memories for me, so I was happy anytime he washed it off.
One night my dad let my friend Ray and me drive a hooptie he had borrowed from a friend while he sat in the back and got drunk off a bottle of some shit and a few tall cans of Budweiser. When we got back to the neighborhood, I couldn't park the fucking boat to save my life.
Back and forth, forth and back, tap, tap, bump, bump...I was hitting the two parked cars, trying to make it fit into the space. Finally my father, whom my older brother Willie had been named after, told me to get the fuck out of the driver's seat and, as drunk as his ass was, perfectly parallel-parked the boat like it was nothing.
I didn't really think twice about the fact that I couldn't park a car. Who gave a fuck? I had gotten to drive that night and I was feeling good.
"Yo, Pops, thanks for letting me and Ray take your car for a spin," I said as we walked up the stairs to the apartment.
"You drive like a little bitch. You can't be my son," Willie slurred.
Ray laughed hysterically and repeated my father's words.
I could feel emotions bubbling deep inside me. The same emotions I felt every now and then just before I blanked out and did something stupid.
"Yo, Ray, chill the fuck out, kid. That shit ain't funny," I said as we walked up to my apartment door.
My father laughed and slapped Ray on the back.
"Ray, you might be my son because you drive better than that little bitch right there."
When we walked into the dining room I turned to him and said, "You need to shut the fuck up and stop dissing me in front of my boy."
"What the fuck you gonna do about it, little bitch?" shouted my drunken father.
"I'm gonna kill you, motherfucker," I said, and picked up one of the dining-room chairs Richie had bought and threw it across the room, hitting Willie with it.
He started to charge toward me and I picked up the glass dining-room table and threw it on top of him. When he tried to get up, I took another chair and broke it over the table and started to scream, "You're not my father, you fucking faggot! You were never there for me or Bill or Tanya. I'm not the bitch, you're the little fucking bitch!"
Hearing all the glass breaking, Richie came running out of his bedroom and tried to calm me down. Ray was standing half in the living room and half in the dining room, probably feeling bad about how things had escalated and how he had laughed when my dad insulted me. Richie just wanted to know what the fuck was going on and why I had broken his table.
It was a table he bought with his own money and I had had no regard for that, as I had no regard for anything. I was a selfish motherfucker and my biological father had just pushed me to the brink of a nervous breakdown.
"You are not spending another night in my house, motherfucker," I screamed. "Get the little bit of shit you brought in here, get in your fucking boat car, and get the fuck out of here before I kill you."
Willie tried to apologize, gave me the same sad look he probably gave my mother a million times after beating her, and walked out of the apartment and my life forever.
He was never really there anyway, but hearing him speak to me the way he did broke my heart even more than not having him around all those years. He was supposed to be my father and all he thought of me was that I was a little bitch.
Richie calmly swept up the glass, with Ray helping, as I just stood there in a state of nothingness.
"Yo, Ive, I can't do this shit no more, man. I'm gonna be moving out in a few weeks. I'm sorry," said my cousin. Fuck, I couldn't blame him. He took care of me long enough and it was about time I found out what being on my own and being a man was all about. It was what I'd asked for when Mom left. Now it was going to be time to prove to myself I had what it took to survive. I was the king of my own castle, with no fucking idea how I was going to pay the rent. That's when things got interesting.
Shortly after everyone left, my good friend P-Funk asked if I was interested in turning the apartment into a stash house. I immediately knew what he was talking about. At first I wasn't sure, but when he said the Jamaican drug dealers would cover all the bills, put food in the refrigerator, and pay me eight hundred dollars a month, I decided to go all in. I knew most of the Jamaicans who were running an extensive marijuana network from the neighborhood. They went by names like Barney, Chippy, Redds, Money Merv, Trees, and Bowlen. I had no problem going into business with them. At the time it seemed like a no-brainer. I was right. No brains were involved when I decided to go into business with these guys.
Everything was beautiful in the beginning. The Jamaicans were taking care of things just as they said they would. The man running the stash house in apartment 5F was Chippy. Chippy and I hit it off, and I found him to be a very laid-back individual who just wanted to smoke a lot of weed and make a lot of money. While Chippy was in charge, life was good for me. Unfortunately, Chippy didn't last long. One night, while trying to rob the rapper Slick Rick, Chippy was shot with a machine gun and died on the spot. Shortly after that came the end of life as I knew it.
After Chippy's murder, new faces started coming around the drug house.
Barney took over running the drug spot, and he was always showing up with Money Merv. Merv made me very nervous. He was the known enforcer of the crew, the kind who was comfortable with murder as a job description on his résumé. Soon, Barney became more belligerent and disrespectful toward me.
His attitude was, What the fuck is this little punk going to do to me and my crew of killers? He was right. I couldn't go to war with the Jamaicans by myself if I wanted to. I had to figure out what I was going to do about making things right. Although I was nervous at times, I was never really scared of these guys. The worst-case scenario was that the Jamaicans killed me, and that wasn't as scary as not having a future.
But the truth of the matter was that I didn't think I had a future at all. By then, I had dropped out of school; I had no education, no hope for a career, no money, no prospects. Losing my life seemed like a good outcome at times.
Shit, if I was dead, I'd be memorialized on the wall and my boys would pour out a little liquor for me when they were getting drunk and high. They'd say, "That little nigga Ive was cool as shit, man. I miss that little motherfucker."
My moms would miss me and my father would regret not being a father to me. My girlfriends would never forget me and my cousin and brother would feel bad that they left me behind in the neighborhood. It was a win-win situation for me, so if the Jamaicans were going to kill me, there were some days when I was okay with that.
When I talked to P-Funk about how bad the situation was getting, he asked if I wanted to sell weed instead of depending on the Jamaicans. I figured I had nothing to lose, so P-Funk had the crew front me half a pound of weed. The truth was that I didn't intend on paying them back. As far as I was concerned, this was money owed to me, since Barney had stopped paying the bills as soon as Chippy was murdered. He didn't give a fuck about any deal previously made. So I was going to sell the weed, make some money, buy some gear, and get back on track. Unfortunately, it didn't go down like that at all. Instead, I smoked a lot of weed with my boys for free, bought some clothes with the very small profits, and smoked more weed with my boys until it was all gone. Soon Barney came looking to collect his money.
Barney caught me in the lobby of the building one afternoon. I mouthed off to him and he tried to choke me. Luckily, two older guys in the neighborhood, Zen and Zef, intervened. I decided it was time to go. A few days after having the shit choked out of me, I packed a few bags of clothes and moved to Bailey Avenue with Titi Vilma and my cousins Herman and Johnny. My cousins ran Bailey Avenue, and I knew if the Rastafarians came down there looking for me they'd have a good gun battle on their hands. I wasn't going to be a sitting duck, even if I didn't care most days if I lived or died. I only lasted in the stashhouse business a year or so, and apparently things weren't going to work out for me in my new career.
After my escape to Bailey Avenue, the Jamaicans took over apartment 5F. Shortly after that it was raided by TNT, the Tactical Narcotics Team, NYPD's equivalent to the Drug Enforcement Agency. The task force was infamous for making raids and closing down drug houses left and right, only to see them continue to pop up right and left. Word finally got back to TNT that 5F was indeed a stash house for large quantities of marijuana. They also knew who ran it. Redds had been one of the first Jamaican drug dealers to move into the neighborhood. He was a very charismatic dude who dressed the part of the flashy drug dealer, complete with nice jewelry and a nice ride. Redds was one of the first guys I ever saw pushing a Nissan Maxima with the ground-effects kit to make it seem like it was sitting on the ground. The burgundy Maxima had nice rims, a sunroof, and a sound system you could hear blaring reggae at all hours of the night.
When TNT executed the warrant, they found Redds's wife, child, mother-in-law, and a room full of marijuana in big shipping barrels. They pressed Redds's wife to play along or catch prison time. She agreed to cooperate.
Apparently the plan was for the wife to set a trap by calling Redds and telling him to come to the apartment because she needed him. As Redds got within a block of the building, P-Funk and my future brother-in-law, Jorge, intercepted him. They told him the task force had raided the spot and the narcos were waiting for him to show up. Redds then called the apartment and told his wife to put the pigs on the phone. When the detective took the phone, Redds told him he had a bomb hidden in the marijuana and that he was going to blow the entire building up. TNT had no choice but to evacuate the building, and because the Jamaicans were known for their extremely violent tactics, the NYPD had to respond by sending in the bomb squad.
According to Jorge, the bomb squad ran into the building to see if Redds was telling the truth. Of course, they never found a bomb. Redds made them work for their money that day. That ended apartment 5F's days as a drug spot for a little while, but it wouldn't end the story.
In 1991, the FBI was following up for the NYPD on an old murder that occurred during the armed robbery of a check-cashing place somewhere in New York City. The murder weapon was found in apartment 5F during the raid. The feds wanted to know what my mother knew about the guns, drugs, and Jamaicans, so they sent field agents out to her office at the Hampton VA Medical Center in Hampton, Virginia. Although the apartment was still leased under her name, she hadn't lived there since 1988. It didn't take her long to drop names, along with my Social Security number, where to find me, and every street alias she knew. The feds probably got family photos if she had them.
I couldn't believe my mother had betrayed me like that. I guess she no longer believed in protecting her little babies. But then again, I wasn't a baby anymore, and my mother had her own new life in Virginia Beach to protect, complete with a nice house, a new car, and a government job. At the time I felt like my mom betrayed me, and I was pissed, but the truth was that I was betraying her and every hard-core sacrifice she ever made for me. I understood it wasn't fair for her and her husband to have to deal with the questioning.
As soon as the feds turned the information over to the NYPD, I was picked up from my aunt's apartment on Bailey Avenue and taken in for questioning.
When the detectives ushered me in, I felt a little twinge of nervousness, but I wasn't part of the Jamaican drug crew any longer and didn't feel like I was in trouble for anything. If in fact I had information that could help the police and it wouldn't put any of my boys out there, the guys I had grown up with and still had love for, I was okay with talking to the cops.
The first thing the police did was mention all my driving offenses, the fact that I'd been arrested for hopping the train, and other small shit. One of them said, "Listen, kid, if you can help us with any of this, we're going to wipe all these offenses out of the database. You're going to have a clean slate."
At the time I didn't realize this was what they offered informants, and I didn't see myself as that. I was there to clear my mother's name and my own name of murder.
They showed me photographs of everyone in my neighborhood: Zef, P-Funk, Ray, Jorge, Eric, Zen, J-Hood, Muhammad, Sal, and Macho, along with Redds, Trees, Barney, Bowlen, and Money Merv -- all the guys I grew up with and anyone who had ever set foot inside 5F or chilled out in front of the building.
Most of the pictures had names on the bottom, and the detectives asked me if I knew any of the guys. I told them I knew all the neighborhood guys, but not all of the Jamaican guys.
When I looked a little closer at Bowlen's picture, I saw that it had VIOLENT written underneath it. I told them I knew that guy -- pointing out Bowlen's picture. I wondered if he was actually called Violent and I had been pronouncing it wrong the whole time. I also pointed out Barney's picture and told them I definitely knew him too, and that he was the leader of the Jamaicans.
I was honest and told them I'd gone into business with the drug dealers some years earlier and that Barney forced me out because of an unpaid marijuana debt. I also told them I believed Barney would have killed me if he had had the chance. They told me I was lucky to have gotten out alive, because these were cold-blooded killers. I explained that I'd had no dealings with them for the last eighteen months or so. The cops never said I'd be arrested for admitting to going into business with the Jamaicans and living in a stash house.
As I was walking out of the room, I looked down at the table and saw a picture of my childhood friend Ray. The same Ray I'd thrown eggs off the roof with and the same one who laughed when my father called me a little bitch.
"If you see this guy, you should ask him what he knows. He lives right across the hall from the drug spot in apartment 5H."
It was a statement I would later live to regret. The detectives already knew where Ray lived. They went directly to his house and said, "Ivan said you might be able to help us."
Ray then went straight to P-Funk's house and told him I sent the detectives to his house. I would be known on the streets as a rat. Not a good thing.
A rat means you're the lowest form of dirt. You become an immediate outcast, someone who cannot be trusted. It was never a title I felt I deserved. I had no problem telling the cops about what I knew when it came to the Jamaicans. For me that was a pure form of retribution; the cops had no way of knowing, but they were offering me a way to get back at the people I hated. 196th Street and Creston Avenue was my home; it was my haven and it was the place I felt the safest in this world. When the Jamaicans ran me out of there, they took everything from me.
Even though the cops would tell Ray I was a snitch, I didn't deserve the title. For me, snitching was when a guilty person decided to give up his partner in crime to save his own ass. I wasn't in trouble when the cops questioned me; they had no evidence tying me to any crimes committed in the apartment and it had been about eighteen months since I'd lived there. Yes, I gave them a few names and told them what I had been directly involved in, but I didn't have any info to offer, nor would I have offered any if it involved any of my brothers on Creston Avenue. I never would have said shit about P-Funk working with the Jamaicans for years and setting up stash houses and businesses all over the Bronx.
Regardless of what I believed, though, just the whisper of snitch in the streets of the Bronx stays with you for life. I even heard rumors that I'd be shot on sight by the same people I grew up with and fought battles with. It was even rumored that J-Hood -- one of the softest guys on the block until he was introduced to a gun -- was talking the most shit and that if he ever ran into me he would make sure he set things right, at least in his own mind.
A couple of months before being called in for questioning, I had gone to the old neighborhood. My issue with the Jamaicans had died down some, so I would run up to Creston Avenue every once in a while to see how the old crew was doing. It seemed that every time I went back for a visit, there were more and more BMWs parked on the block.
On this night, while my cousin Johnny and I stood on the stoop talking to P-Funk and J-Hood, a small RX7 drove at a very high speed down 196th Street, barely missing the three BMWs that were double-parked. The RX7 seemed as if it was being chased by a taxicab for some reason, and as the taxicab tried to squeeze through it hit two of the BMWs. The cabdriver never stopped to view the damage done. He just kept driving toward Jerome Avenue. But he was soon trapped by the traffic.
P-Funk and J-Hood ran toward the cab, and Johnny and I followed. I knew we were going to pull the driver out and give him the beating of his life. Johnny and I were five to seven steps behind P-Funk and J-Hood, and just before we reached the cab, J-Hood pulled out a large black handgun and shot right into the driver's-side window. It's not that I had never seen or been involved in a shooting, but it surprised me that J-Hood ran right up to the driver and started pumping bullets. The way he gave chase and shot with no hesitation let me know J-Hood had been busy since I left the block. I never looked into the cab, and the second J-Hood ran by us, Johnny and I took off, too.
The cabdriver lived, but it was a wake-up call for me. The guys I had grown up with on Creston Avenue had become shooters -- the type that let bullets fly first and asked questions or questioned their actions later. This was no longer a place for me.
About three or four years after I left New York completely, I missed a lot about the neighborhood, so I drove along Creston Avenue. As I came up 196th Street from Jerome Avenue, I noticed there were about fifteen guys right in front of the bodega I used to stand in front of on so many days and nights so many years before. In the back of my mind, I knew word on the street was that J-Hood would shoot me if he ever saw me. I made the left-hand turn onto the Grand Concourse and wondered if I should come back up Creston and get out of the car to say what's up to the fellas.
I wondered if the kid I grew up with would really shoot me. I needed to know.
I contemplated many things on the slow drive up the Grand Concourse. I was a professional living in Virginia Beach with two daughters. I was living a good, clean life, and I didn't need to drum up any old memories, especially memories that could get me shot in cold blood staring up at the sky. I never considered myself a punk and I knew for damn sure I was no rat, so why was I hiding like a punk and a rat? I decided to get out of the car and approach the fellas on the corner -- some soldiers loyal to J-Hood and some guys who had never seen my face before. I approached with a bit of caution.
"Yo, Ive, is that you?" came a voice in the darkened night.
It was Eric B. As I got within arm's length, Eric B reached out and gave me a big hug. Next was P-Funk, who didn't like me. P-Funk and I had really lost touch since the time he'd help set me up with the Jamaicans. In his business, you couldn't even entertain someone who was thought to be a snitch for any reason whatsoever. It didn't matter that we'd known one another since we were little kids, learned to write graffiti together, and stolen our first bike together -- or that I'd never told the cops anything about him. My old friend Ray had made sure the boys on Creston Avenue knew I had mentioned his name to the cops, and that was all they needed to know.
"Yo, Ive, where the fuck you been, kid?" P asked as he gave me a big hug.
I was making small talk with Eric B and P-Funk when I noticed J-Hood walk over to his Cadillac. He opened the door and stood halfway between the door and the sidewalk. I figured he was going to go into his stash box, pull out a gun, and unload a few rounds into my body. He looked at me as if he wanted to kill me right in front of the bodega, but doing so would make his spot hot.
I'm not sure why J-Hood decided not to shoot me that night, but he never said a word. I knew deep down inside he was itching to let a few rounds pop off, but he held back. Most likely because he didn't know how the neighborhood guys would react. After all, I did grow up there. I can only assume the real beef J-Hood had with me was that my brotherin-law, Jorge, slapped the shit out of him on several occasions due to the schoolboy crush he had on my sister, Tanya. We all knew in his heart that J-Hood was the softest guy on the block, but once he discovered a gun and figured out how to pull the trigger he became the enforcer. All of a sudden the neighborhood was supposed to fear and respect a guy who used to run from every fight, just as Ray had done so many times.
Where I came from, it took heart to stand there and fight with your fists, especially when you were outnumbered or knew you had a beating coming your way. Before the guns, you had to be tough and have a heart. I preferred to take a beating any day and keep my dignity rather than be a scared punk with a gun. Yes, it's true I carried a gun at times, but really I was just looking to stay alive one more day or night; my gun was for protection, so I never felt bad about carrying it. It doesn't take a man to pull a trigger, and J-Hood would never have my respect.
Guns always had their place. The first time I got one was after I moved to Bailey Avenue from Creston. I was about seventeen years old and I used to trade stuff all the time with a neighborhood hustler who called himself Smurf. He was around my age and he was always into some shit, whether it was moving small amounts of drugs, selling a few guns here and there, and even dabbling in the sale of steroids.
He always kept a few guns around the crib, and one day he told me he was looking to trade guns for jewelry. I had a large diamond ring that spelled out HITMAN. When I bought the ring, some of the fellas in the neighborhood had thought a shooter who called himself Hitman was going to fuck me up. But he understood that the ring represented my MC name, which was MC Hitz the Hitman when I used to dabble in hip-hop, and he was cool with it. He saw me as a little brother, so it wasn't an issue.
Smurf traded me a .380-caliber pistol with no clip. I could shoot off only one round at a time by placing a bullet directly into the chamber of the gun. It would have made for a problem if I had ever gotten into a gun battle. A few years later I would upgrade with my cousin Freddie and carry around a 9 mm and sometimes even a TEC-9 submachine-gun in a book bag. I wasn't a shooter, but in the Bronx you never knew when you'd need a gat for protection.
Apartment 5F saw me grow from Catholic school boy to lost teenager to lost soul. I had to completely leave the environment before I could discover the truest definition of being a man. I learned many life lessons in that apartment, from the love and strength of a single mother raising three kids to the life and death decisions we contemplated sitting on our beds at night. I'll never forget the night some rivals shot up our neighborhood. My brother and I hit the deck, looking at each other as if the bullets could somehow reach us on the fifth floor of the building.
However, that was just it -- we never knew where life on the streets would take us next. We always hoped like hell we'd end up right back there at the end of the night. Right back in apartment 5F and not in jail or the morgue. Man, if those walls could talk. Copyright © 2006, 2008 by Ivan Sanchez