© Copyright 2014 by Sara Jacobelli
1970s Bridgeport, CT East Side
The electricity got cut off cause the bill wasn’t paid and it was 101 degrees with no AC so me and Tammy sat on the front stoop, the babies sleeping in cribs in the room we shared, her bratty little sister Tara asleep on the couch, her mom working the late shift at GE, her father drunk and passed out somewhere since he got laid off from Remington Arms, and we listened to Roberta Flack singing Killing me Softly with his Song on the portable radio while smoking a skinny project joint and watching two tattooed guys wearing jeans and tank tops smash the window of the convenience store across the street with a brick.
We high-fived each other, the alarm didn’t go off and the guys grabbed several six packs, cartons of cigarettes, dumped their goods in the trunk, waved at us, and drove off in a sputtering old Buick. The weed wasn’t too good but it still made us laugh at everything.
“Punks. Those cops ain’t even comin.”
“We should grab some diapers and food and stuff. The cops take forever to get to the East Side.”
“Yeah.” Tammy stubbed out her cigarette. “Yeah. I say Let’s do it.” She stood up, tall and pale and skinny, with such watery sad blue eyes you’d think she cared about the whole wide world. But the funny thing is, she don’t care. She just has those eyes.
“If they come, we can tell em that we heard the window get smashed and were just checking on the place. To make sure everything’s OK.”
“They ain’t gonna believe that shit.”
“My ole man says you gotta have a story.”
“He don’t say nothin now. That crazy bastard’s dead, he’s probably in the East River wearing cement shoes.”
“Yeah, I know he could be dead. Shot or some shit. Or he could be, he could’ve run off. Maybe Vegas or Chicago or Miami, you know, on the run. He could be hiding in Sicily like Michael Corleone.”
“Girl, that’s some Santa Claus shit. Your godfather’s in the East River, you always said.”
“Yeah. Sonny the Wheel.”
“Your ole man’s probably there too, keepin him company. They probably havin a better time partyin at the bottom of the East River than we are here on East Main. Sometimes bein alive ain’t no kinda party.”
We laughed. We ran across East Main. The cash register was open with a few ones and some quarters left in it, which we grabbed. We ran back and forth across the street about five times, still laughing, dodging the occasional beeping car and grabbing stuff from the store. No sign of the cops. The neighbors all stayed inside staring at TVs. That store was always being robbed, either a bored cashier held up at gunpoint while they were open, or when they closed at midnight, someone would do a smash and grab, bust in the windows and take what they could. We piled up boxes of disposable diapers for Tammy’s baby, my baby, and Tammy’s older sister Tiffany’s kid. We got cases of Cokes, a couple six packs a beer, bags of barbecue chips, boxes of Slim Jims, cartons of cigarettes, jammed our pockets full of candy bars.
We stashed everything in the front room so we didn’t wake the babies. Then we went back to the stoop to listen to the radio, waited for the cops to show up.
“We shouldna gone barefoot,” Tammy stuck out her foot. She cut her toes on the glass.
“Hide your stinking feet. Here come the cops. That’s evidence.”
Two cops pulled up in front of the store, didn’t even bother to get out of the car. They called in something on the radio, made an illegal U-Turn and pulled up in front of Tammy’s building.
The cop sitting in the passenger’s seat spoke first. “You two young ladies rob the Cumberland Farms Con-veen-yence store cross the street there?”
Tammy said, “Two Puerto Rican guys busted the window, they took a whole lotta shit, they ran off.”
That made me laugh again. I couldn’t look at her.
The other cop, the driver, got out of the car. He wasn’t real tall, but he had a beefy mean look to him. “You think this here’s funny? Don’t see how’s they could take all that shit with no car. You sure you didn’t see no car?” His voice was lower and had a sneer to it. He chewed gum while he talked.
My ole man always said about cops. Don’t talk to em and Don’t trust em.
“You can’t talk? All you do is laugh?” the gum chewer asked. He had dark brown hair and beady little dark eyes, a dark mustache, muscles too big for his body bulging out of his blue uniformed arms. “Mom” was tattooed in a heart on one beefy arm.
“I didn’t see nothin.” My high was fading.
“Joe. Come on. Joe, let’s go. They don’t know nothin here.” The other guy was a little older, maybe a little nicer, maybe not. He stayed in the car. He had touches of gray around his light curly brown hair, the edges of his lips held a slight smile. The type my mom would call a Flirt. I thought of the good cops/bad cops they always had on TV.
The babies woke up and started screaming. It startled me. I almost forgot we had babies in there. I thought of the feedings, the diaper changes, the long lines at the welfare office, the long complicated food stamp application, the long waits at the Well Baby clinic with a feverish crying sick baby, the bus rides to the grocery store, the hours in the smelly hot crowded Laundromat, everyone fighting at Tammy’s house because it was so crowded. I almost wanted to ask the gray haired cop to drop me off downtown at the train station. So I could just go— go to New York or Boston or something. Just get outta there.
“We gotta go feed our kids, man.” Tammy was pissed.
The mean cop scrunched up his nose. “You girls smokin dope?”
“We gotta feed em.” Tammy sounded a little less sure of herself.
“You got kids already?” The mean cop asked. “An how the fuck old are you?”
“Seventeen.” I looked at the sad watery blueness of her eyes again.
“Joe, we gotta go.” We could hear the robotic drone of the dispatcher over the radio.
I laughed. “You guys are like Car-54 Where are you.”
The gray haired cop sitting in the car laughed too, but the mean beady eyed one grabbed me roughly and slapped my face. Hard. I never had a man slap me who wasn’t my father before. Somehow he had a right to it, but not this bastard. The world shook. My head spun, and my hands and feet jumped to self defense.
“CC no!” Tammy pulled me back from the cop. “They got fuckin guns! Girl, you crazy?”
The mean one grabbed me, opened the car door and threw me in the back seat. “You already gotta kid, so you’re already fucking somebody.”
The gray haired cop leaned over the seat and touched my arm. “Don’t say nothin. Kid. I got this.”
“When you’re in a back seat of a cop car, you can’t get out.”
“You been in a patrol car before.”
The mean one grabbed Tammy and threw her in next to me.
“Our kids, we can’t just leave em there, they’re screamin.”
“Shoulda thoughta that before you went and made some babies. Shoulda thoughta that. You girls don’t cooperate, we’ll bustin to your house, and you know what we’ll find? All that beer an smokes an shit you just stole. Drugs, we’ll find drugs. Your boyfriends are probably dealers. You wanna go to Juvie?” He started up the car. The dispatcher kept calling out on the radio. “Let’s go take a little ride to Seaside Park. You in, Mike? You wanna have some fun with these here girls?”
Mike shook his head. “No, no way. Got kids a my own. No way I want some grown married guy messin with my daughters. Just stop the car and let em go.” He lit a cigarette, took his time taking a deep puff.
The mean cop, Joe, drove slowly down the street. Tammy looked at me, rolled her eyes. What will they do to us? I pushed on the door, feeling trapped. I fantasized grabbing their guns and shooting them, an action movie with background music.
“I don’t care, go ahead an arrest me. I been to Juvie. I don’t give a fuck.” I looked out the window at East Main Street as if seeing it for the first time. The street looked grey, rundown, poor. We passed The Tropicana, a junkie hangout. When I was a little kid riding by in the backseat of my father’s old Cadillac convertible I would jump up and down, point at the sign and say, “Ricky Ricardo! Ricky Ricardo!” I thought it was a fancy nightclub, and a tuxedo-clad Ricky crooned love songs to Lucy while twirling her around on the dance floor, backed up by a big band. I would wave at the hollow eyed scratching junkies slouched against the wall and they would wave back, baffled by the attention.
“Which one? Which Juv-a-nile Hall?” Mike asked.
“Spofford. In the Bronx.”
Mike turned around and winked. “You ain’t been to no fuckin Spofford.” He turned back to Joe.
“Drop these girls off an let’s go back to work, fer Chrissakes.”
“Fine. Fuck you. You wanna be such a fuckin saint.” Joe drove a few more blocks, then circled around at Boston Avenue and headed back down East Main. He dropped us off in front of Tammy’s railroad flat. Her sister Tara was standing on the front porch in a faded pink bathrobe and purple bunny slippers. Something about the little-girlness of the bunny slippers made me sad. The gray haired cop let us out of the car. Tammy ran up the stairs. The mean cop grabbed my arm. “You went to Harding?”
“You drop out?”
“You gotta job?”
“What’s your boyfriend’s name?”
“Carlos.” Stupid. As soon as I said it I wished I could take it back.
“This spic gotta a job?”
“Don’t be callin him no spic. He’s gotta job, he’s workin at the Coca Cola plant.” I lied. Carlos did day labor out of Manpower downtown and sold weed. He lived in the Father Panik Village projects with his mom and a gaggle of little brothers and sisters. Sometimes he talked about applying to the Coca Cola factory when he turned eighteen.
“You know what you are?” The mean cop smacked his gum.
“You gonna tell me?”
“She calls you CC?”
“I gotta new nickname for you. Miss Welfare and Food Stamps. That’s what you are.”
“Enough, Joe, let’s go.” Mike tapped his fingers restlessly on the dashboard.
“Bye, Welfare and Food Stamps.” He gunned the car and they sped off.
“Fuck you!” I yelled to the cops in the disappearing car. “Fuck all of you too!” I yelled to the street, the passing cars, the sleeping buildings, the broken windowed convenience store, the dead eyed East Side hopeless night, the clanging red brick walled-in factories, the smell of the city at low tide, the mother who OD’d on pills, the father who ran out on his gambling debts, the big brothers and cousins and uncles in prison, the friends who said they’d never shoot up nodding out in neighborhood shooting galleries, the jobless boyfriend, the crowded household, the turned off electricity, the pushy landlord, the gossiping neighbors, the stuck-up caseworkers, the high school teachers who said they were just there for the paycheck and counting the days til retirement and didn’t even notice that I skipped school for weeks that turned into months before dropping out.
“Where’d all that shit come from in the front room?” Tara asked, sleepy eyed. She had the babies propped up with pillows, sucking on bottles. Their eyes clear and eager and greedy with hunger, their faces damp with sweat. The windows were open and the air was still. “No fair you guys makin me feed em. You owe me. I gotta go to school tomorrow.”
“Then take some smokes an barbecue potato chips an Cokes an Slim Jims an shut-the-fuck-up, that’s your babysittin pay,” Tammy said. “No beer, that’s for us.”
“Really? Cool!” She tore through the goodies. “This is like winning the fucking lottery!”
Photo Credit: “East Main Street Liquor Store” by sj.
“Killing Me Softly With His Song,” recorded by Roberta Flack. Released in 1973. Written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel.