“¡Oye, maricón! ¡Yo le meto un pepaso a este puta!” He was threatening to shoot the woman tied up in a chair; the translation being, “I’ll pop a cap in this whore.” I’ll forever remember his jagged-looking teeth, jaundiced eyes, the sweat-streaks on his face, the odor in that apartment of cabbage, singed cotton and the carbon-smoked hot metal of spoons or the jagged bases of cans. I couldn’t in a million years tell you what his partner looked like. My focus was out-the-door. I rarely looked at the shooter but it took only moments to embed his face in memory. Not long ago and 38 years later I had some spoiled food left out for too long and it reminded me of that morning in Spanish Harlem, the stench in that apartment and the yellow-eyed killer all as if I were watching it in living color once again. PTSD in hi-def. ¡Oye, maricón!… That woman had been shot and was dead before he had finished the profane, insulting sentence. She had taken a large caliber bullet to the chest fired from a chrome-plated revolver.
It was loud. My right leg shook uncontrollably and I remember putting all the weight I could on it to hide that shaking. It was a kind of fear that gripped me that I had never before experienced….
I knew she was dead. I knew that her picture was in that photo album that lay on the counter-top or the kitchen table…the filthy floor, the dirty door to the refrigerator. Images so vivid, my eyes focused on them rather than the shooter and the dead woman, considerably older than her mate, her leg and arm, she bled profusely, and her pastel robe soaked in blood… ¡No, me mates!… The man sobbed. Hysterical. In that moment I was fully in touch with mortality as never before. Never until that moment. That crazy shit happened to other people. I was too hip, slick, and cool to be caught up in this kind of drama. Hip, that was my jacket, man. Not criminal, not junkie, not dead. I was 18 and living in the volatile world of heroin addiction.
People were being killed every day. Two years into the game, and I had managed to do a short stint on Riker’s Island and the Bronx County Jail and Detention Center. I had witnessed violence, had been a participant on both ends: street fighting with baseball bats and knives. I’d been stabbed but never seriously back then….
“¡No me mates coño!” The sobbing man is begging for his life and he tells them where the dope is. Right there, in the kitchen in a Bustello coffee can. The jagged-fanged man asked me how much dope I was there to buy. One dime and I was sixty-five cents short. I also had a few subway slugs, back in the day those slugs worked in pay phones and turnstiles. Chubbs was buying two bags for $18 and John Boy just one. That was considered a good fix in those days, though there was never such a thing as enough. It’s not a word in the vocabulary of addicts until they arrive at that address and look up, stunned.
Chubbs knew the other guy, the partner whom I had no vision of at all. Why he is a blank has, most likely, a psychiatric explanation that is none-too-difficult. I have never been, in any way, curious. No me mates BANG BANG.
There were a few pasteles on the floor. Faceless took all our money but gave Chubbs the pasteles. We were told to get out as they left as well. We did as I waited for a bullet to the back.
I still hear that pitiful sob and that phrase in Puerto Rican–accented Spanish in endless variations while dreaming. Please don’t kill me! And then BANG BANG. I don’t know where those shots landed but — he was killed.
37 years later I have quite a collection of horrifying memories but none measure up to that morning. Smells, sounds, images and cold piss and the relief my pasteles provided from them.…
Two years later John Boy was dead from an overdose. Five years later and Chubbs stopped talking about it too; he was dead from a gunshot wound to the head. No details provided. BANG BANG.
When I first read this, my instinct was to advise Ortiz, as I once had been advised, “Get that bang bang tone out of your style.” I decided against it.
In Ortiz’s apartment are stacked research materials and boxing magazines, as well as magazines about salsa music; his father, José Ramón Ortiz, was a famous figure in Puerto Rico and the U.S. as a salsa-music innovator. Rick hosted a radio program in Highland Park, Illinois, while working for his father at that station, WVVX-FM. The research includes several pages of the Harrison Act, a lengthy Consumer Reports document from the 1970s on that legislation, and brochures from the Harm Reduction Coalition in New York. One of them is called “H is for Heroin” and includes information such as: “Contrary to popular belief, heroin itself does not cause serious, long-term health problems….” and “Despite feeling like you’re going to die, withdrawal almost never kills anyone and is rarely harmful to a healthy person. It can be harmful, however to people with HIV/AIDS. It can also be harmful to the fetus.” Despite such passages, the brochure is in no way an apologia for or an indictment of the drug’s use. Here, also, is information such as, “A Safety Manual for Injection Users.” These were the top handful of materials in his disorganized pile.
As I read over the above sentences, I began to laugh a little, then went into a bad imitation of William Burroughs’s voice. I sounded more like the CO in the old Phil Silver show, Sergeant Bilko, an actor whose name I cannot remember. The quote (approximate) was from Burroughs’s cameo appearance in the 1980s movie Drugstore Cowboy: