“Yo, how you boys doin’?”
We were uncomfortable, but not alarmed. After all, these were Giuliani’s late 1990s. We were New York kids, each with his share of street stories, but this was still Manhattan above 96th Street, and we were still very white.
The vagabond’s cooing, cozy voice gained on us. He was short, slim and could have passed for a second-rate subway musician.
“Where you fellas headed?”
“Home,” we replied.
“That’s nice, I’m headed home myself.”
Phew. We were glad he had a home to go to—there’s nothing like a universal destination to unite disparate strangers.
Ah, homes: Mike’s was in Northern Jersey and mine in Marine Park, Brooklyn, where my parents were proud to be the first post-Soviet homeowners on an old Irish-Italian block. And our new friend’s…wait, where was his home?
“I just got out of Attica.” He scowled for effect and looked at us for approval.
“You know, some robbery bullshit,” he said. We really didn’t know. Getting mugged for your Walkman by some Spanish kids at the bus stop, yes. Robbery bullshit, no. It was probably time to be alarmed, but Mike and I kept moving and nodding knowingly. The jailbird threw an arm in the air for reassurance. “Don’t worry none. I jis’ hit ’em rich assholes, I ain’t neva touch no real folk.” Mike and I exchanged looks—he at my brand new ski parka, still bearing a fresh lift ticket from Camelback Mountain, and I at his limited-edition Bolle goggles—but quickly regrouped. Play it cool. That’s all there was to it.
Passing through the dark tunnel beneath the heavy bridge traffic above, we headed toward the 175th Street A train. The conversation died off abruptly, like fishing line yanked out of the water on false alarm. It was going to be fine, right? We were two 18 year olds in a public place. Straight out of Gravesend, two crazy mofos. Our new friend’s lips were still moving. “…on dat train. You boys got a buck fitty, I gotta get on dat train home.” It was neither question nor demand.
I reflexively responded the way my immigrant family had conditioned me to deal with spontaneous solicitations of funds. “Nah, we ain’t got nothin’.”
As soon as I said it, I knew we were toast. But Mike backed me up. “I knew right away you boys are po’ like me.” Mercifully, there was a light at the end of the tunnel—the blue circle of mass transit salvation was in sight. But our felony-flaunting friend was no dope. “How you guys gettin’ on dat train?”
We were so close, and now one tiny little matter stood between that downtown express and us: my little white lie about us being real folk. Mike flashed a glance at me, and we both knew. There was only one thing to do. Jump. Something I hadn’t done…well, almost ever. Between getting force-ducked by my mom until I was 13 and abusing a school-issued MetroCard, there’d been no occasion for it. I looked at him in agreement. Mike and I were going to jump like so many heroes before us.
“Dat’s my boys. We all goin’ jump!” Touching, nearly to tears. He was proud of us. We were gonna stick it to the Man! And if the Man should get his hands on us, so what?
It was time for the plunge.
Mike and I staggered on toward the turnstiles under a spell of fear…but we were minus one. A few steps behind, pristine Kangol hat nervously folded between long, thin fingers, our nameless friend looked around entreatingly, searching for his two junior accomplices. It was all he could do to ignore the pair of German Shepherds making eyes at the faded denim of his jeans, backed up by several blue uniforms moving in to surround him. With sighs of relief, Mike and I dug into our pockets for the MetroCards we weren’t supposed to have…we could almost taste safety.
But then, peering over his shoulder, our associate met my own gaze with confusion, despair and, finally, a strong rebuke. Even from afar, he held me with a vise-like grip.
Any other time, a look from an ex-con would give me the kick in the ass I needed to run. But the stink of treachery had seeped into my lungs and awoke in me a daring stupidity.
In my mind’s eye, I leapt like a sprint hurdler. To anyone else, it was probably closer to a lame bear climbing over a tree stump.
Breathe out…turn around.
I was over the Man’s fence! I was a man! Mike just looked at me wild-eyed as he swiped his MetroCard.
Like so many temporary New York friendships, this one ended with the jarring screech of an arriving train…the sacred bond forged between boys and ex-con forever sealed in lies. Our friend, spouting obscenities at the cops, watched us make our escape. I like to imagine he was proud of me, but I never got the chance to ask.
Yan Timanovsky is composing J-Date profiles and The Great Soviet-American Novel from his compound in Brooklyn.