"I keep smelling smoke. I can’t tell whether it’s real or in my imagination.”
from "In the South Bronx of America" by Mel Rosenthal, 2000, Curbstone PressIntroduction: Anybody who lived through New York City's crack-era in the mid-1980s, knows it was a bizarre time. Like living in some kind of alternative universe where seemingly overnight friends, family and familiar strangers were stricken by a plague.
In my Washington Heights neighborhood I remember some drug hawker standing in front of the subway station on 145th and St. Nick trying to sell me something called "crack" in 1985 and six months later my lower-middle class neighborhood suddenly became a haven for spaced-out zombies, random robberies, middle of the day shoot-outs, countless prostitutes and other illicit activity.
Later, it would be revealed that the local police precinct, which would later be known in the press as, "the dirty 30," was taking bribes and wasn't really trying to protect the law-abiding citizens in the first place.This disturbing short story "boogie down inferno" was inspired by my vivid memories of those wild years when uptown was a combination Sodom and Gomorrah meets the wild wild west.
While editing this piece, I listened to Tricky's disturbing Pre-Millennium Tension, whose, "hallucinatory soundscape, where the rhythms, samples, and guitars intertwine into a crawling procession of menacing sounds and disembodied lyrical threats," seemed to be the perfect soundtrack for a tale about my beloved metropolis during those very dark days.
an abandoned car was parked in front of the hydrant. fire-truck sirens screamed in the night as raging flames kissed the midnight sky. staring at your former south bronx tenement over on 178th and vyse avenue, neighborhood crack zombies were entranced by the vivid yellow and crimson cinders raining down from the rooftop. “oh shit,” screamed a young black boy cruising the trash strewn street on a stolen five-speed bike.
this block is filled with ghosts, you thought, still buzzed from the cocaine you had been hitting since noon. feeling as though it were on the verge of exploding, your heart was beating a million miles a minute.
“another bronx building burning,” said a weary voiced stranger standing behind you.
looking all official and shit, you were dressed in the same police academy uniform you wore at graduation that same afternoon. assigned to work at the 48th precinct, your brain was buzzed from the the eight ball of devil’s dandruff you scored from some hunts point homie.
“fish scale,” he had assured you, as though it made a difference. all those youngbloods swore they were scarface. fuck the friendly skies, ‘cause you was higher than eddie palmieri hanging at casa amadeo record shop bragging about being the baddest piano player in the barrio. sweat rolled down your face like you had stuck it in a oven or something.
besides yourself, no one watching that building burn knew that there was a dead woman on the top floor lying next to a pissy mattress, her messy haired head cracked like the plaster on an old bedroom ceiling.
chick’s name was lisa hernadez, and once upon a time baby girl had been a great beauty with a big booty and supple breasts. still, that was years before the broad had become a full blown crack ho, wandering the streets of the boogie down looking to make her loot by any means necessary no matter how low down.
back in the day, when both of ya’ll had lived in that red bricked apartment building (her fam lived on the fifth floor, while you were one flight down) you had lusted after sweet lisa since you was teenager who stared at the ceiling while pulling your pecker.
eyes closed, your nasty daydreams were like private porn movies continually running on a loop in your mind. in that home-made triple-xxx flick in your head, you rubbed lisa’s perky nipples through sheer tube-tops, sucked the dirty toes that had been walking the block in red jellies and licked her hairy snatch as she screamed your name.
of course, in the real world, she barely knew that you were alive, so you thought of tonight payback for all those times she had mocked you, laughed in your face and made snide remarks behind your back. “whose laughing now, bitch” you thought to yourself, trying not to laugh aloud.
welcome to spic heaven: clearly you remembered the days of growing-up on that broke down block of vacant lots, drunken domino players and one storefront church. despite the sweet salsa songs your mother used to hum in the mornings, you never saw any pretty flowers blooming through the cracked sidewalks. unless, of course, they had mutated into dog shit, broken bottles, trash heaps and empty heroin bags.
back when you were a small school boy with chubby cheeks and sorrowful eyes, your mother was your entire world. every friday evening, after leaving her gig at the martin luther king health center, she stopped-off at the cluttered botanica tu mundo up the street. gently parting the colorful floral curtains in front of your living-room window, you patiently waited for her to sluggishly stroll down the block.
you looked at the shattered souls gathered on the stoop across the street, boisterous boys congregated around a chalk drawn skellzie board; a few feet away from jose’s luncheonette, a couple of strong armed teens dressed in two-tone sweaters and tight black pants played congas while a wino ex-boxer drunkenly danced wildly and sang out of tune.
minutes later you spotted your mommi slowly walking pass dented garbage cans, carrying a heavy shopping bag. it usually took her at ten minutes to tiredly scale the dirty marble stairs to your fourth-floor apartment.
after achingly removing her white nurse shoes, she poured herself a healthy taste of dark rum and flopped on the plastic covered couch. after taking a few gulps, she shared splendid stories about her homeland of puerto rico. with peppermint scented breath, her remembrances of the island were filled with dusty roads and white sand beaches, mystic sunsets and flying cockroaches.
from those tales you conjured images of wide-hipped aunts you had never seen and divine music you had never heard.
“tell me about poppi,” you begged after she had downed a few glasses of the potent rum.
“oh, he was such handsome man with his grey eyes and curly hair,” she swooned. a fisherman, he had drowned seven weeks before you were born. while you secretly hated him for dying, you never tired of your mother’s verbal snap-shots of their short life together: “it was olokun,” she wept, referring the deity of the sea in santeria. with frail fingers she crushed your small head into her full bosom and wept. “olokrun took your poppi away from us.”
in the corner of the white walled living-room, below a cheaply framed picture of j.f.k., mommi had constructed an altar. there was a small color photograph of your father lying atop the red and white satin cloth that covered the altar; there was that plaster statue of st. jude, lit white candles, fresh flowers, an apple, an upside down glass of water supported on a white dish and a jar full of coins. with your father’s spirit and the santeria gods as her constant companions, it was not uncommon for mom dukes to awaken after midnight to pray that he was at peace.
washing-up in lukewarm water the following morning, you glanced into the sparkling bathroom mirror, slowly searching for a resemblance with the man in the picture. when you were about eight, you noticed that the two of you shared the same haunted grey eyes. at least that explained why your mother never looked into your peepers when she spoke to you. hell, she just couldn’t stand seeing your father's eyes in you.
because of your poppi’s drowning, your mother feared losing you to “d’evil streets” outside your windows. with those beatbox boys blasting grandmaster flash tapes and nasty domincan girls shaking their bubble butts, to your moms, those bario blocks were wilder than the waves that had swept away husband.
once a month she performed a despojos ceremony, gently beating you with whatever herbs the botanica oracle suggested would frighten away evil spirits. she even placed a string of multicolored prayer beads around your neck to protect you from the demons that lurked in the shadows.
as you got older, she slipped deeper into a netherworld of religion and rum. speaking in tongues, she hung crucifixes throughout the apartment and sprinkled the corners with aqua floria. over the plastic slip covered couch hung a picture of jesus that for some reason scared you. affixed to the cross, blood dripped from his hands and feet.
one night when you were nine, your father approached you in a dream: visions of his sun blackened body lying on the white sands of a beach. there were piercing holes where his eyes should have been. with webbed feet and gills like a fish, he stood-up and approached. his hands were cold and slimy when he touched your fat face.
that rainy morning, you woke-up screaming.
outside of your hollowed home, you were a paradox: gang member and alter-boy, cheeba smoker and teacher’s pet, wild in the streets and smart in the class-room. you hung tough with a clique of kids who called themselves el barrio angels.
an everchanging crew that had been around since the days of the young lords, they had originally planned to be an off-shoot of the radical group. but, by the time you got down with them in the summer of ‘77, the notorious season of the infamous blackout that bought new york to its knees, the el barrio angels dappled in petty crimes that included selling weed, boosting clothes and robbing number taking bodegas.
by ‘79 ya’ll had become infamous in the hood. it was your best friend fast eddie calderon who had put you down with the crew. Money grip had got his nickname because he could out run any mick cop in the precinct,
skinny ass calderon, with his greasy hair and raggedly jeans, had been your homeboy since the two of you were no bigger than fightin’ cocks. after his parents had died in a car crash, he lived with his older sister in the projects. at first glance he didn't appear to the brightest star in the sky, but the boy was no dummy.
"if you look stupid then people don't expect much from ya," he declared. "that way you can get away with more shit with less consequences." although he was only two years older than you, calderon schooled your punk ass in the ways of the street. “we be like brothers from different mothers,” he fondly said.
the meeting spot for the el barrio angels was a decaying tenement a few blocks from the cross bronx expressway. a once stunning structure had been contemned years ago. the once exquisite marble floors, with their faded art deco designs, were chipped and soiled, and the broken windows looked like the eyes of a dead man.
the angels transformed the apartment on the third floor of a crumbling building into a clubhouse. somehow the gang’s leader had managed to install lights, an old pool-table, a stained cloth couch and a few tattered chairs. a beat-up eight-track played a constant stream of barretto and bataan. in the dimly lit room there was also a old safe with a broken door where the angels stored bags of weed and stolen loot.
whenever ya’ll went out, the wild stray german shepherd ya’ll named blood was kept inside the room. the canine’s constant barking kept the junkies far away. “blood would rip out their throats and eat ‘em hop heads like hamburger,” calderon laughed petting the dog. “them junkie motherfuckers know better than to fuck around over here.”
indeed, the only thing that disgusted you about the building were all those noddin’ junkies shooting up, pissing, shitting, fucking and dying in the halls. a trio of nappy haired colored dudes dressed in old vietnam jackets and oily jeans sold five dollar packs of p-funk from a first floor apartment, and throughout the rest of the building.
one dreary twilight in the summer of ‘79 you and calderon was just chillin’ in the club house puffing budda bless. like the villian twins you wanted to be, both ya’ll was dressed in your regular el barrio angels uniform of backwards black baseball caps, black pro-keds, white tube socks and black polyester pants.
outside the window, as the sun slowly changed colors from white glare to muted orange, the racket of a rowdy block party ricocheted off of the rickety structures. you just knew that kool herc was in the house.
later that night, there was a surprise raid by corrupt cops on the gang's chill-out spot. the boogaloo music had been so loud that none of the crew had heard those hard heeled police footsteps as they crept up the stairs. guns drawn and popping shit, the blue boys barged into the room.
scared to death when those pigs threatened to stomp anyone who squealed, you knew it was time to jet. in your eyes five-o were just a bunch of pussys with power and guns, flexing their muscles against a roomful of teenagers.
one chalky faced cop swung open the rusty safe door, and began stuffing all the loot and drugs into his pockets. with coffee and cigarette stained teeth, the pig laughed.
there was mayhem in the room as you and fast eddie scattered out of the window and scurried up a rusty fire-escape in beat-up pro-keds. once you reached the roof-top, both of you attempting to leap to the neighboring building.
fuckin’ eddie didn't make it though, falling to his death in the darkness.
though terrified, somehow you made it back to your apartment without a scratch. it was then, lying on the bed still in scared shirtless, but wiping away the sweat and tears, that you decided that you wanted to be a cop instead of a criminal.
it was not about knowing right from wrong, but about who had the supremacy in that police state. you’ve noticed how the fuzz swaggered through the hood with a sense of self-importance; you saw how they never paid for their food in restaurants; you heard stories from the other el barrio angels how the pigs are always ripping-off the local drug dealers, stealing the stash and keeping their cash.
“that’s gonna be my hustle,” you mumbled, wiping tears away with a tissue. in the next room your mommi slept, unaware of your revelation. “i’m going to be a cop.”
ten years later the decade has changed, but the barrio was still the same. or maybe worse. still, on that weary winter morning that you graduated from the police academy, your mother was so proud.
after taking her home to her new spot in riverdale, you hooked-up with a few other friends from the academy for what was supposed to be an innocent celebration in the old hood. in the city's liberal attempt to recruit former homeboys to police their own, thinking they will be able to relate better to the beamed-up crackheads and wild cowboy drug dealers, this was going to be your beat.
crack had worked a dark mojo on that hood. shit, niggas flipped for that rock cocaine. after it first hit the streets in the early ‘80s, the bronx barrios had become a surreal circus of ruthless addition and scary monsters who crawled in the night.
you looked at the new jack street dealers with their snarling pitbulls and exquisite foreign cars, and their wealth excited you. hell, you knew that soon you would be sharing in the spoils of the losing war on drugs.
that night, along with three of your fellow graduates, you boogied over to carlito’s pub, an old school bar that had been in the hood since you were a kid. the jukebox blared old salsa as though hip-hop had never been created. after hooking-up with your drug dealing homie in the bathroom, you began sniffing the pure coke and downing shots of barcardi as though tomorrow would never come.
“drinks for my friends,” you screamed as your mind slowly unraveled like a spool of thread. next thing you realized you are alone in the streets, wandering down the block in search of a piece of pussy gone astray.
the trick was to find one of those rock smoking hoes who knew how to blow like miles davis. it was then that you saw lisa, her skin smoother than black ice as ice. like other lost ladies, she had become as ruined as the hood itself.
“rock star, bitch,” you mumbled. “i wonder who broke you down. used to be too good for a nigga...now look at ya.”
dressed in dirty jeans, worn nike’s and a ratty sweater, you gave her two twenty-dollar bills to buy a few vials of rock before she took you to the apartment building where you used to live when you was a kid.
the block was swarming with illegal business. you walked into the dark building, and heard mumbling voices coming from beneath the steps. most of the creepy apartments appeared to be crack spots, but you were not nervous.
the fifth-floor apartment used to belong to her mother, who moved back to p.r. the year before. you can remember coming to a birthday party here when lisa turned ten, and the apartment was immaculate as the virgin mary. but that was so long ago. now the flat was a wreak, the sticky floors littered with old beer bottles and used condom packages; there were chink take-out boxes and chicken wing bones; there are dirty clothes all over the floor and jacked-up mattress in the middle of the living-room. there is an unholy stench that burns your nose hairs. there were dirty sheets covering the windows.
after lighting a few candles, lisa invited you over to the stained mattress. you still had coke left, so while she smoked those stinky rocks, you took a few sniffs. lisa chattered non-stop, and what little you caught of her conversation had to do with the baby her mother stole from her. another innocent child born a junkie, but now she was gone.
you didn't give a shit about this mess she was yapping, you just wanted your dick sucked so you could break out. blaring rap songs (eric b. & rakim, big daddy kane) crashed through the closed window like an urban rhythm soundtrack.
touching her bony leg, she told you to wait until she has smoked another rock. she is jumpy and nervous, but after sucking that glass dick lisa would be just fine, at least for five minutes.
you lay down, imagining yourself swimming in the ocean. you could feel lisa unfastening your belt and pants. gently she began licking your balls, sucking and gently gibbling with skill. with your eyes closed, in your mind you saw your father emerging from the sea. except, unlike those dreams from your youth, he doesn't look to be at peace. his eyes look angry and confused.
"be a man," your dead daddy said. "be a fucking man."
minutes passed and soon your vision was shattered by loud cackling laughter. despairingly you opened your eyes and saw that it was lisa laughing though fucked-up teeth.
"i been sucking your dick for twenty minutes and you still ain't hard, poppi," she says. "you been sniffing that shit all night long, now your little dickie won't co-operate."
you felt like a drowning man trying to catch your breath. with these simple words, blood rushed to your head. you could feel the anger building in your chest like a wall as her laughter echoed through that room of horrors as though it were coming through a set of hi-fi speakers.
“you’re going to regret that you raggy bitch,” you screamed, and before you could help yourself you punched lisa in the face. on impact, her mouth shattered as teeth and blood rained to the floor.
for a moment she was dazed, but without warning she leapt on your back and began pulling your hair as her fingernails scratched the back of your neck. "fuckyoufuckyoufuckyou..." she cried and screamed and lost her mind. regaining your balance, you flipped the crazy broad off your back. she looked like a broken doll sprawled on the floor, her skull cracked; you noticed your pants and underwear are still around your ankles.
although lisa had not moved since you flipped her a minute ago, her laughter was still loud in that evil room.
she was unconscious on the floor, but still you were afraid. suppose she filed a police report at the same precinct where you were to report to work in the morning.
it would be your rookie word against a crack-head, but who needed the grief; more than likely she would get one of the housing project posse-boys who populated the block to pop your ass on the sneak tip.
pulling up your pants, you buckled your belt and stared into lisa's damaged face. shit, she had bought it on herself, you reasoned. who told the bitch it was cool to laugh at the police.
slipping your dirty hand into your pocket, you felt a pack of newports. you lit one, sucking on the filter like it was a pacifier. lost in thought for a moment, you decided to set the entire pack of matchs aflame, tossing the lit matches into a pile of yellow newspaper next to the stained mattress.
flames scaled the cheap plastered walls lined with rotting wood, you could feel the heat on your body and sweat on your brow. as the fire begans to spread you could smell lisa's burning flesh. feeling no remorse as you dashed out of the door and down the five flights.
the next day, when you reported to the precient for your first tour working the four to midnight shift, you would hear the story of some crazy crack head who burned down a building doing stupid crack head shit. your fellow boys in blue would make crude crack jokes and you will laugh, showing them you are down with the program. fuck that serpico shit, you was down.
exiting the burning building, the sidewalk was alive with the jumping jive of spectators who now had something to do with their time instead of sitting on the stoop or shooting dice. cornerboys gathered screamed “meda meda” as though the world was coming to an end. but for you, it had only just begun.
angrily you glanced up at the building. it reminded of that flick the towering inferno. in your stoned mind, the fire looked like a crimson animal trying to escape from the confines of its bronx zoo cage.
watching that sizzling disaster of your own creation, exhilaration surged through your body like electricity. as the blaze grew even more intense, your little dickie finally got hard.
First published in Hood 2 Hood edited by Shannon Holmesstory copyright (C) Michael A. Gonzales, 2010photos copyrighted by their owners
Iced by Ray Shell (Penguin Books, 1993)
An underrated novel about crack addition that director Lee Daniels once considered making into a film. This book is a masterpiece.
Labels: Crack Fiction, Fiction, Michael A. Gonzales, New York City Fiction, South Bronx Fiction, Urban Fiction