Looking west towards Lexington from 3rd Ave., the arc of 118th Street in East Harlem falls away towards the setting sun, and it feels to Owen like the curve of the earth itself. Humidity presses into every crack and hole in the cement, every pore in his skin. The low sun is a fierce presence, burning the tops off buildings as it drops into the Hudson. Blue grey shadows halve the sidewalks at the corner of 118th and 3rd, where several preschoolers press brightly-colored Nehi bottle caps into the heat-softened tar around a sewer grating, framing it. Pedestrians walk in slow motion, arms hanging limp. On the stoop across the street from Owen, a young woman in a light blue cotton dress sits on the stone steps with feet apart, fanning herself with the loose fabric. Two older men behind her sit motionless in folding chairs, socks rolled down and pants legs rolled up.
Owen watches from his perch on the stoop next to the stairwell leading down to the PAL storage room. He tightens the two gold-buckled straps of the brown leather band circling his left wrist, strapped into place by Martinez a few minutes ago in an impromptu ceremony that included four Los Reyes lieutenants. The five gang members are standing at the top of the stoop now, waiting for Owen to leave, waiting to take back the street which everyone knows is theirs; even the cops know that this playstreet works because Los Reyes allows it to.
The cool band presses against his sweaty skin; Owen measures his pulse and takes a deep breath to calm himself as he begins the three block walk back to his apartment near the East River. One-by-one, the brown- and grey-stoned facades of the four-story railroad apartment buildings, with their steep stairfronts and tall thin windows, absorb the creeping darkness. The young woman withdraws from her stoop; the old men reposture themselves in their fold-up chairs. A group of four older men walk past Owen with hands in their pockets and heads down. Shouting—an argument between a man and a woman—erupts and spills out of a window three stories up.
He takes one last look back at the gang, and down at the metal door behind which all the Police Athletic League equipment is stored: basketballs, nerfballs, rubber balls, sticks for stoopball, a ping-pong table, paddles and balls, a half dozen easels, watercolors and tempera paints, brushes, paper, chalk, picture books, two sawhorses, two twelve-foot high posts which fit into holes drilled in the street, and two orange baskets with backboards, which mount onto the posts. Every weekday morning between 7:30 and 8am, Owen sets up the two sawhorses and the two basketball posts; the curbs serving as court sidelines.
“Don’t never take it off!” yells Martinez, smiling. The wiry 16-year old is young to be a gang leader; but he is also a thug, a drug-dealer, a ruthless fighter, a punk who carries a pistol in the waistband of his jeans. His arms are a frenzied mix of of tattoos and bruises. “Not downtown with your rich white friends. Never,” he adds, smiling.
Despite Owen’s athletic physique, tough-guy face with its twice-broken nose, and his willingness to take a hit, his white skin and college education keep the gang members on their guard. The wristband with the four-pronged crown carved into it represents a grudging show of respect, but not trust.
* * * * *
Not all the gang leaders had agreed with Martinez’ decision to award Owen the wristband. Initiation into Los Reyes normally required two dangerous rites of passage: a pummeling at the hands of lieutenants, and an attack on a rival gang member. An acceptable alternative was to commit a felony crime—steal a car, break into a neighborhood store, shake down a shop owner. Two lieutenants had initially balked at honoring the white guy: Ricki, only thirteen and already sporting a six-inch scar across his abdomen, and Renny, fourteen, who lost part of his left ear to a gunshot. But Martinez had witnessed the event earlier that afternoon, and had determined some kind of reward was due. And what else was there to give that mattered, that was worth something? Respect is impersonal, and easier to earn than trust, Owen’s father—a Navy veteran—had always said. Trust implies a personal stake, and takes time.
Owen’s euphoria is cauterized by a competing sense of dread; the sense—as real as the waves of heat rising from the still radiant cement—that he is slipping further away from the world he came from, but will never be accepted in the one he now inhabits.
By his mid-teens, Owen already had a reputation as a guy you couldn’t rattle, who kept his cool. He had learned from his father that most fights were about false honor, or a girlfriend; the impulse to run away from danger was overcome not by courage but by an adrenaline rush and a shaky ego. His father’s Iraq stories about bar fights and war battles came from a past that bore no resemblance to the life of Owen’s childhood, but they had the hoped-for effect, once Owen’s college basketball coach had suggested the PAL job. Coach Ogden was from New York City and had himself worked summers as a Playstreet Director while in college. “Man, you oughta see the way those boys play three-on-three in the streets. It’s a tough game. A rough game. You’ll learn a lot. And you’ll be doing good. Those boys’ll try’n hurt you. They won’t like you coming in. You will have to earn their respect.” Owen’s father had endorsed the idea immediately. That Owen had signed on for a second summer surprised everyone, including his coach, and had earned Owen his father’s admiration.
Owen was not a skillful player; he was a workhorse. He was a guy who could get points off the bench, as the saying goes. When he played ball on 118th street that first summer, just staying on his feet under the basket was a major achievement; offensively he was reduced to shooting jumpers from 3-point territory. He was fouled incessantly in an effort to get him to retaliate or quit. When he refused, he was taunted verbally: “Pussy!” “Fag!” “Dickless!” and the popular “White boy!” But his game improved. He got up quicker on his jumpers. He learned a couple moves. He learned how to carry his elbows higher. He had earned regional NCAA honors his last season in college. Of course he would come back to 118th Street.
In Martinez’ eyes, Owen’s actions earlier that day defined bravery—but not to Owen. He had simply come off the bench the way he always did. He had been refereeing a three-on-three well past clean-up time when he heard the screams. Heads turned west towards Lex, and a crowd had already formed. Fistfights were common, a daily summer activity, but this one was different. The ‘ballers joined a semi-circle forming around two combatants.
One was Harold Barnes—a big black man in his late forties, who wore sweatsuits even on the hottest days, who was the sole cook and owner of The Little Burger Joint on the northwest corner of 118th Street and 3rd, handed over to him by his father who had bought it when this part of Manhattan was mostly African-American, before the Hispanic influx—the lone black holdout along a stretch of 3rd known as Little San Juan. The tiny restaurant with only ten seats lining a single counter, served small and affordable hamburgers on English muffins—and a refreshing sour orange soda. It was open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, and no one saw much of Harold other than that. He lived above the restaurant and seldom ventured out onto the street in daylight. Word was he didn’t need to work; he had a disability pension from the Army due to a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan.
Harold held a baseball bat, and stood like he was in a batter’s box, ready to swing for the fences. A few feet from him, screaming obscenities and gripping a small-handled knife with a 3 to 4-inch blade, was a young dark-skinned Hispanic man with a natty afro, perhaps in his twenties, whom Owen did not recognize. The two men stood nervously, ten feet from one another, the stranger continuing his run of profanity, Harold tensely quiet.
“Who is the young guy?” asked Owen, to no one in particular. Martinez appeared and whispered, “That’s Harold’s own kid, man, from when he was married to a Puerto Rican lady.”
“I gotta call the cops,” said Owen, as if to apologize for doing something no gang member, or for that matter anyone in the crowd, would think of doing until after the drama had climaxed.
“Yeah, whatever,” said Martinez, languidly, as Owen began to force his way through the thick scrum of bodies towards his apartment—and the cell phone he kept hidden there, until he realized that would take too long. Several spectators held up smart phones—the Los Reyes members all had them—and were taking pictures or video, but it was unlikely any of them would give up their phone for a cop call. He was about to tap a high-school aged mother named Rosa on the shoulder when Martinez surprised him from behind and turned him around. He was holding his cell phone. “Call your boys if you wanna,’” he said. “Those two hate each other since forever,” said the teenager. “I got nothin’ to do with ‘em.”