Among Murderers, murder, violence

Returning home

Last semester I taught at a college in the Bronx. While the college is located in a “good” neighborhood (in Riverdale), the 231st Street subway station where I had to transfer to a bus to take me there isn’t. Kingsbridge is very depressing. The bus did not come in 10-minute intervals as the schedule promised, and I had to take a livery cab three times during the semester (each costing me $15) to make it to class in time. There was always fresh vomit at the bus station; an old, Eastern European man whose legs were so bad that he could barely walk stood at the corner with two “We Buy Gold” signs tied to his torsos; an African American woman whose body was ravaged from years of drug use or disease could often be seen picking through the trashcan in front of Dunkin Donuts. This reminded me of a scene that didn’t make it to the final version of Among Murderers describing a dilemma many ex-cons face: having to return to the same crime-ridden and sad neighborhoods where they committed their crimes.

The passage describes a visit to the neighborhood in the Bronx where Bruce, one of the book’s protagonists, murdered a stranger in an argument in front of the Monte Carlo liquor store 29 years ago. A few months after his release from prison he moved not far from the crime scene.

“Beyond 125th Street I was the only white person on the train.

“I’ve been sleeping on a prison floor for the last three days,” a man who entered the train car at Grand Concourse told the crowd. “I’m hungry, I’m stinking. I need soap. I can’t even smell myself.” As if reading my thoughts, he added, “I know, this is too much information. But I can’t eat any more of these peanut butter and jelly sandwiches they hand out at church. If you don’t believe me, give me food. My stomach is growling. Twenty-five cents, 50 cents, a dollar… Whatever you can afford.”

I pulled out a dollar and handed it to him. He took it, gingerly, to avoid our hands touching. Other people gave him money, too. He left the car with five or six dollars and the parting words, “And I don’t know if there’s any mothers in this car… God bless and happy Mother’s Day.” A black woman wearing a pink nursing uniform slipped him another dollar.

I took a seat next to a couple in their 40s. The woman had nodded off, her head slowly easing down toward her knees. She drooled onto her already stained jogging pants. Her partner nudged her as the train emerged from underground. “Look how it’s raining!” he said.

It seemed I had traded the sunny skies in Manhattan for clouds and heavy rain in the Bronx. The woman next to me made a halfhearted attempt to turn and look through the window behind her, but she quickly lost the struggle against her leaden eyelids.

It was raining heavily, and I sought refuge under the awning of a beauty salon on Jerome Avenue. Trains rattled above me. Ambulances, limousines and school busses charged by on the ground. It was so dark under the weighty clouds and the train tracks that I had to remind myself the sun had yet to set. Across the street, next door, to the left and to the right were Domino’s Pizza, Burger King, McDonald’s, Subway, KFC, Mina’s Nails and Nine Hairs Style. Behind me black women with straightened hair smiled seductively from hair-relaxer boxes. Mannequins with various dark skin tones showed off the tamed long hair of the salon’s wig collection. “Hi, my name is Joane… Olivia… Elisa… Aja…” the severed heads announced through square speech bubbles. For 15 minutes I was the only white person on the block. Then an obese white man walked by on two club feet.

The rain was not abating so I decided to run across the street to Nam’s Discount Store to buy an umbrella. I asked a man in his 50s carrying a bottle in a brown bag where the next liquor store was. He didn’t speak English, but the Korean man who sold me the umbrella translated my question into Spanish. With my rudimentary grasp of Spanish I came to understand there was a liquor store in each direction. I opted to head right.

Monte Carlo Liquor Store was tiny. As if to accommodate the large amount of information I associated with Bruce’s crime, I had envisioned a store at least twice its actual size. I looked around. On either side of the store were antique wooden shelves brimming with bottles. The bulletproof glass that spanned the store separated the customers from the shelves and the clerk and left one narrow aisle in the middle. The floor on the customer aisle was covered with cardboard to soak up the rain. It was easy to imagine how a person could feel trapped and turn hysterical when cornered in the store’s confined space. I could feel Bruce’s anger heating up between the sheets of impenetrable glass.

A $10 bill was taped to the glass by the register on the left. A handwritten note underneath read, “No good.” Just as I wondered what was “no good” about the bill, a man with bloodshot eyes at the front of the store called out, “Una mujer bella esta aquí para verte!” A handsome man approached the register and started speaking to me through a small slit in the glass. I couldn’t help but think of a prison visit.”