He picked up the ringing phone. “Recovery House, Richard speaking.” The large black man with a scary demeanor listened, interjecting the occasional “un huh.” The story was an old one. He’d heard it many, many times. “Well, you called the right place. You want the pain to stop? Uh huh…well, then you gotta do something about it. Why don’t you stop over, we can have a chat.” In an earlier time, where menace and threat were a way of life, invitations to chat had a darker meaning.
A Packard pulled to the curb at the corner of Broadway and River Streets. The Passaic River, swollen with the spring thaw, rolled silently a few yards away as it traveled to join the Raritan and the sea. The young man, who had been standing on the corner for the past fifteen minutes, slid into passenger seat and slammed the door. The car left Paterson, headed south for Newark.
Motioning with his head toward the back of the car, the driver said. “I got what you need in the trunk – you can get strapped before we head for the tunnel. We’ll stop in Quigquake Park - private.” The young man was nervous, his eyes darting. “First day of school, eh?” The driver smiled. The young man said nothing.
“You’ll be fine, kid. We gonna pick up Pops, get set up and head into Harlem. He don’t usually go on runs like this. Guess I wasn’t kidding about school, huh. You got a name?”
“Yes, I do,” the young man said. He looked hard at the driver. “It’s Richard.” The driver smiled.
“We’re going to Harlem? I thought this was a Jersey thing.” The driver stared straight ahead, “Spanish Harlem, to be exact. A gun makes as much noise there as it does in Jersey. A problem?”
The metal ribs of the Pulaski Skyway hummed underneath them as they, now three, headed for Hoboken and the tunnel. Once into the city, they turned left on Canal and then pointed north on to the West Side Highway, exiting on 110th Street. Just past the top of Central Park they turned left, traveling north to 118th Street, stopping in front of a five story tenement walkup.
“Fifth floor, rear. 5C. We’re expected…” said Pops, a late middle age black man. “I’m getting’ too old for all this stair climbing shit.” Nodding to Richard, “You stay behind me on the way up, in front on the way down. Got it?” Richard, now wearing a trench coat, a sawed off 12 Gage hanging from his belt, climbed out of the back seat. “And you,” said Pops, looking at the driver, “keep the engine on. This should be quick.”
Richard had wanted the Marine Corps; a uniform, training, a purpose, but the streets, the ‘hood, his companions, all conspired in a perfect storm of trouble.
The oldest of nine, care for siblings fell largely to him. Both parents worked – father in a silk factory, mother as a domestic. “You ain’t got a lick a sense, boy! You never gonna amount to nothin’!” his father bellowed in alcoholic rage. His mother, often with blackened eyes and a bloused lip, said nothing. The young man vowed some day to kill him.
Quick with his hands, the PAL gyms were a second home. He fought well, both in the ring and out. But prizefighting, and a way out, eluded him. The Marines – that was the answer. So he hoped. He was smart, and early on, he was a reader. “Put down that goddamn book, where’s your shine box?!”
As a youngster, the shine box, and customers wearing suits, smoking cigars, provided an introduction of sorts. “Take this envelope to Broadway and Water, see Tony in the tailor shop. Give it to him. This five’s for you…” Numbers, dope, money. Up and down the streets of Paterson. An education. Later, when the shine box was gone, he’d sing doo wop with his pals on street corners, kid the girls, roll the occasional drunk. “Kick that useless wino, what’s the matter with you?” ‘Soft’ doesn’t play well on the streets. Something inside him hurt, he didn’t want to cause pain, to be without mercy. “Kick that motherfucker!” He swallowed big gulps of that hurt, pounded it down, deep. He kicked. He fought. By late adolescence, stints in a Who’s Who of Jersey reformatories had nixed the dream of the Marines. “We don’t take criminals,” he was told, and summarily dismissed when he applied.
Fresh out of Jamesburg Reformatory, he met Pops.
Pops had had that name since he was in his late 30’s. Big, almost 300 pounds, he’d always seemed older than his years. He favored bespoke three piece suits, starched white shirts and perfectly knotted ties. Sometimes, a red carnation boutonniere appeared in a lapel. He had a presence, cultivated and nurtured. And had parlayed that presence into a lucrative career; numbers, then loan sharking and eventually, narcotics. Pops was always on the lookout for talent. Tough, strong, ruthless. He’d heard about a young man in Paterson and sent word to meet at a hotel downtown. Sitting in a high-backed chair in the lobby, the process glistening on his newly conked hair, Pops must have been an impressive sight. Richard shook his hand. He met a way out. He met his future.
The door to 5C opened before they got to it. Pops went in. Richard followed. An envelope was exchanged for a package about the size of a shoebox. Pops opened it, peered inside, then nodded. Outside 5C again, they headed down the stairs, Richard going first. Pops put his hand on the young man’s shoulder, whispering, “The motherfucker called someone, I can smell it. Let’s move fast.”
On the landing of the fourth floor stood a Hispanic man in his 30’s, arms folded. “What you fellas got there?” Richard stopped on the stairs, half a flight above him. “You best step out the way,” Richard said.
“Out the way?” Sneering, the Hispanic man said, “Which way’s that? The Jersey way? Where you think you are?”
Richard pulled back the right side of his trench coat, his hand on the shotgun. “Any old way, so long as it’s out,” Richard said. His unblinking eyes riveted on the Hispanic man.
“What you got in the package there?” the man said, gazing up at Pops. Pops was silent. “Got some dope there? I think we need to have a chat. And I bet you Jersey fucks can’t even shoot straight.”
As those words spilled from his mouth, the Hispanic man suddenly moved his hand toward his pocket. The shotgun swung from Richard’s belt, the muzzle flash lighting the semidarkness of the stairwell into bright, high relief. The Hispanic man’s left leg exploded and disappeared below the knee.
“Oh God! Oh God, Oh God…!” he screamed. Blood and bone splattered over the corner of the landing where he lay, writhing.
Richard walked down the stairs and stood over him.
“God’s not here, amigo. I’m the only motherfucker you got to deal with.”
It would be awhile before God and Richard would enjoy any proximity. Forty years, long stretches in two state penitentiaries. Finally, standing on the second tier, in front of his cell at Arizona State Penitentiary, he looked out on a patch of desert. The same patch he’d looked at for more than two decades. “I’m a drunk and an addict. That’s why I’m standing here.” He’d been told for years that he had a problem. His standard response had always been, the only problem I’ve got, is you telling me I have a problem. For the first time, he told himself, they might be right. He stood quietly as that thought ripened in his consciousness. In time, that thought would grow; it would morph into kindness, gratitude, courage, and Richard, cloaked in perpetual amazement, would find what he had always sought - a purpose.