The dangerous day Julio taught me about capitalism.
My friend Julio is Chinese (mother) and Puerto Rican (father). He is tiny only five foot five about a hundred and thirty pounds. A study in motion, Julio is never still. I haven’t seen Julio in more than twenty years, but his constant state of motion was unforgettable. Sitting his hands would stroke his wispy black mustache and goatee. Standing he bounced from boot heel to boot heel. Julio wore expensive leather boots with inside zippers. Walking with Julio was an Olympic event not a stroll. Julio never strolled.
Julio grew up in the Bronx where you walk with purpose or you stay home. Always aware, Julio’s eyes were the most active things on a kinetic body. Julio’s eyes, even when sitting in the Vassar dinning hall, watched front and back doors, always the doors. Julio would sit with his back to the wall like an old west gun fighter eyes flicking between doors. Front, back, pick up a fork, eat a little, front, back and repeat with only occasional glances at you if you were speaking directly to him. This level of awareness, this “paranoid now”, took some getting used to. Growing up in Texas and then Greenwich, Connecticut, I didn’t learn gun fighter logic. I knew how to put tape on my Top-Siders to get another half a year out of them. I knew how to break in a lacrosse stick. I knew how to buy stereo components that could, when put in dorm windows, play jazz to the entire campus. Julio and I were born on different planets.
I liked Julio. He is what I imagine hanging with Miles Davis would be like – never boring. Julio would listen to Miles with me, but he preferred salsa and Cuban beats. One day, almost thirty years ago, Julio asked me to take a ride with him to State University of New York (SUNY), New Paltz. I never bought drugs from Julio. I knew he was a dealer. Everyone knew. He drove an expensive BMW, wore designer clothes and never let you pick up a tab. Julio was my friend not my dealer. Julio respected this unspoken boundary and never, until that day at lunch, asked me for anything.
“What is this about Julio,” I asked suspiciously. “I need muscle,” Julio told me straight out eyes flicking to the door. Julio didn’t lie, another thing I liked about him. If he said anything else it would have been a lie. I wouldn’t have taken the ride. “Sure,” I said simply. I was not a large guy (am larger now I am afraid but not in a good way), but I benched my weight plus fifty pounds when I was twelve. That can intimidate people who don’t know better. I played football and lacrosse and didn’t mind getting hit. It is something you get used to. Large guys with pads had been hitting me most of my life. I went to Vassar to use my head for something other than hitting people. Now, in a moment of supreme stupidity, I put myself in more danger than any football game. Why did I do it? What was I thinking?
It was a Risky Business moment. In the movie, Tom Cruise looks directly into the camera, slides classic Ray Bans back on his nose, lights a cigarette and says, “Sometimes you just have to say what the fuck.” This was that moment. Julio drove to SUNY with windows down. His arm hung out the window. Every now and then Julio would fly his hand flat like a plane’s wing. Wind would move his hand up, down then up. He never looked over at me. He let me play Miles Davis Birth of the Cool. We crossed the Mid-Hudson Bridge. The Hudson flowed quiet and serene below. Julio’s BMW cut the cliffs on the west side. The sun was setting. It would be dark when we reached SUNY.
SUNY is larger than Vassar, but Julio knew where we were going. He parked and turned off the car. “Martin,” Julio rarely used my name so I knew this was serious, “whatever I do in there you follow me.” I nodded. I didn’t say anything. I was scared. “Don’t worry,” Julio said with a slight smile. “These guys are chumps,” more teeth and bigger smile now and that tiny Cuban high-pitched laugh Julio had. “Everything is going to be fine,” and with that we got out of the car and walked among identical building with large black numbers on the side. I tried to remember the numbers. It was impossible. Everything looked the same.
Inside these grey buildings were as confusing as outside. A series of labyrinth like turns following clues only Julio understood finally moved us to the right door, the drug dealer door. I remember thinking, “if I have to get out of here I am dead.” Standing at the door Julio smiled one last time very fast before putting on a different look, his game face. His head dropped forty-five degrees. He stared at the door like he could bore a hole in it with his eyes. It looked like Julio had a helmet and mouth guard on. His teeth were tight and bared. He knocked three times in rapid succession.
Someone yelled something inside. Someone yelled something else. The door opened. There were two guys in the tight room. The guy to my left was sprawled on a couch. Let’s call him “couchboy.” The couch had large holes and many cigarette burns. Couchboy’s head turned slowly toward the interruption otherwise he didn’t move. There was a blonde guy in the middle of the room. He welcomed us much like a circus Ring Master. No small talk. We didn’t exchange names. Someone came from the other room with a large ziplock baggie full to the brim with a pound of pot. Third Guy handed the pot to Julio glancing at me.
Julio sat down. Couchboy moved a just a little leg so I could sit. I wasn’t sure sitting was a good idea. Standing seemed dangerous too. Couchboy was dangerous. He looked past us not at us. I saw no empathy, no smile. I saw smoldering anger and contempt when he looked quickly over Julio’s head. Couchboy was the dangerous one. Turning down Couchboy’s offer to sit could spark a smoldering fire. I sat and looked right at Couchboy. I was trying to send my toughest stare, but what was I going to do beat Couchboy to death with my Topsider? Couchboy didn’t know me I assured myself.
Julio was having a lively conversation with Ring Master now. He wasn’t screaming, but it was close. “What is all this shake,” he was saying pointing at the baggie. I had no idea what shake was. Shake, Julio would explain later, was the twigs, mud and crap in a pound of pot. Shake was flotsam and jetsam. You couldn’t sell it or smoke it. It was trash.
Julio threw the pound at the Ring Master and got up. I followed his clue brushing Couchboy’s leg as I got up. Couchboy sat up. Here we go I thought. Couchboy was on his feet now. I took a step back. I didn’t turn. I heard Julio turn the doorknob loudly. Julio was behind me. I stopped moving. Moving further would have been the wrong thing to do. It would have told them I was as scared as I was and I didn’t want to do that. Couchboy halved distance between us. He was at arm’s length now. I turned sideways and bent at the waist lowering my shoulder expecting a lunge.
“Wait, wait,” the Ring Master said in an overly friendly tone. “You know your merchandise Julio I will give you that, give me a second,” Ring Master said as he disappeared into the other room. Couchboy took two steps back relaxing his shoulders and rolling his neck. I heard a chiropractic crack. He sat back down on the couch. I remained standing. Standing was the only option now. Julio moved in front of me accepting a new pound from Ring Master. Even an untrained eye, mine, could see this pot was different. It was almost all bud very little “shake.”
“Good,” was the single word Julio said as he took the exact amount of money needed, something he never told me and I never asked, out of his front pocket. Julio and I backed out of the room like gun fighters. Couchboy was playing with a rubber band rolling it between his fingers. He didn’t look up as we backed out, but I stayed for an extra moment, an extra beat. I could feel my fear. It was in my throat like in one-on-one football drills. Drills we used to run. Ten yards, two guys, one ball, one massive hit. You both die a little each time you do this drill. Doing it despite knowing how much it will hurt is the point, if there ever was a point. Couchboy and I almost did the drill. I didn’t take my eyes off Couchboy. My peripheral vision handled Ring Master and third guy. Couchboy was the game and he just kept rolling the rubber band. Couchboy nodded his head ever so slightly just before I took my last backward step out into the hall. I nodded my head a tiny amount.
We rode back listening to Tito Puente with windows down. Every now and then Julio would fly his hand flat like a plane. He watched the road. Twice he turned his head and smiled his big Chinese Puerto Rican smile. He would laugh a little laugh for no reason. We never discussed those fifteen minutes at SUNY. The only payment for my assistance was the experience. Now more than twenty years later every now and again I roll my window down and fly my hand like a plane thinking of Julio down by the schoolyard. As I write this, the Hudson River flows quiet and serene on a moonless night winding its way south to the ocean.
Read more about Julio, capitalism and Martin at ScenTrail.blogspot.com.
Monday, May 19, 2008
The dangerous day Julio taught me about capitalism.