There was never an argument, never a scene. Once in a while I had to say, “Take it out.”Most of the time I didn’t need to utter a word. She would pull the garment out of her bag,put it back on the hanger, or maybe hand it to me, our eyes never meeting as she slinkedout. We always let them go. There wasn’t much choice: in a precinct that had come to beknown as Fort Apache, the Wild West, the cops had their hands full dealing with thegangs. Besides, the management understood that the shame and pity were punishmentenough, and I naturally agreed. I abhorred feeling pitied, that degrading secondhandsadness I would always associate with my family’s reaction to the news I had diabetes.To pity someone else feels no better. When someone’s dignity shatters in front of you, itleaves a hole that any feeling heart naturally wants to fill, if only with its own sadness.On Saturday nights the store was open late, and it was dark by the time we rolleddown the gates. Two patrol officers would meet us at the door and escort us home. I don’tknow how this was arranged, whether it was true that one of the saleswomen wassleeping with one of these cops, but I was glad of it anyway. As we walked, we could seethe SWAT team on the roofs all along Southern Boulevard, their silhouettes bulging withbody armor, assault rifles bristling. One by one the shops would darken, and we couldhear the clatter of the graffiti-covered gates being rolled down, trucks driving off, untilwe were the only ones walking. Even the prostitutes had vanished. You might trip ontourniquets and empty glassine packets when you got into the courtyard area at TitiCarmen’s, but you wouldn’t run into any neighbors. I would spend the night there,talking the night away with Miriam. I wished Nelson were there too, but he was neverhome anymore.I remember falling asleep thinking again about
Lord of the Flies
. It was as if thefly-crusted sow’s head on a stick were planted in a crack of the sidewalk on SouthernBoulevard. The junkies haunting the alley were little boys smeared with war paint,abandoned on a hostile island, and the eyes of the hunters cruising slowly down the streetglowed with primitive appetites. The cops in their armor were only a fiercer tribe. Wherewas the conch?The next morning, in daylight, Southern Boulevard was less threatening. The streetvendors were out, shop fronts were open, people were coming and going. On the wayhome I stopped at a makeshift fruit cart to buy a banana for a snack. I was standing therepeeling my purchase when a police car rolled up to the curb. The cop got out and pointedhere and there to what he wanted—there was a language barrier—and the vendor loadedtwo large shopping bags with fruit. The cop made as if to reach for his wallet, but it wasonly a gesture, and the vendor waved it off. When the cop drove away, I asked the manwhy he didn’t take the money.“
Es el precio de hacer negocios
. If I don’t give the fruit, I can’t sell the fruit.”My heart sank. I told him I was sorry it was like that.“We all have to make a living,” he said with a shrug. He looked more ashamed thanaggrieved.Why was I so upset? Without cops our neighborhood would be even more of a warzone than it was. They worked hard at a dangerous job with little thanks from the peoplethey protected. We needed them. Was I angry because I held the police to a higherstandard, the same way I did Father Dolan and the nuns? There was something more to it,beyond the betrayal of trust, beyond the corruption of someone whose uniform is asymbol of the civic order.