9,000 words, but worth every one - Editor
by Keith G. Laufenberg
God the first garden made and the first city Cain.
—Abraham Cowley, The Garden.
A saint may be defined as a person of heroic virtue whose private judgment is privileged.
—Bernard Shaw. Saint Joan: Preface.
The huge black man smiled, showing several gold-capped teeth and a pressing need of further dental work. He was six feet four inches tall and weighed 250 pounds—almost all of it sinew or muscle. Known around the port only by his street name, Big Sugar, he was a Jamaican who had been living in the port for a little over three months. The Port Authority Bus Terminal, which was situated on the corners of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, was home to innumerable drug-addicts and alcoholics as well as the mentally ill, the incapable and the infirm, and those innumerable human beings that found themselves homeless through circumstance, a stroke of bad luck or just that cruel, uncalculating master of us all—fate—and the Port was a veritable glass and steel-girded city within a city, for most of them. The sprawl of the two lengthy city-blocks, located in the heart of downtown Manhattan, provided this ragamuffin population with enough unguarded tourists and unsuspecting travelers for many of them to virtually make their living’s off the marks, robbing and stealing from them indiscriminately, and using most of their booty to buy drugs or alcohol from the numerous dealers in and around the Port. Of course, there was always that rarity of rarities among the homeless population—like Big Sugar himself—an honest man who neither stole nor harmed anyone willingly and who, though down on their luck, rarely stayed in the Port for very long, Big Sugar being the exception that broke all the hard and fast rules, the hard and fast rules that said anyone who could escape the Port would—and did—as soon as they could, but not Big Sugar, who the homeless, the alkies, the street people and even the mentally ill it seemed, all knew. They knew Big Sugar’s story, that he had come up from Belle Glade, in Florida, where he had been working, cutting sugar cane and, as the story went, had come to New York after injuring, or even killing, one of the bosses who worked for one of the major sugar cartels, cartels that held enormous financial as well as political power in the State of Florida.
Big Sugar was easily identifiable as—besides his enormous size—he had two fingers missing from his left hand and an evil looking scar that started just below his left eye and continued working its way down his face and neck only to disappear into the heavy work-shirt he usually wore. He was listening intently, as Stella, a one-legged diabetic, who lived in a wheelchair and made her living begging coins in the Port, usually in front of the north wing of the terminal, was explaining to him how a former pimp and drug-dealer, who was presently out of business and homeless, had just ripped her off, stealing all of the money in her begging cup. Big Sugar knew the culprit by his street name, Blacksnake, and saw him, standing several yards away staring intently at Stella and Big Sugar knew immediately that Blacksnake realized that the jig was up when he smiled deceptively and then turned and ran for cover. It was shoulder to shoulder on 42nd Street at this hour, just after seven p.m., and Blacksnake, who knew every crack and crevice in the sidewalks, soon disappeared from view. Big Sugar scowled. “He gone Stella—how much did he get?”
“He gots all my dinner money Sug-gah fo-ah bucks.”
Big Sugar was known for protecting the weaker of the Port’s homeless. “Oh mahn Stella, that is a shame, its turbull, but I will get it back for you—you’ll see.”
Stella frowned and her head drooped onto her emaciated chest, as she sniffled silently; but then a woman dropped a dollar bill into her empty cup and she perked up, thinking that maybe she would eat this evening and why not? After all, Big Sugar was back. He was Stella’s personal savior, as well as many of the other Port’s homeless and downtrodden, as they had been forced to routinely turn over their alms and possessions to the many thieves and thugs who had waylaid them on a regular basis, until, that is, three and a half months ago when Big Sugar had appeared on the scene and it had been, ever since, almost an aberration, as it had been this very evening with Stella, that any of the weaker residents were robbed at all. Big Sugar had been on the other side of the Port helping someone else when Blacksnake had seen his chance and robbed her. Stella had never known such peace before Big Sugar had shown up—she had even taken notice of, as Goethe defined clearly, her second soul—hope. Big Sugar was her savior and had been the one who had brought that peace and hope back into her life, even as his very presence now seemed enough to scare any and all of the would-be thieves and thugs away from her—far into the night.
A man dropped two quarters into her tin cup and Stella beamed, realizing that she would make the stolen four dollars back now, in no time at all, for Big Sugar was back and he had always brought her good luck, as savior’s have a way of doing.
Big Sugar stood surveying the crowded sidewalks of the metropolis known far and wide by most of its residents, simply as the City, and kept a wary eye for any of the many thugs and scam artists he knew on sight, as he put a determined grimace on his already scarecrow appearance, for Big Sugar wished not to engage anyone in physical combat unless, like Blacksnake, they had enacted a deed that called for retribution, so as to make certain that the misdeed they had performed would be their last, in the Port Authority anyway. Big Sugar was dressed in a pair of faded blue-jeans, a woolen shirt that helped to camouflage a razor-sharp thirty-inch long machete and he wore a pair of nineteen triple E work boots that he had purchased for a cut-rate price at a downtown Amy-Navy store. He was quite a sight, a savior for many, like Stella, and a nightmare for others, like Blacksnake, who would stay away from the Port for many weeks to come, his fear of Big Sugar enough to do what no blue uniform and badge had ever done.
Thomas Wang spied a telephone and made a decision that he could hold his water long enough to call his wife and let her know what his situation was. Just as he took the telephone off the receiver, a man wearing an orange wool-knit cap that was pulled down over his forehead eyed him warily then nudged his arm. “Hey-yah got a numbah for youse mane.”
“Excuse me,” Wang said slipping his left palm over the receiver.
“Mane, I got a card numbah for youse mane. Youse can call anywhere in ah world for free mane, gimme a nickel for it mane—c’mon youse can call China all night mane—it’s good.”
“Excuse me but I have my own credit cards if I need to call anyone.” Wang, inside a bus terminal for the first time in his life, couldn’t fathom the man’s aggressive behavior or his inability to deal with him, men usually quavered or jumped whenever Thomas Wang spoke to them.
“Hey, c’mon gimme a fin for it mane; I gots a round ah bread waitin’ on me, gimme a nickel mane, I needs dat vial bad mane, c’mon now!”
Thomas Wang shrank back when the man reached over and grabbed his shirt and they began scuffling, until the drug-addicted thug was picked up bodily and thrown to the floor. He jumped up and turned to face Big Sugar, who had grabbed him from behind and deposited him on the floor, where, staring up at Big Sugar’s looming presence, his face turned crimson. “Ah-nah, I wuz jus’ ask-in’ diz mane here for some money is all Big Mane, youse know?”
Big Sugar scowled at the light-skinned Puerto Rican man who he knew only as Flash. “Git on Flash and leave this mahn alone.”
Flash took off in a flash of his own, he had once been a champion hundred-meter sprinter, and he almost bowled over a Port Authority policeman as he turned to make sure Big Sugar wasn’t coming after him. The policeman frowned and walked over to Big Sugar. “Say Big Man, what’s goin’ on here anyway, man? I saw Flash over here, is he high again?”
Before Big Sugar could reply, Thomas Wang introduced himself and then spoke, in great detail, of the incident, praising Big Sugar for his courage and bravery but it was nothing new to the transit authority cop, he had heard the same thing, in the past, from many grateful commuters, as well as homeless beggars and itinerants, all of whom had been rescued by the big Jamaican, from someone attempting to do them harm.
Jimmy Porelli, a New York City policeman for nearly two decades and assigned to the transit authority for the past seven years, rubbed the back of his hand over his grizzled whiskers—he hadn’t shaved in almost a whole day and the beginnings of the salt and pepper beard clashed slightly with his completely dark black hair. Porelli had just turned forty-one and was seriously considering taking a pension the following year. He glanced towards the two holding cells, in the small precinct on the second floor, and saw the lineup of waiting prisoners, the two cells were already stuffed to overflowing and several were shackled to the wall, handcuffs being riveted into the mortared wall, and still the perpetrators ran rampant throughout the terminal. Porelli was thankful for the big Jamaican’s presence, as the Port Authority police could use all the help they
could get, especially Porelli pondered idly, this p.m., as he had seen it coming on his ride to work, from his house in the Bronx—a full-moon. As if they didn’t have enough to worry about on any given night, full-moon’s, to Porelli, had always spelled disaster in the past. As he glanced at a young Hispanic boy who he saw eyeballing an elderly woman and then watched as the boy snatched her purse and took of running, Porelli quickly thanked Big Sugar and then took off after the youthful offender. Big Sugar disappeared before Wang could offer him any money and he reached for the phone—he would inform his wife of his exigent circumstances and that he would call her from the bus station in New Jersey or take a taxicab home, later that evening.
MURDER MOST FOUL
Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
—Shakespeare, Hamlet. Act I, sc. 5, 1. 27.
Inside the men’s bathroom on the second floor, that Thomas Wang was now entering, two homosexuals were engaging in an immoral act behind a closed and locked stall door, their growling and moaning being totally ignored by the four drug addicts who sat in a corner taking turns passing around a crack pipe. One of the addicts, a transvestite with a two-day-old beard showing through his pancake make-up and totally oblivious of the perverted rumblings inside the room, nevertheless, looked up startled when Thomas Wang opened the door and walked into the rank public restroom. The transvestite’s staring demeanor alerted the other junkies and they all looked up and saw not a human being entering the restroom but a mark, a mark wearing an Armani suit that they all envisioned was filled with cash, cash that they could buy more crack with, a habit they all shared and would do anything to feed.
Wang’s nostrils closed reflexively, upon entering the stench-filled lavatory, and he hurried to the urinal and unzipped his fly, where the transvestite brushed up against him. “Ooooooohhh honey, I’ll do youse fo’ a quarter?”
Wang kept directing his stream of urine and didn’t bother to look up but rasped, “Please leave me alone sir.”
Suddenly, the door to the toilet where the two perverts had been engaging one another in an unclean act opened and they ran out of the stall and then the bathroom, even as one of the four crack-heads glared over at Wang, then suddenly jumped up and jumped on his back, pulling him down to the cold, hard tile floor of the bathroom, screaming for the others to help him. He was wrestling with Wang when another crack addict reached for Wang’s coat pocket and a stream of Wang’s urine smacked him in the face, streaming down into his nostrils and mouth.
“Ah-ehah, piss on me mahn, I’ll fuminin’ kill you—I’ll kill you!” The addict let go of Wang’s coat and began kicking him in the genitals and then the head. You could hear Wang’s screams a hundred yards away, if you were listening, which no one was, except for the crack-heads themselves now, and the one who had been the recipient of the stream of Wang’s now relieved bladder, pulled out a wicked looking, razor-sharp roofer’s knife and the glistening curved blade mirrored the face of the one about to lean downward and use it, the demon who had now taken complete control of the man with the knife in his hand, as well as his addict-compatriots.
Big Sugar was walking down the concourse when he spied Wheelchair Paul, who was up on the second floor trying to open the door to the men’s room. He frowned obliquely, wondering how Wheelchair Paul had gotten up to the second floor, as he knew how dangerous the bathrooms were because he had been attacked there himself, upon his arrival, thirteen weeks ago. He could still remember it; he had just come up from Bell Glade after having left a straw boss writhing on the ground in the cane-fields, after he had cheated Big Sugar out of over half of his pay, owed to him from a full season of cutting sugar-cane. Big Sugar knew the man was nothing more than a shill for the powerful sugar cartels but he still had lost his temper and had struck the man down, even though only in self-defense, but he still had had lingering regrets about hamstringing a man when he was down, even though this same man had partially chopped off two of Big Sugar’s fingers. He had confessed it in church and, in confession, the priest at St. Patrick’s—in New York—had reassured him, assuring him that God would forgive him.
It had been in the very same bathroom that Wheelchair Paul was now struggling to open that Big Sugar had been jumped by several crack addicts and had been forced to slice one of them in the arm, almost severing it, after he had pulled a gun on Big Sugar. The word quickly spread throughout the underground city of the Port and the huge ex-cane cutter was given a very wide berth. After experiencing the horrific conditions that the Port’s helpless and homeless were forced to live through daily, Big Sugar had become a troubled man. But, then he had had a dream, a vision in which a voice, a spirit, had appeared before him and told him that his days on earth, as everyone’s, were numbered and that he was at the Port Authority Bus Terminal because God had called him there and that no man indeed, had a higher calling than that man called to help the helpless and the homeless, the weak and the infirm, as Big Sugar had been called to do and so he had stayed, stayed and followed this calling, he had been there nearly three and a half months and the time went by so fast it seemed to Big Sugar only yesterday, instead of ninety-five days ago, that he had had his vision. He had eaten nothing, as he did many days, in almost twenty-four hours and, as he headed towards Wheelchair Paul, who had an I.Q. of well over two-hundred, in the genius range, and who lived on whatever he was given that day, Big Sugar wondered if he would get something somehow—that day—to eat.
Wheelchair Paul was just reaching for the bathroom door when it flew open and slammed against his steel wheelchair—shoving him backwards against the tiled wall—as all pandemonium broke loose when his chair rolled backwards towards the entrance of the bathroom, partially blocking it, as four crack-heads all attempted to pile through the opening at once.
Big Sugar ran up the stairs and to Wheelchair Paul’s rescue just as the biggest of the crack addicts shoved his wheelchair backwards and came face to face with Big Sugar. A Rastafarian, from the same West Indies Island as Big Sugar, the crack-head knew him only by his street name and legendary unrivalled reputation for protecting the weak and helpless, even unto risking his own life and limb, he was known for being absolutely fearless, remarkably strong, and capable of superhuman feats of strength, that had cowed even the bravest and most reckless of thugs. The thief’s eyes magnified and he hissed, “Ah mahn—Big Sugar?”
Big Sugar smiled his golden deceptive smile. “Git on niggah,” he growled, scowling.
All four crack-heads quickly stormed past Big Sugar and ran, stumbling down the stairs, toward the nearest exit in the Port’s main concourse.
Wheelchair Paul smiled upon seeing who it was. “Ah well, Mister Big Sugar—how are you?”
Big Sugar smiled obliquely, his street name, Big Sugar, had stuck from day one in the Port when he had unloaded his cane-field exploits to a homeless man, just before going to St. Paddy’s for confession, on that very first day, his first ever in the city of New York, and as his exploits grew at the Port his name grew with them, until all that was needed for a homeless or helpless Port resident to be assured of being left alone or assured of safe passage in the deadly a.m. hours, was simply to utter his name. It was almost spiritual because those that had called on Jesus before Big Sugar’s appearance now invoked his name in the same breath, knowing from past experience that Jesus was the savior but that if Big Sugar showed up your chances of staying alive in this world multiplied substantially. He returned Wheelchair Paul’s smile. “Ah Paulie, and how are you tonight?”
“Good, Big Guy, good, but I’ll be a lot better if I ever get inside and relieve my bladder. Hey, you look hungry—here I gotta half a sandwich.”
Big Sugar pushed the sandwich back into Wheelchair Paul’s shirt. “Don’t want yo’ sam-itch Paulie—c’mon let’s get you inside.” Big Sugar opened the door and nodded at Wheelchair Paul, who he knew insisted on doing everything himself. “Well? Roll on inside, Paulie.”
Wheelchair Paul pushed on the wheelchairs’ wheels but stopped up short. “Gee-zuz Mary and Joseph, will yah lookit this Big Guy?”
Big Sugar stepped into the bathroom and stopped next to the immobile wheelchair and stared at the bloody carnage that was lying in a heap in the middle of the floor. It had once been a man but his face was a mass of unrecognizable flesh, with blood-streaked facial bones and teeth scattered at intervals just adjacent to the corpse. The man’s clothes were soaked in blood and strewn in shredded strips across the tile floor. Big Sugar walked closer and stared at the lumpy mass that had once been a human being’s face. He peered closer and closer, as if it were a rattlesnake poised to strike and Wheelchair Paul’s eyes mimicked Big Sugar’s, gazing hypnotically at the slimy corpse. Then, they both saw it, at the same instant, and both men recoiled at the sight. Big Sugar exhaled audibly and spat, “Animals, animals they are who did this mahn, they are not human beings.”
Wheelchair Paul had rolled his chair to within only a few yards of the already decomposing corpse and literally shrank back when he saw what someone had done to the man. Besides being stomped and beaten to death, someone had taken a blade to the man’s penis and had hacked it off and shoved it into his mouth. Big Sugar put his head on the man’s chest and then felt for a pulse, nothing, the man’s heart had stopped; he was gone, dead, finished with living, upon this earth. Big Sugar saw that the man’s suit, although bloodied, was an expensive one with the initials T.W. on cuff-linked shirtsleeves and suddenly a bell went off inside his cranium, as he remembered the oriental man that he had rescued earlier that evening, from another addict. He was certain that this was the same man and his hand balled up, into a massive fist. Wheelchair Paul saw his anger and barked, “Big Sugar, we’d better report this, the station’s just aroun’ ah corner—on this floor.
Big Sugar smiled at the irony of this fact but shook his head. “No Paulie—I am going after the killers mahn—I know who they are you go and report it. You know as well as I do that the po-leece nevah do nuttin’ anyway.”
Wheelchair Paul’s eyes flicked to the corpse and then back to Big Sugar. “I know it Big Man but I think they will this time!”
Big Sugar’s eyes flashed to the corpse and he knew immediately that Wheelchair Paul might be right, as he remembered the oriental man’s demeanor and dress, he was a mover and shaker, a man of wealth and power and the police were as political an organization as any other and all the killings at the Port Authority were almost always street people killing other street people, which to the police was just one less lowlife but let a wealthy man be murdered and the politicians, wealthy men themselves, came out crying law and order. Big Sugar, who felt his power came from a higher source, knew that every life was equal and he also sensed that this man had had a family and now that family would be deprived of him, and he knew that this vicious of a deed would hurt all the homeless and helpless in the Port because the police would, upon finding the corpse, make a deadly sweep of the area. He knew he had been called to protect the weak and helpless but as far as Big Sugar was concerned that included all human beings and this man had obviously been helpless at the hands of the four crack-heads that he now knew had killed him. He nodded at Wheelchair Paul and then at the door. “Aw-rye Paulie—let’s go and see the po-leece then, mahn.”
As they made their way towards the police station, Big Sugar could see that it was next to hopeless and the clock was ticking; he could see that the cells were jam-packed, as were the wall shackles. He knew that every second that went by made it that much harder for him to catch up with the merciless quartet of murderous crack addicts. He grabbed Wheelchair Paul’s arm. “Paulie, make a report mahn. I am going after these wolves for they have caught the scent of blood and may do more mayhem. They are looking for a few rounds of bread and will stop at nothing to get it. I mean to find them mahn; make the report and show the po-leece the dead mahn’s body.”
Wheelchair Paul sighed and nodded, even as Big Sugar was gone, his huge form disappearing into the thick crowd of bodies, almost like a ghost.
Lt. Felix ‘the Cat’ Bandora rubbed a sweaty palm over his grizzled, heavily whiskered face and sighed audibly. It had been a typical Saturday night at the Port. More than half the force over one-hundred cops, were on duty and still they had no room at the inn, no place left to stack the lowlifes, not even any wall-shackles available and they had had to resort to handcuffing them to the chairs. He scowled at Wheelchair Paul. “Yeah, what was that again? I din’ catch youse drift sport—know what I mean?”
“I said there has been a murder in a bathroom around the corner here on the second floor.”
Bandora frowned and looked Wheelchair Paul up and down and then glanced around the room. Who should he give this to? No, who was free, that was the question tonight. “Porelli, Jimmy Porelli, c’mere Jimmy.”
Porelli scowled at the watch commander but strolled over to his desk and nodded at him with his usual forlorn expression. “Gee-zuz boss,” he said, “I was jus’ sittin’ down to make out a report.”
“Yeah-yeah,” Bandora said and turned back towards Wheelchair Paul. “Jimmy this here is Paul, He says there’s a dead poison in ah terlet, right Paul?”
“Yessir, right up here on this floor, just around the corner here,” Wheelchair Paul barked, looking at both the cops and pleading with his eyes for their attention.
Porelli opened his mouth to protest but Bandora had already motioned another cop over to his desk and was speaking to him. “Hey Billy, ‘id youse get those Knicks tickets for me?”
The other cop smiled and pulled out four tickets for the coming Tuesday’s Knicks/Bulls game and Bandora smiled then frowned at Porelli. “Jimmy, youse still here,” he said. “Go on and check this thing in the bad-room out?”
Porelli reached out and began pushing Wheelchair Paul’s chair but was quickly rebuked, as Wheelchair Paul stopped the chair and barked, “I can push myself, sir, thank you very much.”
Porelli smiled weakly when Wheelchair Paul did a reverse wheelie and Porelli skulked after him, as the cop who had given Bandora the Knicks tickets said, “What’s all that about Skipper?”
“The crip’ says there’s a stiff in ah terlet. Who knows anymore Billy, youse know?”
“Yeah, garbage on garbage Skip—it’s all we ever get anymore?”
“Yeah, maybe a wino passed out in there or sumpin’, youse know.”
Purgatory-A place or state of temporary punishment.
—Webster’s New American Dictionary.
Big Sugar padded into the Port’s basement, a netherworld of intransigence and insanity known only to the homeless residents who lived there and the police that swept the area regularly. He saw several junkies passing a crack pipe around and moved in for a closer look. One of them glanced up. “Wanna hit bro-ah?”
Big Sugar shook his head solemnly; he could see they were all stoned and weren’t who he was looking for anyway and so he moved on and caught sight of two transvestites, invoking a memory of one of the murderers. He narrowed his eyes in the dark and one of them pulled up his shirt, revealing a flabby breast. “Want some titty baby—huh?”
Big Sugar scowled and was drawn towards a commotion coming from the end of a narrow curving pathway. He narrowed his eyes again and looked towards a darkened corner where someone had hung an old blanket from a water pipe, partially covering what appeared to be either a table or a chair. Big Sugar moved in for a closer inspection, even as he heard someone moaning and the piece of furniture creaking. He heard a man’s voice bark something unintelligible and then the blanket parted and a form appeared and walked past Big Sugar. When he got close enough he smiled at Big Sugar. “Cheap head man,” he said.
Almost at the same instant a woman’s voice shrieked, “Hey-hey, come back here youse bastid, youse ain’t paid me yet.”
Big Sugar walked to the blanket that was being used as a curtain, and moved it aside. Sitting in a wheelchair was a woman of indeterminable age, who only stopped screaming when she caught sight of Big Sugar. “Big Sue-gar, stop dat man, he raped me Big Sue—”
Big Sugar scowled at the woman, who was a notorious prostitute known for screaming rape whenever any of her Johns failed to pay her, which, in the Port’s own personal Purgatory, was more often than not. Big Sugar shook his head and wagged his finger at her. “Rose, you know better than this, you mus’ stop these evil ways.”
Rose Marone, known vicariously as Fat Rose, reached for a beer bottle and took a quick gulp from it. She had one leg amputated at the knee and an eye-patch over her useless left orb. She looked around nervously. “My cigarettes—bastid took my cigarettes.”
Big Sugar watched as Fat Rose spied her crumpled package of cigarettes and reached for them addictively. She lit one and immediately smiled at Big Sugar and held out the pack, which he refused. He described the four men he was searching for to her but she was of no help, her interest being only in something if it benefited her personally. She exhaled a stream of smoke through her nostrils and smiled, showing a mouthful of rotten and decaying teeth. She coughed harshly and spat out a globule of sputum, then put out her arms towards Big Sugar. “C’mere Big Sue-gar,” she hissed, “Rosy gone give yous some free head. C’mon Sue-gar you’s my man.”
Big Sugar shook his head and turned and headed down the pathway but couldn’t help but smile obliquely, as Fat Rose’s voice croaked out, “Git dat niggah fo’ me Sue-gar—he rape me.”
SWEEP OR SEARCH
We love force and we care very little how it is exhibited.
—Emerson, Journal, Vol. V, p. 262.
What follows I flee; what flees I ever pursue.
—Ovid, Amores. Bk. ii, eleg. 19, 1. 36.
Captain Joseph Giambra read the report sitting on his desk slowly, then glanced up at Lieutenant Felix ‘the Cat’ Bandora and Officer Jimmy Porelli. “Youse guys are tellin’ me diz guy had is peckah cut off and stuck in ‘is mouth?”
“Yessir, I ain’t seen nothing like it since ‘Nam Skipper,” Porelli rasped, eyeballing Lt. Bandora, who Capt. Giambra now turned to and barked, “What ah youse t’ink Cat—a hit?”
“Yeah, could be. I mean we need to eye-dee the body and see whether it’s a wiseguy or what. He did obviously have a set of expensive threads on and he had no wallet or jewelry—they picked ‘im clean.”
“Yeah, they coulda done it jus’ to make it look like a robbery. I t’ink we should sweep the place, wha’ ah youse t’ink Cat?”
Bandora glanced outside the door, to where Wheelchair Paul sat in an otherwise isolated corner. “Well Joe—I dunno—this guy in ah chair says diz jah-mook frien’ ah his is on ah trail right now and he means to find them and extract some payback.”
Capt. Giambra followed Lt. Bandora’s gaze to Wheelchair Paul and then eyed Porelli, who nodded. “Sir, I know this man, this Jamaican, and I t’ink he’ll maybe do what he says he’ll do. Big Sugar’s a pretty capable guy—Skipper.”
Giambra lit a cigarette and eyeballed Porelli and Bandora. He exhaled a stream of noxious smoke. “Big Sugar …? A street-name—”
“Ah, yessir—he ah—he protects the homeless people around the Port sir; I mean, that is, he has before and he does help us a lot.”
Giambra’s face showed amusement, as he blew smoke rings in the air and then glanced at Bandora and chuckled. “What ah youse mean Officer Porelli? Isn’t this Jamaican homeless himself? Ain’t diz the guy we put out an all-points on more’n once, din’ he cut a guy’s hand off a while back?”
Porelli smiled deceptively. “They sewed the guy’s hand back on Skip’. It was Card Mullins.”
“Card Mullins, what, Card,” Giambra said, studying Porelli’s face.
“Yessir and he’s already back on the street again but he hasn’t worked the Port since.”
“Card Mullins, why dat lowlife’s been woikin’ dah Port ever since I’ve had this command and that’s six years in September, Geezuz, so that’s that guy, he carries a damn Bowie knife ah sumpin’?”
“A machete Skip’,” Porelli said, grinning.
“A machete …? What ah we got, a Crocodile Dundee chasin’ some wiseguys—or what?”
“Well sir, Wheelchair Paul,” Porelli nodded his head back towards Wheelchair Paul, “says that there were four crackheads and Big Sugar knew them—two of them are transvestites.”
“Great, I gotta freakin’ machete-wieldin’ jah-mook chasin’ a bunch a sissy crack-heads all over dah Port. What a youse t’ink Cat? We sweep the area?”
“I think we gotta locate this molly-ah-nard Joe, I can roundup my best men, you know before we send the troops in, and see if we can find this Jamaican jahmook—this Big Sugar.”
Giambra nodded and exhaled a stream of noxious smoke. “Find this ‘mook quick Cat. I can give you ‘till midnight.”
Porelli glanced at Felix ‘the Cat’ Bandora and Bandora nodded at Giambra. “And if we can’t find him by then Cap’?”
Giambra smiled obliquely and summed up what would happen, in two ice-cold syllables when he snapped, “We sweep!”
DEATH IN THE DARKNESS
Death is the port where all may refuge find,
The end of labour, entry into rest.
—William Alexander, Tragedy of Darius.
Death is the final Master and Lord. But Death must await my good pleasure. I command Death because I have no fear of Death, but only love.
—Havelock Ellis, Impressions and Comments. Ser. Iii, p. 55.
Big Sugar glanced at his watch, it was a few minutes before midnight and he knew they would be closing off most of the terminal’s wings, anytime now. He stared straight ahead and quickly headed for the emergency stairwells; they were worse than even the basement, for if the basement was purgatory then the stairwells were hell incarnate.
Big Sugar descended into this hell slowly; he noticed small groups of men on virtually every stair landing and, as he walked past the second landing, he saw that the concrete floor was littered with crack vials, dead lighters and matchbooks, used condoms, dirty needles and discarded, worn-out belts and pieces of tubing or rope. You could barely see even a piece of the concrete, as along with the aforementioned items, dozens of empty cans, bottles and containers were piled into various corners of the landings, giving them the appearances of being nothing more than small garbage dumps. Big Sugar nodded at anyone looking his way and tried to make eye contact with someone but they were all in their own little world’s, zombies, knocked out of the realities of life by their various inhalants, injections and inebriants or just their inability to make any sense out of an insane world, where the homeless, the mentally ill, the rebels and renegades and the plain old down and out poor were all subject to harassment and abandonment. And they all well-knew, no matter how much they feigned ignorance, that if they could just get their hands on that one sought after commodity, money, then they could live above ground again, in a cleaner, more subtle atmosphere. Oh, they knew the world was still crazy but if they could only get that money then they could pretend it wasn’t, along with the rest of those that identified themselves as human beings but who they knew would turn on them like the pack of raging animals they really were, unless they could produce that green paper with a dead president’s picture on them. Big Sugar walked past a homeless couple who appeared to be sleeping on top of the littered floor—on the fourth landing down—on top of what looked like a paper-thin beach towel, it being the only thing between them and the filth littered below them. Big Sugar stooped down and saw that they were breathing when he heard his name called. He jumped up and turned to see that it was Edward ‘Dumb Eddie’ Morton, a homeless, retarded Port resident who Big Sugar had rescued from thugs many times. He grabbed Big Sugar’s arm and hugged it to him, then slobbered, “Big Shoe-gah, Big Shoe-gah. Is Doris come quick, she gone kill herself.”
“Where Eddie, show me where Doris is—NOW!”
Dumb Eddie jumped when Big Sugar barked his name but turned and motioned for Big Sugar to follow him, as he began a journey downwards. Big Sugar followed him down a labyrinth of hallways and stairwells, until finally they emerged at a dimly-lit emergency stairwell where a young girl was sitting on a battered, paint-splattered milk carton. She had a .44 caliber revolver in her right hand and was staring, glassy-eyed, at it. Big Sugar walked over to her. “Hello Doris.”
She whipped her head up and glared at Big Sugar, then clutched the .44 closer to her bosom, pointing it inward, over her heart, and screamed, “No get away, I found it and it’s mine. It can get rid of my constant pain. I know, I talked to it and it told me it would, I don’t want no more bread; I wanna go home now. I wanna go somewhere where there’s no pain, the preacher tol’ me there’s no pain if I can just go home.”
Big Sugar knew that Doris was a sixteen or seventeen-year-old runaway and that she had lived on the street for several years. It was rumored that she had been sexually abused by her own father and sometimes spoke of tracking him down and killing him. She stuck the gun in her mouth and Big Sugar saw the motion and grabbed the barrel. His grip was so powerful that by a mere twist of his wrist the gun-barrel quickly came out of her mouth, slightly cutting the inside of her cheek. The pistol, a .44 Magnum, had been on the street for years, the serial numbers had long ago been filed off, and it had been the cause of several deaths, before turning up in the garbage can that Doris had found it in, with a fully-loaded chamber. It had been set to have a hair trigger and when Big Sugar pulled it from Doris’ grasp it went off and the bullet, cut on the top to explode on contact and do more damage than an ordinary bullet, being referred to on the street as a dum-dum, exploded into Big Sugar’s left eyeball, ripped through his eye-socket and exited out of the top of his head, taking blood-splattered clumps of brain matter, facial bones, sinus fluids and uprooted teeth with it and slamming them onto an already blood-smeared concrete wall, like a new age painter, who had just finished a masterpiece. It was too much for Dumb Eddie, who stared at Big Sugar’s slumped over body for several seconds before letting out an inhuman, ghoulish howl that awoke even the most inebriated of the incoherent residents in this section of hell.
It was also too much for Doris, who delicately walked over to Big Sugar’s corpse and snatched up the .44 Magnum, which was so full of blood and gristle that it nearly slipped out of her hand but the hair-trigger outdid even its own intentions when it went off at almost the instant that Doris turned it towards her own face, leaving her with a lump of unrecognizable bloody flesh, where once had been a beautiful, angelic child’s face. She was so young and emaciated, and her skin so thin and pale white, that she looked incredibly like a store mannequin. A store mannequin that no longer had a face and therefore was of no further use, in a capitalistic society that discarded any object or piece of merchandize that could not financially benefit the owner, amazingly like Doris’ own life, for, in reality, the store mannequin would be thrown out, much as Doris had been thrown out; the mannequin would go to the city dump, Doris’ corpse would go to the city morgue and then, along with the Jamaican known only as Big Sugar, to a pauper’s grave.
ALL HOPE IS GONE
The setting of a great hope is like the setting of the sun. The brightness of our life is gone.
—Longfellow, Hyperion. Bk. I, ch. 1.
We did not dare to breathe a prayer
Or give our anguish hope!
Something was dead in each of us,
And what was dead was hope.
—Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Pt. iii, st. 31.
Wheelchair Paul stared at Stella—who sat in her own wheelchair just alongside of him—at the north wing of the Port, on 42nd Street amid Eighth Avenue. Wheelchair Paul had known Stella for years but had never seen her in this state—she was no longer coherent. Wheelchair Paul had been hit hard also, by Big Sugar’s death, but you had to go on living, eating and talking. The police had swept the area clean and most of the residents had spent a night or two in a jail-cell, as Wheelchair Paul had with Stella, but she had been totally mute then also. The police never found the four crack addicts who had murdered Thomas Wang but had thinned out the Port’s homeless population almost in half, leaving only the physically and/or mentally ill such as Stella now seemed to qua1ify for, in both categories. She was emaciated enough as it was and it had been nearly a month since Big Sugar’s death and Stella had not eaten anything of any substance or even said a coherent word to anyone since. Wheelchair Paul—for all his street smarts and high intellect—simply could not figure her out.
Stella stared into space, hypnotized like a zombie, as she was no longer among the living. Nothing drew any reaction from her, not when a well-heeled man dropped a five-dollar bill into her begging cup and not when a crackhead took it out, for Stella’s life was over and she knew it. Her light had gone out and with that light the last vestige of humanity that she had clung to so stubbornly over the years, had gone with it. Her hope was gone, blown into the far reaches of the voices that now talked to her daily, assuring her that she was indeed dead and Stella knew it was true because her hero had been smashed to smithereens, blown to bits by a steel-jacked .44 dum-dum bullet. For Stella, totally immobile in her wheelchair, all hope was gone—Big Sugar was dead!
PLEASE JESUS PLEASE
Streetlife, but you better not get old,
Streetlife, or you’re gonna feel the cold.
—Streetlife, The Crusaders, featuring Randy Crawford.
Stella rolled her wheelchair slowly up Fifth Avenue and past Rockefeller Center and the huge St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was 10:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve and the bone-chilling cold made her teeth chatter, as her fingers turned numb. She stopped the wheelchair for just an instant and stared at the church she was approaching—wondering if it was the church of St. Thomas or St. Paddy’s?
As her wheelchair came to a stop in front of what appeared to her to be a looming, foreboding structure, and one of the churches, the fingers on her left hand turned blue and froze to the metal side of the wheelchair. She tried to close her fingers around the wheel but could not, as she couldn’t feel if the frozen appendages were closed or open. Her left stump felt as if there was a knife inside of it and she desperately searched through her pocket for a lighter she remembered picking up at the Port. She found the lighter and immediately began rubbing her right thumb over the striker but it was no use; it was dead, one of dozens of lighters that littered the stairwells, floors and hallways at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, discarded by crack-heads and addicts that used them to keep their pipes lit. Stella glanced around and saw an alleyway, dark and dangerous, as they all were in New York, but at least it would deter the biting, bone-chilling wind. She struggled with her frozen left hand but finally managed to roll in between the two large buildings and into the alley. She hadn’t eaten anything in over a week and was very weak and dehydrated, and her desire to live, which had disappeared the moment she had heard of Big Sugar’s untimely death—had never been lower, as she mumbled incoherently, talking to herself and to what she perceived as God; she was looking for God and, being a lifelong Catholic, she knew exactly where to look; she had to get as close as she could to a church.
As the night wore on and the bitter cold became even more unbearable, Stella Burke heard the clanging of bells and suddenly realized that it was midnight and that it was no longer Christmas Eve but Christmas Day. Her shrunken stomach trembled and she was suddenly awakened from her mental stupor and realized that she was hungry, then remembered that Father Hennessy always visited the Port Authority on Christmas Day; he would transport anyone that would go, to a shelter for a traditional Christmas meal and shelter for the night and she quietly pondered attempting to steer her wheelchair back towards the Port Authority.
She looked up, into the heavens, and saw only blackness, and the sides of the two looming, concrete and steel buildings. Suddenly, she bowed her head and prayed with the last bit of strength in her, she prayed for all mankind then prayed for Big Sugar’s soul, she prayed for all her helpless friends in the Port and she prayed for herself—for her own soul. She could no longer take the pain and tears ran down her face as unendurable agony suddenly racked her body. She was weak—oh so weak—but she prayed with the last ounce of strength she had in her, as she closed her eyes tightly and whispered, “Please Jesus—please—the pain is too much.” She felt something pulling on her and opened her eyes and it was then that Big Sugar appeared to her—once again.
Loveless and cold, with your last breath you saved my very soul, when you smiled at me, like Jesus to a child.
—Like Jesus to a Child, George Michael.
For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
But all God’s angels come to us disguised: Sorrow and sickness, poverty and death, one after another lift their frowning masks, and we behold the Seraph’s face beneath, all radiant with the glory and the calm, of having looked at the front of God.
—J.R. Lowell, On the Death of a Friend’s Child.
Father James J. Hennessy pulled the bus up to the curb, just in front of the entrance to the Port Authority Bus terminal, on 42nd Street. He stepped out and looked around, then heard his name being called and strolled over to where a man on crutches, and another in a wheelchair, sat, beckoning to him. He nodded at them. “Hey fellas, where’s everybody at?”
“Geez, I dunno Faddah—but we’re ready.”
Hennessy nodded and held open the door for both cripples, even though he knew the majority of them disdained any such help, preferring to get along on their own steam. But, today, the holiest of days, both men allowed he priest the courtesy. As they walked towards the bus, the trio could plainly see several people loitering around the vehicle, several in wheelchairs or on crutches and all of them homeless.
Father Hennessy watched in the rearview mirror, as everyone settled into a seat and then asked if anyone had seen Stella Burke, who everyone knew. When no one answered, Hennessy shrugged and headed out towards the shelter.
As he was unloading his human cargo, Hennessy noticed that several people were climbing off another bus that was parked just adjacent to the shelter. He frowned when he saw the number painted on its side, 500, as it was a bus that had been in the repair shop the last time he had seen it. He watched the transients head for the shelter and walked over to the 500 bus where lifting the hood, Hennessy saw that it was minus a water pump and the spark plugs were not even hooked up; it was indeed the defective bus that had been in the shop but who had towed it to the shelter? And why had they towed it to the shelter?
Hennessy stared after the passengers, who had just departed off the bus, and hurried after them. Grabbing the closest man, he saw it was Gerald ‘Hairy Jerry’ Winslow a homeless man Hennessy knew had been living at the Port for the past year or so. “Hey Faddah Hen-see,” Winslow said. “Mar-ree Criz-muz,” he barked.
“Merry Christmas Gerry, ah, Gerry, did you just get off that bus?”
Winslow glanced at the bus with the number five-hundred painted on its side and smiled. “Yeah Faddah,” he said, “Big Shoe’gah brought us here.”
Father Hennessy turned a paler shade of white, when Susan ‘Dirty Sue’ McBride smiled a toothless grin and hissed, “That’s right Faddah, Big Sugar brought us, he loves us, he tol’ me so.”
Hennessy inhaled deeply and frowned, as several others, upon hearing the conversation, had come over to confirm that Big Sugar, whom Hennessy well-knew had been killed in a gun accident, had brought them to the shelter, in the bus bearing the number 500. Hennessy, a priest for over twenty years, was shocked, as he had identified Moses ‘Big Sugar’ Moore himself, after going to the morgue and hearing the story of the struggle between Big Sugar and Doris McQuade, the sixteen-year-old drug-addicted prostitute who had been attempting to kill herself with a .44 Magnum when Big Sugar took a .44 slug to his head, killing him instantly after he had attempted to wrestle the gun from her hand. Hennessy could still remember the torn and twisted flesh that had once been Big Sugar’s face and wondered if it could have been another man, even though he had been so certain that it had indeed been Big Sugar that he had seen on that cold, dank coroner’s slab, little more than a week ago. Or, was someone impersonating Big Sugar? And if someone was, then why; and, how did the 500 bus get to the shelter, anyway? Were they all playing a joke on the good father? Hennessy pushed through the lengthening line and into the shelter and immediately saw Big Sugar, as he was standing talking to Eddie ‘Dumb Eddie’ Malone, a semi-retarded homeless man, who roamed the streets endlessly mumbling to himself. Next to Dumb Eddie was Wheelchair Paul, an epileptic cripple that Hennessy knew had an I.Q. that approached the genius range of around two-hundred. Suddenly, Hennessy was grabbed by his forearm and spun around, by Joe ‘Punchy Joe’ Marabelli, an ex-prizefighter who had once been a world champion but now lived the life of an alcoholic, on the streets of the Bowery. He put his battered, oft-broken beak next to Hennessy’s and barked, “Hey Faddah, Merry Criz-muz.”
Hennessy patted Punchy Joe’s head, then quickly removed Joe’s vice-like grip from his forearm. He approached Dumb Eddie and Wheelchair Paul but Big Sugar was gone. “Eddie,’ he said, “who was that you were just talking to … was it—”
Dumb Eddie bobbed his head up and down and swallowed a mouthful of turkey. “Yeah-up Faddah, ‘at was Big Sugar. Yeah-up, he say Stella is happy now!”
Hennessy looked at Wheelchair Paul. “Dumb Eddie’s speaking the gospel Father that was Big Sugar and he did say Stella’s happy now.” Wheelchair Paul smiled at Father Hennessy.
Hennessy exhaled loudly and ran his hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. He had been a priest for a little over two decades and had read of, and heard about, many miracles; it was just that he had never been this close to one before. Was it a test of his faith or was it some sort of a practical joke? He stared at Dumb Eddie and then at Wheelchair Paul just as Wheelchair Paul motioned at him with his head and he turned to see two uniformed policemen striding towards them. Hennessy recognized them, as they were both Port Authority cops. They were almost upon him, as he searched the room for Punchy Joe. “What ‘id Joe do this time?” he said, scanning the room again.
Officer Jimmy Porelli nodded at Hennessy and smiled amiably. “Oh, it’s not about Punchy this time Father.” Porelli hated working on Christmas, even with the overtime pay, and nodded at his partner, Bobby McLarnin.
“Faddah, we know it’s Christmas and all but we really need to ask for your help; we need an eye-dee?”
Hennessy shook his head; no day was sacred in the city of New York, death was always ever present. He looked at McLarnin and shook his head. “Who was it Officer?”
“It was One-legged Stella, you remember her, don’t yah Faddah? She was here every Christmas for the past half-dozen years?” McLarnin said, reaching for a pack of cigarettes.
“Yeah Father the one in the wheelchair, she was a diabetic, remember? You used to bring her insulin to the Port?” Porelli added, bumming a cigarette from his partner.
“What?” Hennessy glanced towards Dumb Eddie and Wheelchair Paul.
“Ah, yessir, they found her body on Fifth Av-nah, next to Saint Thomas.”
“Yes-yes, I know it well. How did she …what, that is—”
Officer Robert B. McLarnin lowered his voice and leaned in towards Hennessy. “Well sir, she officially froze to death but foul play is suspected, know what I mean, ah, sir?”
“Foul play Officer McLarnin?”
“Well sir several witnesses saw her in an alleyway next to Saint Thomas and also saw a big niggah, ah-er, I mean African-American, scuze me Faddah, ah diz African-American was seen hangin’ aroun’ her, see? So we figure he was probably robbin’ her—know what I mean sir? The streets are bad sir, especially this time of the year; know what I mean Faddah?”
Father James J. Hennessy immediately turned pale then jerked his head towards where Dumb Eddie and Wheelchair Paul both were standing, grinning widely.