I decided to explore, find a hoagie shop somewhere. Hunger and the need to get my bearings allowed me to set aside the unpacking for a while. I had moved away from this neighborhood 30 years earlier. The places I knew then had either closed or changed ownership long ago. The residents were now predominately black, but there was also a sizeable population of various Asian nationalities — Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian. Along Fifth Street, many of the intersecting roads were marked in both English and Korean. As a reporter I had been in many rough neighborhoods, knew that you had to be alert, even in the daylight. At one point in my career, when I wrote a column and received death threats, I armed myself. It was all legal. Absolutely. I got a permit from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that allowed me to carry a concealed weapon. It was a .357 Chiefs special. I’d flirted with buying a semi-automatic, but they sometimes jam.
This wasn’t a stealth purchase. I mulled and deliberated aloud for about a week. Colleagues weren’t thrilled. There were people in the newsroom who’d reacted as if I’d pissed on H. L. Mencken’s grave. Somehow, they believed, I had broken some unwritten tenet of journalism. Well, tough. I followed the unwritten tenet of the streets, foremost of which was “don’t fuck with me, or my family.”
I knew I had crossed some line when one of the guys in the sports department sidled up and asked if I’d like to go hunting sometime. He whispered this, because you never, ever admit that you’re a hunter in the modern newsroom. So, what the hell, I went hunting a few times, but found that the outings were too long. I did learn this much from the experience: Most people are not hunters. The hunters always recognize each other.
Now, as I walked the old neighborhood and got the requisite stares that anybody new would draw from some of the characters lounging about, I wished I was still packing. I was certainly alert. I found a little food mart across the street from what had been a movie theater in my day but was now a used furniture outlet.
And that’s when I noticed him. A black man of indeterminant age shuffled along Fifth Street, dragging a beaten suitcase with one shirt arm hanging out of it. His hair had been braided long ago, and now hung like dying branches on a tree on the edge of a desert. One glimpse and you knew. A street person. A homeless man. Someone who’d been wrecked by drugs or mental illness or some combination of the two (as is usually the case) and who had somehow managed to not be institutionalized. Why? That’s where he belonged.
Then, I thought: “Maybe he’s not a homeless man.” This occurred to me about 10 minutes later as I continued looking at him from the store’s window. I was happy to be standing in the breeze of the huge air conditioner that had been cut into the wall. I had given my order (two Italian hoagies with oil and vinegar, two frosty Cokes, two too-large bags of barbecue potato chips) and exchanged a few niceties with the woman at the counter, who I decided must be the owner.
When I looked out at the street, I noticed that the man had taken his place on a vent near the furniture store. I was struck by how he sat, cross-legged like the statues of the Buddha I’d seen in knick-knack stores in tourist towns that catered to yuppies. And though steam rose from the sewers, and a bus belched exhaust as it moaned by, and the entire avenue looked as if it could melt away like frosting on a cake — there he sat. Nothing hyper or jerky about him. Serene, seemingly at peace. Yet, something steely, something that suggested that at one time in his life this poor soul had worshiped at the altar of self-discipline. I wondered if he even sweated. I looked closer. Was he staring at me? Was he smiling?
“He new,” the proprietress said. I guessed she was Korean. Dark hair, glasses. Short, thin, quick. A nice smile. Nothing gets by her. She seemed as if she wanted to hide her intelligence; it must have gotten her in trouble sometimes. Too much sparkle in the eyes for the city.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“He new,” she said pointing to the homeless man. “We don’t have homeless around here. Don’t know where he come from.” She made a face at him, jutting out her jaw. “Ugh!”
I smiled, probably defensively. I felt no obligation to participate in her disdain.
“You move in around corner,” she informed me.
“We don’t have homeless,” she repeated. “He not last long. This neighborhood all right. Olney OK.” She laughed, but worry weighed down the corners of her eyes.
“Never been robbed?” I asked.
“Only once,” she blistered, and I gained a bit more trust in her. This was obviously something she didn’t want to admit to, but she admitted it nonetheless. “Once in 15 years. Happen anywhere. I Mrs. Kim. You?”
The demon sitting on my shoulder whispered, “I miss him, too.” I shook it off.
“Miles,” I said with a quick wave. “Pleased to meet you.”
“We happy you move in.” This said in a stage whisper.
I stepped back. Oh, no you don’t, Mrs. Kim, I thought. You’re not getting me involved in any local horseshit. I’m not looking for alliances.
“I like diversity,” I said.
She wrinkled her nose a bit at that one.
“We started neighborhood watch,” Mrs. Kim said.
She paused, sizing me up again. Finally, she walked to the cash register. I followed.
“Here you go,” she said. “You stay careful out there, Miles. Drink plenty water. Too hot, too early — even for Philadelphia.”
She got that right. When I stepped outside, the heat loomed around me like an unscalable cliff. It gave me a headache, the sort that brought back memories of my hard-drinking days. The little man suddenly playing bongos on my noggin and reminded me why I’d slowed down (making these my soft-drinking days?) so much in recent years. Well, that was one of the reasons, anyway.
I looked at my homeless friend again. “An undercover cop?” I thought. There he sat and something about the picture just didn’t seem right.
Then I scolded myself. “Don’t over-think it. Sometimes things are what they are.”
Just as I was about to turn the corner a car screeched right up in front of the homeless man. The driver, a skinny wiry sort of fellow, jumped out.
“In!” he demanded of the homeless man.
I thought, “Keep walking, Miles. This doesn’t concern you.” But I couldn’t. I had to stop, turn around, look fully at the unfolding scene.
By this point — and we’re talking mere seconds here — as the wiry man approached, the car he’d come in seemed to sway and a nose tackle type of guy lumbered out and up, up, up until he stood at an intimidating height of…. What? Six foot eight? Nine? Bigger than me, that’s for sure, I thought. The wiry man glanced about. He looked at the food-mart window, then quickly at me. He glowered.
“We’re cops!” he shouted. “Get away from here. Show’s over!”
You’re not cops, I thought. He didn’t even bother waving a fake badge about. And the tattoos. The wiry sort had a snake whose tongue flicked out at the tip of his forehead. The nose tackle looked like a quilt. I don’t care how undercover you are, not many police departments would let that go.
The homeless man sprung to his feet as if someone had taken a video of him folding into his lotus position and now played it backwards. Impressive. When the wiry man reached for him, the homeless guy slapped his hand away. That was it. The wiry guy punched him in the solar plexus. The nose tackle was on him too. The homeless man covered himself like a turtle, but his assailants pulled him from the shell.
I kept telling myself, “Don’t get involved. Please don’t get involved. This could be a drug-related thing. It could be anything. Mrs. Kim already called the cops.”
But I wasn’t sure about that. What if she were restocking her shelves or something? I wished I had my cell phone. If they get him in the car, I can take down the license plate. That should be enough.
At this point, the nose tackle was dragging the homeless man across the concrete toward the car. He was screaming for help. The voice was high-pitched, rattled by terror and pain.
“Just get the license plate,” I told myself. “That’s being a good citizen.”
I don’t know whether it was the heat, or my heartbeat that seemed to throb in my ears, or some auditory trick that a city can play on you, but I swore that homeless man cried out: “Miles! Help me, Miles!”
I thought, “Oh, shit!” I dropped my bag, ran across Fifth Street, not quite knowing what I was going to do. The two men were so intent on getting the homeless guy into the their car that they didn’t even see me coming. The nose tackle had a grip on the fellow’s shirt and, inspired by the big guy’s size I suppose, I threw myself into him like a free safety. I hit him high. He must have been off-balance because I didn’t just bounce off.
“What the….” He fell onto his shoulder.
I tumbled and used the force of my landing to spring to my feet again like a baseball player who steals a base and wants to take another on the overthrow. I thought, “I’ll be damned.” I’m nimbler than I thought.
The wiry man came at me. He threw a kick that grazed my face, and really didn’t hurt that much. What hurt was the realization that I was about to get my ass kicked by someone who knew martial arts.
However, the wiry man paused in that instant. “We’re cops! Get the fuck out of here!”
“Badges?” I yelled.
Suddenly, the nose tackle went crashing into the wiry guy. I glanced at the homeless man, who struggled to get to his feet. How could a broken down street person throw a huge guy like that around?
“He’s getting away!” the wiry man called out.
He pulled out a gun, aimed it the guy.
“Don’t!” I screamed, bringing both of my hands down onto his forearm as if I were swinging an ax. It was like hitting a cable that might hold a telephone pole in place. Still, the gun crashed to the ground and I managed to kick it into the street. The wiry man cracked me across the face and I kissed the concrete yet again. My arms absorbed the landing, and I scrapped the palms of my hands. For the first time it occurred to me: I might not survive this.
I glanced up. The nose tackle kneeled on one knee as he aimed his gun at me. I realized that in his mind he’d had already killed me, had already pulled the trigger. Now all that remained was for him to fashion reality out of what he’d visualized.
Then, a beautiful thing happened. The gun slipped out of his hands. Slipped, however, wasn’t the right word. It flew from his hand as if the nose tackle had decided to throw it over his shoulder. I glance over at the homeless guy. He backed away, surveying the scene in horror. Then he turned, and fled.
“Not a bad idea,” I thought. I tried pulling myself off the ground and running at the same time but the only thing that did was make me trip again. As I tried to right myself again, I heard for the first time the screaming than might have been going on for a few seconds. It was Mrs. Kim from across the street.
“I call cops! I call cops! Right here! See? Phone! I call them!”
That’s all my two friends needed to hear.
“We’ll be back, fucker!” the wiry guy said.
I grabbed at his ankle as he jumped over me.
“What’s the hurry?” I said, but the dance was over.
They jumped into their vehicle and sped off. I got the plate number but knew that it wouldn’t do much good. It’s probably a stolen car and they’ll jump back into their real one within a few blocks.
Mrs. Kim was by my side, helping me up.
“What’s taking them so long?” I asked, brushing myself off.
“Who? Oh! I no call cops. Who need them?”
I must have turned a face full of incredulity at her for she stumbled back as if she’d been reprimanded.
“I needed them,” I pointed out.
“They come ask you lots of questions. In my country, police bad.”
“When did you move here?”
“Twenty-five years ago.”
“Well, the cops here aren’t like the ones in your country. They’re good. Well, most of them anyway.”
Still, I considered what she’d said about having to answer a lot of questions. Maybe it was for the best that the cops weren’t called.
As if to emphasize this, Mrs. Kim asked: “Why you care about homeless drug addict?”
“He screamed for help. I thought I actually heard him scream my name.”
“Listen,” Mrs. Kim said, grabbing me by the arm and ushering me across the street toward her store. “That guy; he don’t scream your name. He don’t even know his own name. You mind your business. You don’t know this neighborhood.”
“Not anymore, I don’t.”
I looked to where I’d dropped my bag.
“Who took my food?”
“I got it in the store,” said Mrs. Kim. “Saved it for you.”
I thought, “Holy shit. She rescued the food before she rescued me.”
I said, “I don’t know what to say.”
We were greeted at the doorway by a man who looked much older than Mrs. Kim. Her father, perhaps?
“This my husband,” she said, before the mistake could take hold. I could see that the man had tremors.
She said: “This bad for his nerves.”
“Not too good for mine, either, Mrs. Kim,” I said.
At that, Mrs. Kim smiled and handed my bag of food off to me.
“Some people call me Emily,” she said.
“I’m used to Mrs. Kim,” I said. “Already.”
But as I moved toward the doorway, I realized that that might not have been the appropriate response.
“My name,” I called over my shoulder, “is MacCracken. Miles MacCracken.”
“Welcome to neighborhood,” Mrs. Kim called.