Sunday, August 14, 2005

Gang War on Centre Street

Journal excerpt, February 11, 1984
Woburn, MA

I was watching The Virginian in my search for Winter Olympics specials when I heard a loud knock on the door. My neighbor Steve had offered to pick up my kerosene; I thought it was him. Instead it was a tall, lanky, bedraggled man with no shoes on and a pale face full of blood....

"Can I use your phone?" he slurred. "I need to call the police." He swayed on his feet.

"Come in," I said. "Leave the door open." I got him a chair, then went for the phone.

"They took my shoes and my coat. They said they were gonna kill me." His thin voice reached across the living room. "Could you call?"

I called 911. Gave my name, my address. "There's a man here bleeding profusely from the head," I told the dispatcher. "Said he was attacked."

The dispatcher said the police would be right over, with a fire engine and an ambulance. I didn't know why they needed the fire engine, but this was a small town.

The man in my living room had a large gob of blood on the right side of his head, but after an initial and brief startle response I realized I wasn't squeamish at all. He also smelled heavily of liquor.

He growled, "The Puerto Ricans, they were after me." I took one look at his eyes and suspected he'd probably provoked something in a drunken rage. I went to the bathroom and soaked a pink washcloth in water, gave it to him.

"Thank you." He pressed it to his temple. "I'm sorry I had to bother you."

"That's all right. Just part of a day." I wondered idly if anyone might retaliate against me because I had tended to this guy. I had told him to leave my door open in case I needed to bolt, in case he was going to try anything despite his blood-soaked head.

The cops arrived: two uniformed, one in plainclothes. One asked, "What happened?"

"I heard a loud knock." I gestured. "This guy was at my door, said he needed to call the police and I told him to come in. I called 911, went to give him a towel, and as I gave it to him you arrived."

They questioned him. His name was Doug.

"They took my boots and my coat," Doug said, heatedly. "They have my friend; they're probably trying to kill him right now."

"Who?" they asked.

"Puerto Ricans. The mother -- "

They cut him off. "Do you know who hit you?"

"Yeah. I'd be glad to take you to them."

"Why did they hit you?"

"They're Puerto Ricans," Doug said, flatly.

"What did they hit you with?"

"I don't know." Later he would say, "They hit me with a hammer." He looked as though someone had.

The cop turned to me. "Does he live here?"

It was a routine question but it had caught me by surprise. "No." I took one look at Doug; no way would someone like that live with me. I let this schmuck in because he needs medical attention, I wanted to say.

They took Doug out of my living room and sat him down on my stoop to continue their questioning. I stayed at the door and propped open a screen that kept trying to shut. The cops took the washcloth, which by now was filled with blood. I didn't ask for it back.

Doug kept mentioning his friend, that they should get his friend. He peppered his answers with obscenities. The cops kept telling him to watch his language. They were polite, one might almost say prudish. I had moved up from New York City the year before; there had been times when I'd sounded worse.

My neighbor Steve leaned out his door, pointed to Doug, and screwed his face at me into a questioning look. I shrugged, gave him a questioning look back. Said, softly, "He knocked at my door."

Steve said, "I have your kerosene."

As the cops shone lights into Doug's eyes and bandaged his head I asked if there was anything I could do. They said no. They asked Doug if he could walk to the ambulance. He managed; then both fire engine and ambulance took off. I put on my boots and coat, sprayed Lysol around my living room, and stepped outside....

And was surrounded by the neighborhood kids. A melting pot in miniature.

"We saw him running down the street with no shoes," a white girl said. "He looked real creepy."

An Hispanic boy added, "I told people, 'There's this guy bleeding real bad,' and nobody believed me. I said, 'Come out and see!'"

White boy: "If he came to my door I'd have gotten a stick and chased him away."

Two girls, one Hispanic, one white, crowded in. The white one said, "He knocked at my door and my mother got real scared. She wouldn't let him in and screamed, 'You get away from my house!'"

The Hispanic girl asked, "Weren't you scared?"

It was a reasonable question. I had to think about it.

"There wasn't enough time for me to be scared." I looked at the small mob of kids. "I was nervous, though. It all happened very quickly."

"Why did you let him in?"

"He was hurt." I shrugged. "He was bleeding very badly so I let him in." I smiled, said, "Maybe I'm too trusting." The upturned faces stayed where they were. "He was hurt, and he needed someone to call the police."

One of the boys said, "He looked drunk," and I said, "He was. I smelled liquor on his breath. I have a feeling he probably did something to provoke them."

Another boy asked, "Did I hear him say something about a hammer?"

"Yeah. He said they hit him with a hammer." I sighed. "It looked that way, too."

One of the girls covered her mouth with her hand and ran screaming at some other people down the street about it.

I walked next door to get my kerosene and told Steve what had happened.

He nodded. "Yeah. Something like this happens every once in a while, but it's usually in the summertime. And then you have a shouting match, 50 Blacks and 50 Puerto Ricans on opposite sides of the street. There's this old Puerto Rican guy who does like a ritual dance, flipping on the ground with his hands. He makes the whole show worthwhile. Then you get the cops coming in from all sides to break it up." Steve shook his head. "I hope this one isn't racial or it'll be a war. If it's on Centre Street it's probably racial."

"That's where the kids saw this guy running."

There was blood on my stoop. One of the kids had said the man -- Doug -- had fallen on the stoop before he got back on his feet and knocked on my door.

The neighborhood had returned to quietude. Steve and I spent a few minutes exchanging small talk -- about how no one obeyed the one-way sign on our street. How often No Smoking signs are ignored.


Blogger Dave said...

e-alternative lifstyle,

I stand corrected on your St. Pete Times findings. Thanks for keeping me straight.

8:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was living in Texas watching MTV. That was a tense story. I don't know for sure what I would have done.

11:47 PM  

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