In the seven years I’ve worked in this neighborhood I’ve only been able to find one decent eatery. It’s a clean West Indian spot with bright Guyanese flags out front and a big sign that says “Restaurant.”
The lady that runs the place is a classic matron-type. She handles the employees and customers with confidence and skill, like ingredients on a cutting board. Like a lot of Guyanese, she’s of South Asian decent so she looks Indian, but her accent and culture are Caribbean. She has a driving, hoarse voice, large eyes and a bright smile.
I don’t go to “Restaurant” very often because it’s a more expensive than my normal lunch of two plain slices. But when I do show up, like I did the other day, she welcomes me warmly.
“How’s da school? Da kids runnin’ ya ragged? What ya wan’ day? Curry Goat? Curry Chick’n?”
“Yeah, you know how it is. I’ll have the.. uh… curry chicken please.”
“Ya wan’ roti o’ rice widdat?”
Whether it’s after school or during school, I always see some of my Guyanese students there. I try not to take notice, but they notice me.
“Yo Mista Pistol, you Italian, or white?” One of them asked inquisitively as I sat at a table watching a cricket match on the mounted flat screen and waited for my food.
“Am I Italian or white? Umm… I’m not Italian.”
“Then why you eatin’ curry chicken?”
“Because I like it,” I said, not following her logic.
“It’s crazy right?!”
“Uh huh.” No wonder these kids make no sense in class, I thought. They make no sense everywhere.
The lady who owns the place has a kid at Patriot too. She used to send him to a private school, like everyone in the neighborhood who can afford it, but this year she couldn’t come up with the tuition. Whenever I stop by she always tells me, “Keep an eye on’m, won’ cha?” I say that I will, but then I always forget his name by the time I get back to the office. This time I wrote his name and her number down on a little piece of paper and put it in my pocket.
“Okay, I’ll check up on him,” I promised her.
As soon as I got back to the office I printed out his schedule and taped it to the wall next to my computer. I would check his attendance, talk to his teachers, and call the mom when I got a chance. That was last week.
This morning I was eating a stale M&M cookie for breakfast when Vicki the secretary blurted out, “How’s this for one of those ‘Dumbest Criminal Moments’? One of our kids robbed anothah one of ours at the stoah this morning. So the kid coowalls 911, and when the cops get theah the kid who robbed him is still in the same stoah, just hangin’ out, with tha money exactly as he took it, just like the kid described it to tha police. Now is he a moron or what?! Robbin’ someone in a store and then just hangin’ out thea!”
I was thinking about when it would be my turn to get robbed when a kid sat down in a chair next to my desk. I paid him no mind. I couldn’t tell you what he looked like. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t care. It was my off period, so I kept my head down and kept reading my New York Post. Our school gets free “educational” copies. Front page story today: “Ivanka Trump’s Exclusive Wedding Photos!” They don’t even sell The Times at the stores around the school. “You’re in the wrong neighborhood,” they tell you when you ask for it.
Back in the office, Mr. Greene, our Head of Security, strode into the room waving a xerox copy of something.
“Lemme ask you somethin!” he shouted at the kid next to me. “Ah you uh gang membah?”
The kid mumbled something back.
“NO?” Greene shouted. Dean Dave happened to be walking past so Greene shoved the piece of paper he was holding in his face and shouted, “IS HE A GANG MEMBAH?!” The xerox was from the kid’s notebook and was covered with gang graffiti.
Without waiting for a reply from a startled Dave, Greene screamed back at the kid, “YES! YES! YOU’RE A GANG MEMBAH! YOU’RE A GANG MEMBAH! And if I see any moah a this I’m gonna be callin’ the gang squad down heah! So tell ya boys, NOT IN MY BUILDING!!!”
I calmly turned the page of my newspaper. Just then, the door that divides the two sides of the office opened and a tall boy came stumbling in with his hands over his mouth. Blood was seeping from between his fingers.
“He got jumped,” said the safety officer flatly.
Vicki started to pull up the camera footage immediately and a couple of minutes later we had already identified four known assholes running out of the stairwell at the time and place it happened. But the kid who got jumped said he wouldn’t be able to identify the attackers because he never saw their faces, and without that we got nothin’. We can’t suspend for running out of a staircase. The victims are actually lying half the time when they say they can’t identify, either because they’re scared or because it was a gang initiation and they were complicit. Either way we got nothin’.
The tall boy was dabbing at his bloody mouth with a brown paper towel when a woman came rushing into the office. Her cheeks were already shiny wet when she came through the door. She ran right to the boy, grasped him by the shoulders, and asked, “What happ’n? What happ’n?” The boy didn’t answer her. The woman looked around the office and then made eye contact with me. I knew those big eyes. Uh-oh. This was the kid I was supposed to be looking out for. Dammit.
“Hi,” I said meekly.
She grabbed her son by the hand and took him to the other room of the office.
I ripped down the schedule I had taped to the wall the week before. Won’t be needing that anymore. I was feeling pummeled. I needed to get out of the building and get something to eat. I definitely wasn’t getting West Indian, so I went back to my regular pizzeria. The slices there are so cheesy that you have to use a knife and fork to eat them because if you pick them up with your hands, the cheese just sloughs off onto your plate like a wad of boiled skin.
I once heard someone say about this city, “if you eat pizza with a knife and fork there, you’re an outcast,” but I knifed away at my pile of skin anyway, snarling at anybody that dared to venture too close.