This is the second part of a story I posted a million years ago, back in 2014. It is based on this photo:
Jean, Patrick and I reached the barricade at 116th and Lexington.
“So you think this’ll work?”
“Sure. I live here. You’re my cousin. You have a right to visit me.”
Jean was Puerto Rican and I had no resemblance to him, but if he believed it could work, so did I.
The three of us strolled up the barricade. I tucked my camera into my coat and walked behind Jean and Patrick, doing my best to convey a sense of yeah-I-belong-here-too.
“Can’t get in,” said the cop.
Jean and Patrick muttered things to her and pointed in the distance as I stood back.
Their addresses as well as any additional information they may have given—their neighbor’s name, their super’s name, the bodega owner’s name, were all potential passwords to get through the barricades.
They must have said the right combination, as the woman eventually nodded her head, and let Jean and Patrick in. I was let in by virtue of association.
Jean turned to me with a wink.
“I think this pin helps me,” he said. On the collar of his coat was a military pin.
“I got it from a friend who was stationed in Iraq.”
He also wore a mask that hung around his neck. That probably helped too. The police and the Red Cross in the barricaded area were passing them out to people living within its confines. When walking through East Harlem you could tell Who Had Been There and Who Had Not Been There based on whether or not one wore a mask.
They were much needed. The whole area smelled like dragon’s breath. Sometimes it just amounted to campfire smell, but when the wind picked up it became unpleasant to breathe. But some of the cops and residents seemed to have grown so accustomed to the smell that they worse their masks around their necks like necklaces they forget to take off in the shower.
A man working for the Red Cross approached us with a big box. I thought he would kick me out, but instead he asked me if I wanted a mask. I grabbed one and tried not to fumble as I put it over my head. I worried that inept mask-handling might have led some to question my right to be there. I could only imagine what the cops might say. Yo, this one didn’t put her mask on right. Gitter outta hyeah.
But really, the Red Cross was not there to kick people out. In fact, they had set up a van from which they were distributing free sandwiches, oranges, water, and instant coffee. Jean and Patrick made a beeline towards the van. Jean grabbed two sandwiches, potato chips, an orange, and put abundant amounts of sugar in his coffee. Patrick just got coffee.
“You want a sandwich?” asked the woman who was passing out the food.
I wasn’t hungry, and if I was caught I didn’t want to caught stealing sandwiches from the mouths of East Harlem residents in addition to being caught for blatantly disregarding police barricades.
After supplying ourselves we went on our way, Patrick and Jean each leaving a trail of steam from their coffee. It took ten minutes to walk the length of the short block. Jean and Patrick fist-pumped a few people and helped a doña cross the road with her cumbersome cart. Patrick was reeled into a conversation with a neighbor, and Jean and proceeded onto our mission.
He told me about his girlfriend—who hadn’t called him at all that day.
“She’s my headache and I’m her headache. Together we’re one big headache,” he said with a grin.
Soon enough we were walking through the front door of his building, right next to the elevated Metro North tracks. There was plywood nailed over the one window in the lobby. The window had been shattered by the explosion. Jean’s apartment was on the other side of the lobby.
He recounted everything else about his experience the morning before, when the explosion happened. He was watching television in his shorts and a wife-beater getting ready for breakfast when he heard a blast that made him thing the train had derailed and smashed into the building.
“The first thing I did was call my baby, to make sure she was okay.”
He didn’t tell me the window to his lobby had been blasted in, but that must be because he was too distracted by the apocalyptic scene outside.
Jean told me he didn’t know if the roof on the sixth floor would be open—or if anyone was allowed to be up there.
“If anyone asks, we’re visiting Frank. He’s my friend on the sixth floor,” he said as we stepped into the elevator.
Our footfall was muffled by apprehension as we went up six flights of stairs to the roof. I hoped it would be open. I didn’t want all of Jean’s efforts on my behalf to be in vain, and I needed something to show my editor for the past couple of hours wandering through East Harlem with a couple of strangers.
The moment of truth came as Jean, still clutching his now-cold Red Cross coffee, gave the door a gentle push. It yielded. He held the door open as I burst out onto the roof, ready to aim my camera at anything. It was a mercifully sunny day and the light was amplified by the roof’s flat silver-painted surface.
Jean and I spotted the two men. They were on the opposite end of the roof with their backs turned to us. One carried a huge camera with a monstrous lens. If it were a gun it would have been an AK47. Mine would have been a…well I don’t know what. I didn’t see any press tags on the guy with the camera, and the two men were dressed in Navy—like they could have been with the Fire Department.
“Okay, um, just get a couple shots,” said Jean.
I think that was his way of telling me to hurry the fuck up before these guys see us. Things could get awkward for him if these guys were the authorities. He lived in the building after all, and would have to deal with their wrath for the next few days. I would only have to deal with their wrath for the five minutes it would take them to boot me out of the barricaded zone.
But the men paid us no mind. They gave us a quick nod before they went downstairs.
“Have a good one,” I said, hoping to sound nonchalant.
Jean gave them a nod too as he clutched his coffee and propped the door open with his body. He relaxed and started smiling into the sun.
I scampered about the roof, trying to get as many pictures in as possible before Jean’s goodwill waned. But it was my frozen fingers that ultimately brought me inside.
“Did you get some good ones?” asked Jean as we headed downstairs.
“I believe so.”
“Good, good. That’s good.”
We took the elevator back down to find the super’s son sweeping the lobby. Jean made some small talk him to make sure things were copacetic, and we stepped outside again to the dystopia of masks and smoke and made our way to the barricades. I would carry the smell back to the office, as a souvenir of my day.
I wondered how to bid farewell to Jean. What do you say to a co-conspirator and guide after an adventure? What kind of good-bye did he expect? Thanks sometimes sounds disingenuous, but sometimes it’s the only thing to say.
“Thanks. Thanks a lot for your help. I got some good pictures.”
“Aww, sure. You know, anything I can do to help out the neighborhood,” he said.
Jean looked at his feet. Then tossed the rest of the cold coffee onto the ground and looked at me again.
“I’ve done a lot of damage in my life. I’m just trying to give back.”
The comment inspired a million questions I would never know the answer to. I don’t remember if we hugged or shook hands when we finally went our separate ways. I went to find the train and Jean went back to Patrick, who was still chatting with a neighbor.
I took off my mask when I left the confines of the barricaded zone. No one asked for an explanation when I left, and without the mayors of East Harlem there was no going back in.