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Bone in the throat, p.10
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       Bone in the Throat, p.10

           Anthony Bourdain
 
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  Across the street, more junkies were lined up in an abandoned lot. Overhead, a rusting paint bucket on a string descended from a third-floor apartment. The bucket went down with the dope, was pulled back up again with the next customer's money. Each time the bucket descended, the customer at the head of the line would reach in, remove the dope, and then hurry away.

  There was a cry of "Bajando!" from a rooftop. The bucket was pulled up and disappeared inside the apartment. The lines of junkies broke apart into ragged little groups making wide circles on the sidewalk, trying to look casual while they waited for the police to pass. The Dominican with the bat was saying, "Keep moving, keep moving," and waving people away from his stoop. A police cruiser turned the corner and rolled by, a sleepy blond policeman in the passenger seat looking over the chef without interest. When it turned the corner at the end of the block, the junkies instantly regrouped.

  Just before Avenue D, an old man with a handful of stolen belts approached the chef and offered syringes. "Works, a dollar. Brand-new Blue-Tip works." From across the street, other voices: A woman called out from a doorway, someone cried, "Laredo's open," another voice offered "Try-It-Again," another, "Red Tape." The chef ignored them. Next to an abandoned public school, he approached the alcove of a five-story apartment building. A pudgy, Indian-looking woman with a black eye peered at him through the smudged glass of the dented front door. She opened the door a crack and said, "Show me some ID."

  The chef rolled up his left sleeve and showed her the bruise on his left arm.

  "Don't look like nothin'," she said.

  "I been here a million times," whined the chef.

  "Wait a minute," said the woman. "Marcial!" she cried.

  A thick-chested man wearing a Toltec face mask stepped into the alcove and opened the outer door.

  "You know this guy?" asked the woman.

  "What do you want?" the man asked the chef.

  "Manteca," said the chef. "I want some D."

  "You know him?" the woman asked again.

  The man looked the chef over carefully. "I seen him before." He let the chef inside the alcove and opened the inner door, using a key from a crowded key chain on his hip. He led the chef down a hallway and up two flights of stairs littered with crack bottles, used syringes, and discarded condoms.

  "Got it good today, B," said the man. "You want express? Five dollars. There's a line up there."

  The chef shook his head, "No thanks."

  On the second floor, they turned left. The man used another key on a steel-reinforced door with an enlarged peephole. Inside was an unfurnished apartment. They passed through a living area strewn with more crack bottles, bottle caps, candy wrappers, and condoms. There was a filthy kitchenette piled with food-encrusted dishes and empty take-out containers. A small religious icon stood on top of a nonworking refrigerator. At the rear of the kitchenette, a man-size hole had been bashed through the raw brick wall into the abandoned public school next door. The man took a flashlight out of the refrigerator and played the light around in the dark beyond the hole. "You know how to get up there?" he asked. The chef nodded and clambered quickly through the hole.

  It was pitch black inside. It was cooler, and it smelled of piss and burning candles. It was damp, rain had come through the roof, and the chef had to step carefully in the dark, feeling with his toes for the lengths of plywood laid across the crossbeams in the ankle-deep black water, afraid the floor would give way and he'd fall through. A line of flickering votive candles placed every few yards lit the path. The chef picked his way through the dark, stepping on spongy bits of water-logged cardboard, the plywood pathway frequently sinking below the water. He turned a corner and heard people speaking Spanish. He had to climb through another hole, which was cut through sheetrock, and into another hall. A man loomed up in front of him, pushed a flashlight in his face. He held a Tec-9 pistol in the other hand and waved with it, directing the chef into a bombed-out classroom.

  There was light in this room. It streamed through two shattered and paneless windows that looked down over an empty lot. The ceiling was water-damaged and sagged dangerously, wires hanging from the crumbling wet plaster above. More than thirty junkies stood restless and uncomfortable in small groups, waiting silently to be ushered elsewhere by the man with the pistol.

  A short blond hooker with thinning hair wearing a tight bustier and tighter cut-offs stood in front of the chef. "Are they serving?" he whispered to her. She turned around and whispered, "Yeah, they just opened it up again," showing the chef a glimpse of rotted teeth.

  "Shut up in there!" yelled the man with the pistol from the hall.

  The chef could see the occasional figure moving past the doorway in the hall, heading back to the street. The man with the pistol stepped into the holding room and directed another small group into a hallway to the right. As the chef moved closer, he could make out another group of dark figures lined up in a stairwell. Every few seconds, another dark silhouette, moving quickly, would hurry down the stairs and past the doorway, transaction completed. He could hear them stumbling and sloshing through the water on their way back to the street.

  Finally the chef's small group was called. The line closed up, more junkies wandering in to take their place. The chef's group walked up the steps single file. "Watch the third step," said the man with the pistol. He shined a light on the missing step; inside the hollow space was a piece of plywood booby-trapped with razor blades and nails. The line moved up the steps at short intervals. At the top, the chef could make out a jerry-built barrier, lit from behind by a single burning candle. The hooker in front of him approached the barrier. The chef saw it was covered by a blanket. She whispered, "Gimme a deck," in the dark. The blanket moved a bit.

  Behind it, he could see a cage built of chicken wire, corrugated steel, roofing material, and pieces of wood planking. A hand extended out from behind the blanket and took the hooker's money and reemerged holding a bundle of glassine bags held together by a rubber band. She turned and stumbled back down the stairs on high heels.

  The chef stepped up to the barrier. A whispered voice from behind it said, "Cuánto?" He answered, "Dame dos grandes," and handed over his twenty-dollar bill. The hand reappeared holding two bags with EXECUTIVE stamped on them in smeared black ink. The man behind him on line growled, "Step off, chump," menacingly, and the chef had only a second to glimpse the two hunched, dark figures in the flickering candlelight behind the blanket before the blanket fell and he had to hurry down the steps.

  He had just reached the last step, just outside the holding area, when he heard shouting below. From the roof came cries of "Bajando! Red light! Bajando!" There was the sound of the door to some secret escape hatch being opened as the two workers in the cage gathered up the drugs and the money; there was another sharper sound as the hatch shut behind them and they slipped into the dark bowels of the building. Suddenly panicked junkies were running in every direction. Frantic figures, looking for hiding places or a way to escape, pushed past him, banging into walls in the dark. He ran toward the only light, the holding room. People were clambering out the windows, jumping down a story into the trash-strewn lot. The chef saw blue uniforms down there standing over the prone figures of hapless junkies, putting on handcuffs, kicking legs apart.

  The chef could hear them coming, the sound of their squawking radios getting louder and louder. Outside the holding room, he could see their flashlights moving toward him, reflecting off the water and through the holes in the crumbling plasterboard. One raggedy-looking man with his arm in a cast crawled under a rusting box spring to hide. Another struggled desperately to pull up a rotting floorboard, then disappeared down into the hole. A small, emaciated-looking man with an Orioles cap pushed past the chef and slipped whimpering into the narrow space behind the plasterboard in the wall. Without thinking, the chef squeezed in after him. He caught a last glimpse of the man's eyes, frightened and rodentlike, before he was swallowed up by the dark. He edged after him, sideways,
splinters penetrating his shirt and tearing at his hands. In seconds, the cops were in the room.

  "Come on outta there, dirt-bag!" he heard one yell. "Hands over your head! HANDS OVER YOUR HEAD MOTHERFUCKER I BLOW YOUR FUCKIN' HEAD OFF! GET DOWN ON THE FLOOR! GET DOWN ONNA FLOOR! ARMS AND LEGS SPREAD!!"

  He heard them pull back the box spring and pull the man with the cast out from beneath it. He heard them call to the man in the floor, chuckling at first, then angry; shouts and threats as they had to go in after him. He could hear, "I'm stuck! I'm stuck inna pipes." There was a crash as the man was pulled free and dropped onto the floor. Then the clicking of handcuffs.

  "Anybody else?" asked a policeman.

  "I didn't see anybody," said another.

  "Check back there," said another. "These guys are like fuckin' cock-a-roaches.'

  Lights danced briefly through the tiny holes in the plaster in front of the chef. He shifted his weight slowly in the dark, trying not to breathe. The light moved away for a moment. The man with the Orioles cap twitched. The chef could feel the man's leg pressed up against him as the little man struggled silently to brace himself. The chef remained motionless. He felt something wet and warm on his leg and realized the little man had pissed in his pants.

  "Anybody in there, come on out," said a policeman. An arm, reaching into the narrow entrance with a flashlight, scraped blindly around inside the wall for a few long seconds, knocking paint chips and plaster onto the floor, then moved away.

  "Anybody in there?" asked a voice.

  "Fuck if I know,' another voice responded. "I can't fuckin' fit in there. I can't get my head around."

  "Fuck it," said the other "Let the rats have 'em, anybody in there. You wanna try it, hotshot?"

  "I sure ain't squeezin in there," said another voice.

  "Anybody else up here?" said a new, more authoritative voice.

  Somebody banged a nightstick against the wall a few times. More plaster dust fell in the chef's hair. Another voice, coming from the opening to the wall, said, "I think there's somebody in there. I can see something."

  The flashlight reappeared again, banging around at the end of an arm in the narrow entrance.

  "What is it?" asked a voice.

  The chef held his breath.

  "I don't know, I think there's somebody in there. I can see clothes or something," said the nearest voice.

  "Can you get to it?"

  "No. Maybe run down to the car get a sledgehammer, we can find out for sure," said the cop.

  "Fuck that, I'm not humpin' all the way down the car and back up again in this shit."

  "Call on the radio," suggested another voice.

  "Fuck it, we got enough. It's prolly just garbage. These animals put the garbage in the fuckin' walls."

  "We got enough."

  "Let's go then. We all done here?" said the authoritative voice.

  "We got these two," said another voice.

  The radios began to squawk again. The chef could hear the junkies being bundled off by the cops. There were muttered curses as the cops stumbled and slogged off into the distance, their radios getting fainter and fainter.

  After a few minutes, there was no more sound from the holding room on the other side of the wall. The chef felt the little man next to him squirming around, trying to push his way out.

  "C'mon, man," said the little man. "I wanna get out. I pissed in my fuckin' pants."

  "Sssssh," said the chef, still listening for police.

  "They gone, B," said the little man.

  "Hold on," said the chef, cautiously.

  "They gone. Five-O be gone," said the little man.

  "I'm not sure," said the chef.

  "It's four o'clock, four-thirty," said the man. "Shift change for the mothafuckas. They goin' back to the precinct, write it up, get some overtime."

  The chef slid carefully out of the wall. He stood there picking splinters out of his palms and his shirt. The little man emerged, blinking. He crept up to the window and peered over the sill. "They gone," said the little man. "They ain't comin' back today." He reached into his sock and took out a dime bag. He rooted around in his underwear for a set of works, found them, and laid them out on the floor. He found a bottle cap on a mattress and picked up a cigarette butt and removed the cotton from the filter. "I gotta find some water," the little man said. He left the room for a minute, returning with a soda can. He emptied the bag of heroin into the bottle cap and began to prepare his shot.

  The chef rolled up a crumpled single, and snorted one of his bags in one long draft.

  "You shouldn't waste it like that, bro'," said the little man.

  Upstairs, in the dark, the chef could hear the workers returning to their cage behind the barrier. From the roof came voices: "Open!" "Green light!" "Open!"

  Twenty

  It was four o'clock in the morning, and it was raining outside Tommy's Morton Street apartment. Tommy stood, naked except for his bowling shirt, looking out at the empty street. He was thinking about the van.

  On the bed, Cheryl was asleep. It was hot, in spite of the rain, and she was naked, sleeping on top of the sheets, head tucked under a crushed pillow, snoring gently. Tommy's cat slept also, curled up close to Cheryl's stomach.

  Tommy was wide awake. It was that goddamn van. He was worried about that. He turned away from the window and looked at Cheryl on the bed. One delicate ankle extended over the side, toenails painted red, her ribs moving rhythmically in and out with her breathing.

  He thought he was being followed. He was almost sure of it. When he left the Dreadnaught at the end of his shift, Tommy had seen a graffiti-covered delivery van pull out from a space directly across from the restaurant. A man, only a shape with eyes, really, had appeared to look right at him for a second. It had startled him.

  He had put it out of his mind. But then there it was again when he turned up Sixth Avenue toward Morton Street; he had seen the van again, rolling slowly up Sixth, a block behind him. Even then, he had not been too concerned. Shit like that happened all the time, he told himself. He saw the same trucks—the fish guy, the produce, the meat company, the dry-goods truck—he saw them all the time, all over town. He could recognize many of the drivers by now; he'd wave and they'd sometimes wave back.

  But this van . . . this van was unfamiliar. Tommy had never noticed it before. The way it was covered with graffiti, unlike the others . . . And it didn't look like it was delivering anything, sitting outside the Dreadnaught at eleven at night. Tommy knew most of the trucks that delivered to the other restaurants on Spring Street. He knew who got their fish from Rozzo, their meat from New York Beef, West-Conn, their tortillas from La Barbone . . . It was the sort of thing you noticed after a while. You even talked about it, chuckling over the fact that the Villa Nova used a fish company you knew to have been indicted for substituting skate for scallops. Tommy had remarked on such things, sitting out front with the chef, watching the trucks pull up in front of other restaurants on the block.

  You remembered what the trucks looked like, like you remembered the companies that short-weighted you, arrived late, didn't arrive at all. You took note if you saw your fish company making a delivery down the street when you hadn't got your order yet.

  No, he didn't know this van . . . There was nothing written, no sign anyway, on the side. Only the graffiti, layer upon layer of it, spray-painted front, back, and sides as if the van had been parked in one place for a very long time, so the kids put their tags on it.

  Even after he saw the van on Sixth, he had been all right. No reason to freak out, he thought. No big thing. Maybe it was some independent, a jobber . . . Some guy from Queens or one of the boroughs, owned a truck and ran around town, shopping for bargains for a small group of customers. There were a lot of guys like that in the produce market, working on almost no capital, trying to hustle up a living, working odd hours. No big thing. Coincidence.

  Tommy had walked over to Chumley's for a few pints, ended up playing liars' po
ker with some cooks from Formerly Joe's. He had lost thirteen dollars and left the bar around one o'clock. He had gone out through the hidden entrance, through the courtyard, though a sign inside the door told you not to, and the van had been there again. A half block down, toward the river, in a space in front of a hydrant. He saw two dark shapes, sitting immobile behind the dash.

  Suddenly he had become stone cold sober. And scared. He had walked from Chumley's down to Seventh, faked a right, and then bolted left, jogging up Seventh Avenue, his heart pounding in his ears. Seventh Avenue ran downtown; there was no way, he reasoned, that they could follow him in the van. Maybe they were coming after him on foot though . . .

  He had run uptown to Woody's, where Montana Eve used to be. He had worked briefly at Montana Eve. He knew there was an emergency exit in the back dining room that didn't sound an alarm if you went through it. You could walk in from Seventh, go straight back, through the bar, across the dining room, and exit onto Charles Street. Not many people knew about the door on Charles, it was tucked under some stairs and there was no sign, no outward indication it opened into the restaurant.

  Tommy had gone straight through, pushed past some bar customers, crossed the dining room, and slipped out the door. On Charles Street he had removed his shirt, wrapped it around his head like an Arab headdress, and strolled casually toward Bleecker, looking, as this was the West Village, no more peculiar than anybody else on the street at that hour.

  At Bleecker, he'd hailed a cab and had the driver drop him at the corner of Morton and Hudson, around the corner from his apartment.

  He had walked up the steps to his front door and was trying to get the key in the lock with shaking hands when he saw the van again. It was waiting for him, a few car-lengths down the street in a no parking zone. Frightened and confused, he had let himself in and then sat, crouched behind the front door in the alcove. Afraid to peek.

 
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