It is a month after 9/11 when I first hear about Dags in the Palestinian grocery store, on Columbia Street, next to the Red Hook housing projects. I am on my way tenants’ patrol – a group of five of us (on a good day) that wears orange NYCHA jakces and is supposedly keeping out the drug dealers. Mostly, we play cards to pass the time waiting for people to sign in to the projects. Since September 11, arrests in the projects are down. The police have bigger fish to fry. Now weed smokers, beer drinkers and crack addicts are just patriots like the rest of us. Instead, police guard the Mosque on Atlantic Avenue and the Oil Containers on the Gowanus.
I am in the store getting supplies, when I see an African American woman counting her change. She talks loudly about anthrax.
“So,” she continues, ignoring me and addressing the man behind the counter. “They came – the FBI, the CIA – and they gone closed the whole thing down.” Silence. Only after she leaves do I ask. They tell me she is talking about another Arab grocery store nicknamed “Dags,” just around the corner, on Mill Street and opposite the Red Hook West Housing Office. Then they turn their backs to watch the small black and white TV perched above the cigarettes.
One block over, I get to the houses. Carol and I take the card table into the building’s hall, and unfold the plastic chairs. I tell Carol about the raid on the store. “Yeah, they got Dags,” she says. The store had been around long enough to have been renamed into the local geography, around the corner from “Paradise Lane,” where crack flooded the corners until just a few years ago. Carol shuffles the pack of cards.
“I’m not surprised they got them,” she says. “You haven’t seen whose picture he got on the wall. That Gadaffi or whoever. You go check that picture out.” Miss Hough, an older woman who organizes tenants’ patrol comes rolling in next and plops down onto a seat that looks too small – for the hallway, for her and for the table. She is late, she tells us, digging into the Pringles, because the FBI and the CIA and everyone else were closing Dags. She confirms our gossip: They had come and found guns and ammunition. She says the even found anthrax in the candy. We cut the deck.
The next day is a tenants’ association meeting. Dorothy Shields has been the leader for some twenty years. She has aged with the job, but maintains a bright shock of orange hair on top of her grey roots. Tenants wander in, nearly all of whom are women who have found a way to use this small association to create some sense of order in a housing project creaking at the sides. Some come in with their children, others with their walking sticks. Denise, a young mother, tells Miss Shields that Dags, the store, was on Channel 5. “They said they got guns and ammunition from the store.” Denise is getting excited.
“This is serious,” Miss Shields says. Her southern voice floats through the anxiety. “That’s why I’m telling everyone you got to look at everything going on. Even one of our own, here in the projects, is missing. Two kids still looking for their mother. It’s very very sad. And then this is happening right under our noses.”
Denise talks about the vans she has seen go up the street to Dags at two in the morning. By now everyone is listening and the room vibrates: Dags was on Channel 5, only now its also on Channel 2. Denise mentions the black unmarked vans again, only now they are trucks and they come every night. Miss Shields is nodding in agreement as other women warn us to be alert. Denise is telling us about how the Dags owners go back and forth to their country all the time. Now someone is saying that they all know each other.
Miss Hough stands up. She says, “These Ay-rabs, we should be careful. We can’t let our kids go in these stores. Who knows what’s going on. And these stores, we all shouldn’t be going in them. We don’t want more tourists – I mean terrorists – in Red Hook. The Ay-rabs, the terrorists, we saw what happened.”
This groups of 15 or so ladies has by now worked itself into paranoia. Denise’s little girl has woken up in her stroller and is clinging onto Denise’s neck. Denise tells us that on the day that it happened, she heard they were in Dags laughing and they had a match to the flag. The next day their door was locked. The women are even more irate. Someone in the back points out that Halloween is coming up. “We cannot let the children go out and get candy, and we cannot let our children in the stores,” the voice says.
Miss Shields says she’ll put out fliers warning parents about the candy threat. Two women say they are not sending their kids to school on Halloween. One woman says she never has.
Angry voices rise from the back of the room. Miss Shields says that tomorrow she’ll phone the police captain – she won’t stop until she gets through to him – to tell him that the neighborhood doesn’t want this store back. No more terrorists in Red Hook.
Things die down in a wave of exhaustion and the donuts and Coke at the back room are the best relief we can find. One women looks at me as I get up, a little depressed at my own passivity.
“I got coffee there every morning,” she says of Dags. “Who would have thought?”
I pause. “Well,” I tell her, “innocent until proved guilty.”
She nods and I slip away knowing she has probably seen the reverse of this be true many times in her life.
The next day is a community board hearing. Some Red Hook Housing Residents have come out to support a motion to open a Large Fairways on the waterfront. The gentrifiers don’t want the traffic and the garbage. They want luxury housing. The residents in the housing projects want the jobs, and they say a lot of the traffic will go by them, and that’s O.K. A Dept. of Transportation man drones on about the estimated traffic impact as the basketballs in the next room punctuate his presentation. Miss Shields is in front of me. I tap her to see what she found out about Dags. She says she spoke to the police, and they only found guns, nothing else. She returns to the business of the day.
I have driven past the store. Except the shiny new Food Bazaar, it’s no different from any other in the neighborhood. I stop into the courthouse and ask if anyone has heard the news. No one has. The DA calls me later and tells me that the store was raided, but that it is being kept pretty hush. I see my friend Alice, a longtime resident and ask her what she knows. She doesn’t know much, but says she’s not surprised.
“That store, that store has been a problem for years. The dealers are in there, they leave their guns there. There’s all sorts of funny business going on there. But what I want to know is, why, when we called the police about this, they never came before? Never. But now it’s terrorists, they are here. I’m not one bit surprised that something’s up with them.”
On the way home, I stop off at Coffeenexion, a cyber café on Atlantic Avenue. Two brothers, Sawfan and Mohammed have a computer business that doubles as a TV lounge. I watch the news with them while they talk about The Simpsons. Mohammed and Sawfan are tired of the news. They joke that I should be careful with the lentil soup they give me, it may have anthrax. Then Sawfan tells me they were actually sent anthrax. He laughs and waves an envelope in front of me. Inside is a red piece of paper with black words that read, “In 15 Days the World Will End. Donnie Darko is coming.” A concerned neighbor had phoned the cops (and she later admits, the FBI) when they told her. But by the time the cops came, Safwan had done an Internet search and discovered that Donnie Darko was a new movie. The cop admonished him for wasting time on this with all the other things going on in the world. But Safwan, in justification and with a sheepish grin, tells me that another cop who stopped by to check the baseball scores the next day wouldn’t even touch the envelope when they showed it to him. For a second I think, Maybe Safwan is right, maybe that really was anthrax.
Truth, we know, is relative. For a neighborhood where nearly everyone has known someone who has died of a gunshot wound, drugs or AIDS, the nation’s current sense of vulnerability may be nothing new. The media and politicians may have just discovered that life is fragile, but the people of Red Hook – alread at war with drugs and poverty for many years – have known this for some time.