Photo by by Antonio Rosario
Always wear a bag on your head if you don’t want people to bother you. I figure this out in 1989 while I’m working the midnight to 5am waitressing shift at 7A Cafe in the East Village. It is right across the street from Tompkins Square Park during the height of the riots. The park and surrounding area is a hotbed of squatters, junkies, drug dealers and people dumped off by various mental institutions. Tompkins Square Park is also home to the notorious cannibal of the East Village, Daniel Rakowitz, a good ‘ol boy from Texas who kills his girlfriend and puts her brain in soup he serves up to the homeless.
I live in a crack-infested neighborhood in Brooklyn, so after leaving 7A Cafe around 5am I have to walk through a dark no-man’s land to either the F train on First Avenue and Houston, or the B/D train on the corner of Broadway/Lafayette. I don’t usually have a lot of cash on me, as many of the clientele who come in at 3am just want to use our bathroom to shoot up heroin, and the few people who actually order something off the menu sometimes fall asleep in their food, or when my back is turned run off without paying their check.
At the end of every shift I put whatever cash I have in my bra. I do this after a young Puerto Rican guy I meet on the subway late one night tells me when he got robbed the thieves pulled his pants pockets inside-out, and made him take his shoes off. When they found out he had no money they beat him up. He tells me from then on he always puts a twenty-dollar bill in his front pants pocket so when he gets robbed again the thugs will find it and won’t beat him up.
Most of all to prevent becoming a target on the way home I’ve taken a cue from the local crazies by putting a plastic I LOVE NY bag on the top of my head and tying the handles of it under my chin to secure it. It seems to work. When I’m wearing it no one asks for a quarter or a cigarette, or worse tries to rob me on my way to the subway. I’m left alone since, by my appearance, I seem worse off than others on the street at that hour. I must be so mentally ill, I’ve mistaken a plastic bag for a hat. I’m given a wide berth by drug dealers on Avenue A saying ‘sex-sex’ under their breath, and the men urinating openly on the sidewalk. Despite coming to New York City to be an actress, I don’t want to have to act crazy; I just want to look the part.
One night a little after 5am I leave work, putting my decoy twenty-dollar bill in my jeans pocket, and the rest of my cash in my bra, then securing a plastic to-go bag on my head. I cross the street to SYP deli next door to King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut. I buy a bag of pistachios and am given another bag to put on my head by the Korean man behind the counter who is used to seeing me in my disguise. I figure eating pistachios with two bags on my head makes me seem even crazier. I am even prepared to curse loudly for no reason if I think someone might attack me. No one dares to ask me for the time, directions, or to fork over all my money. People with plastic bags on their heads don’t have money.
I walk down Houston Street, bypassing the Second Avenue F train stop which has yellow police caution tape across the entrance, signaling it is not running. As usual it is desolate on Houston Street. The only people I pass are lying on the ground, or half-way there. When they spot me they roll away from me, or cover their faces with their coats until I pass. I guess even if you are an addict or potential thief, apparently you are picky about who you steal your money from. I continue eating pistachios out of the brown paper bag, blissfully unbothered by anyone along the way.
Then I hear screaming. A small dark figure runs towards me yelling, “HELP! He’s going to kill me! Help! He just raped me!” It’s a woman, and despite the two bags covering my head she must believe I have the mental capacity to help her. She grabs my arm, knocking the bag of pistachios out of my hand. “Help! See that man? He’s got a knife and is going to kill me!”
I look at her hand squeezing my arm, then I look around and start to say, “Well, I don’t see any…” But I stop when I spot a man with a large knife standing on the traffic island between the east and west-bound lanes on Houston Street.
He starts yelling, “Fuck you! I’m gonna kill you! You think I’m done with you? You’re dead!”
The woman and I start running west, with her hand still clamped to my arm as I try to hold the two bags on my head—-but they fly off. My head jerks back for a split second. I want to grab for them, but I don’t have time to go pick them up and tie them back on. I see a payphone, stop and pick up the receiver. It’s dead. We keep running until we find another payphone. It’s dead too. Further down there’s another dead phone. The man chases us, but he stays on the traffic island, never crossing to the sidewalk. He continues yelling, “I swear, I’m gonna kill you! And I’m gonna kill your friend too!”
Oh my God! Now he thinks I’m her friend! I wish I still had the two bags on my head, but they’ve probably been blown into the street behind us, or are snagged on a tree branch, or maybe some lucky homeless person ended up finding them, and is now wearing my double plastic bag hat.
We almost reach the corner of Houston and Lafayette, right across the street from the Gaseteria gas station. I can see the subway entrance about a-block-and-a-half away, but I can’t just leave this woman. And she won’t let go of my arm. The man stands under the harsh lighting at the gas station, still screaming and waving his knife.
A parked ambulance with its lights off sits a block away. We run up and I tap on the window. Two young male EMT’s get out.
I tell them, “She’s been raped! And see that man over there? Holding the big knife? He attacked her!” They open the back up and have the woman sit on the back step of the ambulance as they look her over. ”We’ve got to call the police!” I tell them. One of the EMT’s goes to the front seat to radio in. I stand there keeping one eye on the screaming man across the street as the other EMT checks the pulse of the woman and shines a flashlight on a bruise on her forehead.
Suddenly, I feel a hand groping my butt. I jerk around to find a sloppy drunken man laughing and clutching a bottle in one hand as he staggers past me.
I gasp and shriek, “Fucking asshole” so loud I think my top front teeth will fly right out of my head. My outburst startles the EMT’s, but when I tell them what the man did they chase him down, which isn’t too hard.
As they frog-march him back to me the drunk keeps laughing, “Whoa, whoa, don’t make me drop my bottle. Jesus, what’d I do? Come on.”
“Apologize to her.” One of the EMT’s tells the drunk.
The man is grinning when he says, “I’m sorry I grabbed your ass.”
Knowing he’s held on both sides, I slug him right in the chest, “You’re not sorry, asshole!” The EMT’s let him go before I can hit him again, and the drunk staggers off, still laughing.
Throughout all this the man with the knife keeps screaming that he’ll kill us as he stands under the Gaseteria lights. The woman has remained seated on the step at the back of the ambulance.
She tells the EMT, “My name is Annie Merriweather and I’m four months pregnant.”
“Do you know who the father is?” he asks her.
“Course I know who the daddy is.” Under the light from the back of the ambulance I realize Annie is obviously homeless. She wears layers of filthy clothes and she has the distinct unchecked body odor I recognize from many homeless people. Her black skin is shiny, and her face is pretty, but her hair is a matted mess. She looks older than me, maybe thirty, but who knows?
I ask her, “Do you have anyone who can help you?”
“I know some people,” she replies as a squad car slowly pulls up, no siren, no flashing lights. Two male cops stare at Annie from behind their rolled-up windows. They don’t get out of their car.
I tap on their window. They both shake their heads. I tap again. One cop rolls down his window two inches and says, “Let it go.”
“What?! No, no, she’s been raped!” I say this, then point across the street. “See that guy? With the knife, screaming? He did it!”
The cop starts to roll his window back up. I grab it with both hands until he is forced to roll it back down.
“You don’t want to fill out a report,” he says.
“Yes! Yes, I do. I want you to arrest that guy! He’s got a knife and threatened to kill her! And me!”
The cop looks me up and down. “What are you doing out here at this hour anyway?”
“Why does that matter?” I reply. “I’m coming home from work. Waitressing. I want to fill out a report.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do.” I turn and point at Annie, “She’s pregnant!”
The cop sighs, “She doesn’t have an address we can follow up on.”
“Well, arrest him!” The cops shake their heads and lean over to get a better look at Annie, who jumps up and runs off. “Help me get her!” I shout as I start to run after her, hoping the cops or EMT’s will come with me. They don’t move. I see Annie disappear down a dark side street. “Come on you guys!” I stop and yell.
The cop leans out his window and waves me back, “Don’t follow her.” I glance back towards the desolate street she turned down, then I slowly walk back. “Listen,” the cop says. “She and her kind are always getting into arguments. Lots of times they make it all up, then they waste our time trying to break it up. Just let her go. And you go home yourself.”
I look back in the direction Annie ran, then I turn in time to see the man across the street run in the opposite direction down the cobblestones of Crosby Street.
The EMT shuts the back door of the ambulance. “Trust me, you can’t help her, ” he says before he hops back into the front seat next to his partner.
“Now, why don’t you go home.” The cop tells me. “We’ll follow you in our squad car ‘til you reach the subway.”
The police car creeps behind me until I go down the urine soaked stairs of the Broadway/Lafayette stop. While I wait for almost an hour for the D train, sitting on a bench between two sleeping homeless men, I’m forced to open up a Village Voice newspaper and drape it over my head. No one bothers me.
Coree Spencer is a cater-waiter/writer/actor living in the East Village, New York.