The Mestizas

by

01/03/2002

Times Square Subway

Neighborhood: Times Square

This was late on a Saturday afternoon, in the half gloom of the subway station at Times Square. W and N and R trains were barreling through, and the girls stood on either side of the platform, each guarded by a patrolman, looking bored and despairing.

They were just mestizas, the kind who were raised in their own big cities and nowadays are all over this one: those moon cheeks on high cheekbones, lax black hair, proper gold earrings and mild, careful eyes. Each had on jeans and a femmie tee with pastel ribbon at the neckline and big writing on the chest about nothing. The jeans and shirts were so polyester that if a set had been bought with a twenty, the cashier would still give back change. Snug clothes, and the girls’ breasts were high, though one had a stomach that comes after babies. Each stood by a big and intricate arrangement of cardboard, a table-like thing draped in a big square of faux silk and quickly collapsible. A set-up like this is made for instant disassembly and permanent abandonment with no regrets after a lightning escape. The sides of the “silk” can be grabbed on a second’s notice and bunched at the top, making a sack that’s easy to run with

But when I got there the tables were still up and the cloth still laid with goods. There were “amber” necklaces — chunks of tiger-striped, see-through acrylic — strung on slim, fake suede thongs. Bracelets of tiny, razzle-dazzle glass rosette that aren’t really glass. Plastic turquoise and plastic coral on plastic brass: a big, cheap joke to some, yet perfect for the bare arms and summer collar bones of the low-paid young females of New York, their skin every smooth shade of coffee-truck coffee with varying cream. The baubles were still arranged just so on the “silk,” supine and perfect like women on sheets.

Shoppers were still looking and asking for prices.

“Sorry ladies,” the cops said. “Store’s closed.”

The mestizas were street vendors without licenses. In the whole city just a few hundred permits exist, compared to thousands of sellers who need them. These vendors were two of the criminal thousands, so today they were being fined and their wares seized. “Put your stuff out of sight,” one cop said in English, pantomiming to make himself clear. Each vendor took a long overhang of “silk” from the front of her table and folded it backward. Now the jewelry was covered.

One officer was baby-faced, with hair and eyes too dark for his skin, like a black Irish. The other, also a man and bigger, was simply black. Neither was much older than the shoppers or the vendors. With their navy, boxlike jackets and their guns, they looked way too serious for the job at hand. They stood by the tables writing $50 citations.

The vendors stood, too, with their backs to the trains and rats. Their torsos were stock still and their heads cast down, but their eyes were all over the place. I saw they wanted to use their hands, but one couldn’t. She belonged to the black-Irish cop, who was efficient and stern. While writing the ticket he hardly looked at the paper. Instead, he monitored his mestiza constantly and unconsciously, like a driver who knows to check mirrors.

The African-American cop was different.. His eyes were doing a wistful, even philosophical dance around the vendor with the post partum stomach. Slowly, head down, he would write a few lines on the citation. Then he would rotate toward the opposite train track, which removed her from his line of vision, and write a little more. Next he turned, slowly again, but still excusing her from his sight.

She, too, was slow, but also fast. Each time her cop looked away, she crept a hand under the “silk,” stealthily extracted a bracelet or necklace, and slipped it in the left back pocket of her jeans. When the left pocket was full she switched to the right. By the time the cop finished the ticket, her jeans looked like a child’s story about squirrels storing acorns for winter.

Which isn’t to say she saved everything. Far from it.

It’s unsettling, seeing a loving display of women’s jewels — even the paste kind — swept up by ham fists, then crammed and crushed in a plastic evidence bag. Like expensive gold chain, even plate knots so it never unknots. The leaden tangle inside the bag molded it to the black-Irish cop’s palm the way a firm feather pillow molds to a head, or the bodies of babies settle on mothers. The black-Irish cop squeezed air from the bag. He twisted the top and locked it with a sawtooth tie. The bag was transparent though, and by now the jewels somehow resembled those touring, Never-Again displays of toothbrushes and eye-glasses from the German camps. “What’s going to happen to it all?” I asked the cop. He was already walking away and didn’t slow down.

Free again, the mestizas stared dully at their citations, then folded their cardboard tables.

“We didn’t see them coming this time,” one said.

“Porque venden aqui donde hay tanta vigilancia?” I asked. “Why sell here where there’s so much security?

“When it comes to police, the Times Square subway is the most dangerous place in the city,” she said. “But it’s also the best for sales.”

“Cuanto valio lo que acaban de perder? Dos cientos?” How much did you just lose — $200 worth?”

“Mas.” She gave the same philosophical look that I’d seen in the eyes of her cop.

I spotted them a month later in the same place: the mestizas, that is. Customers were still everywhere, oohing and ahhing, shelling out bills in low denominations. There was still the cardboard, the dazzle, the goods with their names in quotes.

The cops weren’t around, and I hurried on since I was in a rush. I’d just bought some “amber” — a piece with an “ant” in it. I’d paid a buck for it to a vendor on Canal Street. I’d sped off then, too, not wanting to witness what the real price might be.

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