58) THE CITY STILL BREATHES
Ratso suddenly regained consciousness. He couldn’t quite get his bearings because he continued whirling around; as if he had become a dust ball; trying to escape the vacuum cleaner. All images seemed blurred and without detail.
The excruciating pressure in his ears lessened, as he put his hands up to shut out the noise. This mysterious spinning abruptly ended, as quickly as it started. Ratso lay prone on the floor of the bin. All around him appeared normal.
I don’t understand what happened, he thought, but I want no more.
He took a moment to regain his senses and then he cautiously lifted the overhead door of the bin. The sun beamed down from a cloudy sky and the day seemed quite lovely. A slight chill in the air reminded him spring still persisted.
He heard the rumbling of the subway trains in the distance. He recognized returning back to the real world because no remnants of the cage previously imprisoning him existed. Patting his pockets, he found the pen and tablet stuffed in his shirt pocket. On the floor lay the package containing the lock and key.
He meandered out of the storage bin, locking the overhead door behind him. The key slipped into his pocket and he proceeded across an open field, through the parking area, down the alley and out to the street. The trip took him slightly over an hour.
He liked seeing the familiar neon signs and busy traffic patterns. His stomach told him to feed his hunger. His last meal had been dry sandwiches and a Coke. He checked his pockets, finding a grand total of $ 5.43; a Lincoln bill and some small change.
Looks like I need to play ‘dine and dash’ again, his mind told him.
Ratso played the game of ‘dine and dash’ often. It’s where you go into a restaurant, order a meal and casually dine without a care in the world. The key to success resided in trying to get a seat close to the front door. When the cashier got busy, you would dash out the exit and hopefully out of sight.
His travels took him back to the Times Square area. He found a restaurant perfect for his starving body. The location sat on a side street midway of the block. He took a peek through the window and counted 7 or 8 people sitting at the counter, with another 5 or 6 groups sitting at tables. From all he observed, only two waitresses worked the floor.
Yes, nice and busy, his mind chirped. Now I need to prepare.
Ratso wasn’t a dummy. He recognized if he wanted to pull this off, he needed to appear as an ordinary teen in search of a meal. To pull this off meant dumping his leather jacket, combing his raggedy mop of hair and trying to give the impression of innocence.
He went up to the main street and surveyed the surroundings. Across the street and down a block ran another side street. He wandered in to scope out the area and located a public trash barrel, right around the corner.
Inside the barrel, he found a discarded plastic bag from a burger joint. He grabbed the bag and stuffed it into his pocket. He took off his leather jacket and buried the coat deep into the barrel, making a cover of some discarded newspapers. He tried to comb his hair and make himself presentable before making the trek back to the restaurant.
The jingle of a bell signaled his arrival. He immediately sat down at the end of the counter and picked up a menu. Nobody at the counter paid the slightest bit of attention to his presence. As he perused the menu, his stomach growled. He wanted additional food to go with him when he left. Therefore, he ignored the breakfast selections and went straight to the lunch and dinner meals.
OUR ULTIMATE PANINI SANDWICH jumped out at him.
Our specialty sandwich is made with ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard, and salami on a freshly baked baguette loaf. It’s made Super-Size for super appetites.
Wow, he thought, that sure sounds terrific. I can eat half here and take the rest with me.
He sat patiently waiting for one of the waitresses to take his order. This place did a brisk business and he anticipated no problem scooting out when he ate his fill. The last thing he needed would get busted for failure to pay.
An experience in his younger days resulted in losing his allowance until the restaurant got paid off. If getting caught happened again, he would end up back in Tryon.
Tryon ... He hadn’t thought of the North Country hell-hole for a while.
Ratso once resided as one of the residents in their torture chamber from the time he turned 12 until last year. Originally he got sent to Tryon because of his penchant for shoplifting and vandalism. The judge ordered him to serve a minimum sentence of 9 months, ‘to give him a moral compass’. During the time of his incarceration, he put up with surly guards and punk ass kids from Harlem.
He only got out because of his charming attitude and his ability to lie his way through their interrogations. He never gave them a reason to extend his sentence, and he he thanked his lucky stars. His daydream broke, at the appearance of a rather chubby girl in a white linen apron holding an order pad.
“May I help you today?” came the cheery voice of his waitress. Her name tag said ‘Sherry’.
“Yes,” Ratso answered, “I’ll nhave the Ultimate Panini and a Coke.”
“Would you like an order of fries?” Sherry continued.
“Are nthey curly fries,” Ratso asked, “or nregular French fries?”
“Regular.” Sherry’s reported.
“Yes,” he replied, “I’ll nhave fnries too.”
“Coming right up.” she uttered as she dashed away to put in his order.
Another party of four came in and sat at one of the tables. Ratso enjoyed seeing constant traffic, because the busier the staff, the easier his job performing his ‘dash’. The aroma coming from the grill area made his stomach rumble.
He had neglected to eat a decent meal for some time. Making a diet of Twinkies, candy bars, and an occasional sandwich got old after awhile. What he needed was real food to keep his energy up.
Spray painting graffiti on walls took a lot of energy.
Sherry the waitress kept whizzing back and forth from the counter to the dining tables, to the grill area and back. She seemed quite efficient in her job as she systematically doled out the orders to her respective tables. The man sitting next to Ratso at the counter flagged her down by holding out a $ 20 bill and his check. Sherry took his tab, his money and zipped away to the cash register. Upon returning, she handed the man his change and thanked him for his business.
“Your food is coming right out,” She announced to Ratso and shot off again.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ratso watched the man putting a $ 2.75 tip on the counter and leaving the restaurant. In a flash, Ratso reached out and scooped the bills up and stuffed them in his pocket, leaving only $ .75 for poor Sherry.
He didn’t care; his expenses came first.
Sherry returned with a tumbler of Coke and the monster sandwich. This thing looked like a royal feast sitting on a platter, nestled in a bed of French fries. Ratso understood why they named the sandwich ‘The Ultimate Panini’. He jokingly thought this monster might feed a family of four Asians for a week.
“Will you need anything else, sir?” Sherry quizzed.
“No,” Ratso confirmed. “Not nright now thank you.”
He attacked his meal. Sherry gave the impression of disgust as she cleared the counter where the man previously sat. She picked up the three quarters tip and put them in her apron, quickly shooting a glare at Ratso; as if she suspected what he did.
After eating about 1/3 of the sandwich, Ratso glanced around to make sure no one monitored his actions. He secretly pulled out the plastic bag he took from the trash can. Under cover of the counter overhang, he surreptitiously slipped 2/3 of the sandwich and half of the fries into the bag.
He casually sat at the counter munching on the remaining fries and sipping his Coke. He took his time because he wanted to exit smooth . The ideal time would be when Sherry went back to place an order.
Ratso caught site of a table in the dining area getting ready to pay their bill. Sherry arrived and took their money and checks and went back to the register.
Time to go, he thought.
Ratso got up and slipped the plastic bag with his food under his shirt. He moved quickly toward the front door and with a smooth twist of the knob, opened the door and shot out into the street. He didn’t exactly run, but walked with a brisk pace up the street.
He zipped around the corner and down to the next block. In a trash barrel slightly inside another alley, he retrieved his leather jacket. Tucked inside the left pocket, a can of spray paint took up all the space. So he pushed his sandwich deep in the right side of the coat.
He darted into the semi-darkness of the alley and followed along until he exited onto 42nd Street. He arrived at the busiest section of the city, as the wind picked up significantly and the sky became much darker than before.
Why does a storm always come up every time I get to Times Square?
Ratso grinned, happy with his success in the restaurant. With his stomach full, a backup sandwich and a mission, he almost patted himself on the back. His mission: to get kind of tool to punch a view sight in the door of his bin.
He admitted this wouldn’t be an easy task because the heavy overhead door presented a solid exterior. Perhaps a leather punch or an awl would be strong enough to go through. The hole itself didn’t need to be too large. Just enough for him to peek out and make sure nobody spied his secret residence.
He found a phone booth containing the shredded remains of The Yellow Pages. He flipped through the listings and found a Midtown Hardware store, only a few blocks north of him; on 45th Street and Lexington Avenue. The sky kept turning darker and he wanted to do his mission and get back to the safety of the bin. He broke into a mild gallop up to 45th Street, turned left and headed towards Lexington Avenue. The hardware store sat in the middle of the block.
He wandered in and rapidly scanned the aisles for some tool. In the section marked ‘Hand Tools’, he found what he needed. An awl, about 8" in length with a sharp tip on the end would work. The side blades bore tiny serrated edges which should make his task easier. He couldn’t fit the awl in his pocket, so he opted to slide it handle first into his sock. Fortunately, he encountered no one asking questions and he left the store without incident.
The sky definitely turned black by now and appeared as if a major storm headed his way. Turning the corner, he walked directly into his cousin Johnny who came from the opposite direction.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Johnny inquired. “People are looking for you.”
“I realize they are,” Raphael commented, “and I’m hiding. What the hell are nyou doing here?”
“The boys and I are scoping out a place to rip off.”
“And nwhere are the boys?” he questioned.
“Turn around.” Johnny nodded.
Raphael turned around and not 25 feet from him sat a black Subaru. And as the thought of recognition entered his head, the doors of the Subaru opened, filling the street with 4 of his old gang buddies.
“You’d better take off my man,” Johnny shouted, “or you’re dead.”
Raphael took off in a flash before any of the gang members fully exited the car. He ran up 45th Street and didn’t even look as he dashed out in traffic across 7th Avenue, to escape. When he got to the next intersection, he turned around and noted in the distance, a black Subaru making a U-turn.
Shit, he thought, I’m going in the wrong direction.
Nothing would let him change his course now. Raphael made a left and ran up 8th Avenue towards 42nd Street. This turned out to be a one-way street. He knew the Subaru needed to go at least one more block in order circle and follow him. As he ran for his life, he kept thinking about his Cousin Johnny.
Why hadn’t Johnny tried to help me? He thought. He left me stranded when he should’ve stood up for me.
Raphael ducked into a darkened alley and found a large manhole fifty feet from the entrance of the alley. He bent down and lifted up the manhole cover and found a steel ladder descending into the darkness below. He didn’t enjoy the smell coming from the hole but being desperate, he forced himself to move the cover aside.
Pushing down inside, he entered this pit of subterranean blackness. Dropping down a few steps, only his forehead and eyes would be visible to anyone looking in from the street. Once situated, his mind whirled about, as he tried to consider his options.
He didn’t want to go any deeper because he feared he might easily get lost in the maze of underground tunnels. He hoped to stay above ground and work his way back home; if he dodged meeting up with any more trouble.
Keeping his gaze steady towards the entrance to the alley, he saw the black Subaru moving slowly down 8th Avenue. Because of his limited field of view, he couldn’t tell if they stopped to check out the alleys or if they continued looking for an obvious sign of his location.
Now came decision time. If he stayed here and his old gang came looking for him, he would have no choice but to go deeper into the sewer. He wasn’t sure what lighting worked down below, but he gave the sewer credit for being a haven of rats. And he didn’t like rats.
On the other side of the coin, he would need to run through the alley, continuing towards 41st Street. By chance, he might encounter the boys when he exited into the main thoroughfare. He considered choice number two to be his best option and he struggled to climb up the steel stairway and out into the alley. He traversed to the very edge of the entrance and peeked out down the Avenue.
No sign of the black Subaru stood out. They would return, so he took off up towards the intersection of 41st Street. On the assumption the gang went around the block, they would spend two minutes driving around until coming back to make another pass.
Even being rushed, he couldn’t resist the temptation to leave his mark. He took his paint from the jacket pocket and painted his trademark R-F inside a circle on a store window. He added the zig-zag underneath the letters and ran off before encountering anyone.
He ran like the wind up to 40th Street, against the light and across the path of traffic, as he continued his travels. He grinned like a banshee because he left his mark and if the gang members came back down looking for him, they sure would recognize his handiwork.
The journey home took time but went on without incident. He finally made his way to the more familiar area near Times Square. Taking shortcuts through alleys, he did his best to avoid any possible run-in with gangs or police. He traveled the last alley, across the empty parking lot, and slipped into the compound through the fence. This had been a long day and the sun dimmed in the western sky. Raphael became tired, not only physically but emotionally.
In the first row of storage bins, two cars and several people went about loading or unloading their possessions. He walked right by them as if he owned the place and continued towards his own ‘borrowed’ real estate. When he got to the last row, a car sat parked at the end of the row; across from his bin.
Shit, he thought, after all this I simply wanted to get inside and relax.
He couldn’t take the chance of going into his bin if someone might witness his presence. He made a mental note of the vehicle and went back up to the section of broken fence where he came in. He hoped these people wouldn’t take too much time getting out because he exhibited tiredness and got hungry again.
But his only choice at this point would be to hurry up and wait.
He sat down behind a large rock at the edge of the abandoned parking lot. From here, he viewed the gate of the compound, while cooling his heels until everybody left. The first drop of rain hit him in the face; and the next, and the next, until developing into a gentle shower. He got pissed being stranded out in the rain. Alternately, he hoped the rain would cause the other visitors in the compound to accelerate their exit.
Time moved about three minutes before the first car left, followed shortly by the second. The only one remaining was the car parked across from his storage space. So the only thing left to do; wait ... wait and get soaked.
Finally, the car he worried about pulled up to the gate and exited. Raphael moved quickly back through the fence and ran to his storage bin. He unlocked the padlock and slid in under the door, which he closed behind him. He shivered, soaking wet and his clothes reeked with the odor of sewage from his time in the manhole.
His first order of business would be to get light in the place. He moved his hand around in the darkness until he came to the end table where he kept all his possessions; specifically the flashlight. As soon as he clicked the switch, a bright light shot out from the lens in the front.
“Hooray,” he cheered with joy, “now I can nfinally see nwhat I’m doing.”
In the light of the flashlight, Raphael enjoyed another bit of his leftover meal and settled down on the mattress. He took off his wet clothes and lay naked, munching on his Panini sandwich. Today was interesting and scary , but ending as a good day.
He turned off the flashlight and allowed himself to mentally review the events of the day. He continued to be pissed about the way his cousin Johnny left him hanging. In reality, he could do nothing about his attitude. He put the last remainder of the sandwich away and curled up to sleep.
Raphael laid alone in solitude; solitude he liked and hated at the same time.