Keep Your Wits About You.
It’s 10:00 AM and I’m walking towards the modernish building that houses Café Machiavelli. As I get closer, a sinking feeling starts tickling my stomach. I recognize the sensation. I felt it whenever I didn’t want to go to school as a kid. For a moment I consider turning around and going home, but somehow I don’t think my mother will write me a note anymore.
Holding a paper cup of coffee in one hand and my dry cleaned uniform in my teeth, I open the lobby door and walk inside. The building’s atrium is filled with professional people getting on and off elevators, talking on cell phones, and trying to look upwardly mobile. A pair of cute professional girls walks past me, their high heels clicking urgently across the tile floor. One of them is pulling a wheeled piece of luggage with the logo of a pharmaceutical company discreetly sewn onto the front panel. This, plus the fact both women have great bodies, leads me to conclude that they’re drug reps about to troll the doctors’ suites upstairs. Maybe I’m being sexist and over generalizing, but I’ve never seen met an ugly drug rep. One of the girls looks at me. I automatically smile but the wire hanger in my teeth negates the effect. The girls do not automatically disrobe, Then again, they’ve never automatically disrobed, at least not for me.
I walk to the back of the lobby. The restaurant is dark and the doors are locked. The kitchen staff are milling around outside, furiously rubbing the laminate off their scratch off lottery tickets as they wait. I look at my watch. I’m on time. The kitchen guys are on time. Someone’s dropped the ball.
“Who’s supposed to open up?” I ask no one in particular.
“Willem,” Marco, the grill man answers.
“Where is he?”
“Probably borracho,” he says, causing the other workers to giggle knowingly.
“Was it busy last night?’ I ask.
“No,” Marco says, “It was shit.”
I hang my shirt on the front door handle, sit down on a concrete planter, and start drinking my coffee. Next to me Jose, one of the cooks, is intently studying his scratch off tickets.
“Win anything?” I ask.
“Nada,” he answers. “But I hit it for $50 last week.”
“Gotta be in it to win it,” I say.
“Goddamn waste of money if you ask me,” Jose says, shrugging.
“But you love playing.”
I sip my coffee and listen as the guys bitch about their scratch offs. Only Sebastiano, the dishwasher, won anything – ten dollars.
“So you hear what happened to Alberto?” Jose asks. Alberto is Café Machiavelli’s food runner.
“He got jumped Sunday night.”
“No shit. He okay?”
“They broke his nose, banged up his ribs, and stole all his money.”
“Three guys,” Jose continues. “They got him the moment he stepped off the bus.”
“They were waiting for him,” I say.
“He go to the hospital?”
“Nah,” José says, waving his hand. “He called in sick yesterday, but he’ll be here tonight.”
I take another sip of my coffee. Not for the first time, I think about how vulnerable restaurant workers are at the end of the night. Tired and often flush with cash, waiters and bus people can be a walking ATM machine for the thoughtful mugger. I knew a busgirl, seven months pregnant, who was robbed at knifepoint by three men. It was payday and Imelda was carrying a lot of cash, which made me think that her assailants observed her for some time before they made their move. They didn’t hurt her, thank God, but they got all her money. Three guys against a five foot tall pregnant woman? The thought of it makes my skin crawl. .
But, evaluating the situation in the cold light of day, if I was a mugger, I’d attack someone like Imelda too. I wouldn’t be taking on burly longshoremen or a guy walking out of a karate studio, the risk versus rewards ratio wouldn’t be in my favor. No, I’d go after something easy that couldn’t resist. That’s probably what happened to Alberto. What’s worse is that he probably set himself up for it.
Alberto is a hard worker and everyone likes him, but he always drinks five or six beers while doing his sidework at the end of the night. When it’s time to go home he’s usually in the bag. Someone, probably a regular rider on his bus, watched Alberto’s alcoholic routine for weeks, put him on his muggers to-do list, made a date, and invited some friends. Luckily for Alberto, his assailants seemed like they knew what they were doing. If some hopped up amateur attacked him, things could’ve been much worse. Alberto didn’t deserve to be mugged, mind you, but he might as well have given his attackers an engraved invitation. I’m not advocating paranoia, but you need to be aware of your surroundings. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people on the bus and subways; drunk, wasted, tired, iPodded and oblivious, just asking for trouble. The world is beautiful, but it’s also dangerous. You need to keep your wits about you.
A hung over looking Willem finally shows up and opens the doors. Fifteen hours later, after a slow and unprofitable shift, it’s time to go home. I’m one of the last people to leave. As I walk though the dark and empty atrium, I wonder what the pretty drug reps are doing now. Probably in bed and not alone. Tired and hungry, I walk out the front door and head for home.
I haven’t traveled ten paces when I notice two young men standing in front of the shuttered liquor store on the street corner. Both men are talking loudly, drinking from cans hidden in brown paper bags, and smoking cigarettes. Normally I’d write these guys off as late night drunks, but neither man is looking at the other while they talk. They seem to be observing their environment with a seriousness that seems incongruous with their jovial conversation. The word “perimeter check” seeps into my brain. For the second time today, a sinking feeling tickles my stomach. Maybe Alberto’s muggers are about to make an encore appearance.
I drop to one knee and pretend to tie my shoe. It’s then that I notice someone walking up behind me. The loud talking must’ve camouflaged his footfalls. I finish my shoelace pantomime, get up, and abruptly start walking in the opposite direction, towards the man coming up behind me.
“Hey man,” the guy says, his face breaking out in what looks like a surprised smile. “Can you gimme two bucks for the bus?”
“Sorry man,” I reply, walking around him, “I’m outta cash.”
“C’mon,” the man says, his brain probably evaluating risks and rewards. “You gotta have something.”
“Sorry,” I say, putting more distance between us. “I can’t help you.”
“No one wants to help a brother out,” the man says bitterly.
I keep walking. When I reach the corner I cross the street. I notice the man who asked me for money speaking with the two men in front of the liquor store. Maybe he’s going to hit them up for cash, too. One of the men hands the beggar his beer. The beggar drinks it and they all laugh. It’s then I know. The world is beautiful, but it’s also dangerous.
I take the long way home.