South Campus, mid February, my brother and I lean against the railing outside the South Station – the bar he owns – looking at the street. It’s 1993, so it’s still a ghetto, and Dave and I both have so much hair that when the wind blows, it mixes together, making us into Siamese hair twins.
About ten minutes ago, a shirtless man in his forties, with a porn star moustache and a tattoo of some kind of predatory cat on his back, stumbled out of the gyro place, blinking at the dimming sky, and then wandered into the middle of High Street.
It was early, so there wasn’t a lot of traffic – he had that going for him. And although the cops had strung up the ropes along the sidewalk down by Mustards and High Energy, they apparently were still around the corner, hanging out in their paddy wagons.
The man locked eyes with me, and then with Dave, and then he asked us something. He was slurring our hearing pretty badly, so we couldn’t understand what it was, but we had been around drunks for many years, and we could catch his drift. He wanted to know if we had some kind of problem.
We didn’t, so he continued stumbling out into the street, catching the attention of a couple of panhandlers, and a small gang of frat guys who were heading south. He asked the frat guys if they had a problem, his voice clearing up, and it turned out that they did have a little bit of one, but they were in a hurry and instead of following him into the street – which he was urging them to – they hurled a few insults at him, and kept moving.
That confirmed the man’s suspicions – he announced to the street with newfound clarity, “Nobody wants a piece of me!”
Standing there in the middle of High Street, dodging the curious, slow-moving cars, he re-iterated this idea a few times, while Dave and I drank beer out of plastic cups, watching him. He was getting sort of frustrated, it seemed, because he was looking for someone who wanted a piece of him, and no one did.
So he began stumbling south, toward the seriously nasty meat market bars, screaming, “I’m the toughest son of a bitch in this here city, and I’m a gonna kick everyone’s ass here. Line up.”
Sometime in the future, a massive Easton mothership, blinking with movie screens and franchise restaurants, will land right here on the ruins of the old south campus ghetto, making it alumni-friendly and squeaky clean. But right now, it’s still a ghetto. It isn’t that unusual for a crazy man to lurch down the middle of the street yammering at the traffic, but south campus is a place where, if you walk around demanding a beating, there is no shortage of bouncers and frat guys and panhandlers and grifters and thugs, all eager to hook you up.
So now it’s five minutes later, and we’re watching the toughest man in this here city get picked up out of the gutter by a few paramedics, who then load him into an ambulance. The helpful citizens of south campus are returning to the bars and doorways and alleys from whence they came, feeling pretty good about themselves.
Dave and I haven’t taken our elbows off the railing from the time he asked us if we had a problem, to the surreal moment we’re standing in, when the ambulance drives away, leaving High Street eerily quiet again.
And now here comes Rick, the owner of a new Mexican bar and grill right below us; tonight is his grand opening and he’s been coming into the South Station, and establishing diplomatic relations, and all that.
We’re pretty happy for him, but deep down, we think he should have done a little more market research. South campus is really not the place for a new restaurant, and it’s cold in February; people like to stay home and eat. And we know that some of his ideas, the ones he’s really excited about like the all-you-can-eat Mexican buffet, are ticking time bombs.
Usually the point of an all-you-can-eat buffet is, folks keep on buying beers while they’re eating all they can eat. But this is south campus – he’s going to have bums and stoners alike, sitting there for six hours, eating as many tacos as they can jam in their faces, and drinking water while they’re at it. But he’s a decent guy, and we like Mexican food, so we’re not going to pee out his campfire.
Doug’s a burly guy with matted brown hair, carrying enough of a beer belly to make him breathe kind of hard, just coming up the concrete stairs. He’s shaking his head, watching the ambulance, and he nearly trips over a couple of super duper pierced kids, sitting on the concrete steps. He glares at them, and they stare intently away, even though he’s practically standing on them.
He looks at our beers. “We’re allowed to have beers out here?” He asks.
Dave and I take identical swallows, shaking our heads. “Nope,” Dave tells him.
Confusing him for a second, but he gets over it.
“Opening the doors in one hour,” he tells us, rubbing his palms together. The early evening air is crisp and frosty, and it’s snowing, but not very much, like the same flakes are simply blowing around, recycling themselves.
“We’ll be down there,“ I tell him.
Rick says, “I been on the phone with the cops all day about these panhandlers.”
“How’d that go?”
“It’s bullshit.” He even gestures at a pair of cops, walking down the sidewalk now that no one is shrieking in the street. Dave and I make our beers disappear. “I mean, there they are, walking right by a bunch of them.”
He says it loud, like when someone at the next table is on his phone, and you want to tell him he’s being a douche bag without talking directly to him. The cops raise their eyebrows at him, muttering to each other.
“I’m trying to run a business,” Rick reminds us.
So is Dave , but there’s no reason to point that out. The panhandlers are out in droves tonight, to be sure. There’s the Help Is On The Way guy, there’s Leslie the Quarter Lady, there’s a couple of cracked-out runaways, there’s Flash – a grifter who runs a literal shell game. Some kind of Christian dude, passing out pamphlets. I hate to tell Rick, but this is pretty normal. This is the place where you just opened a restaurant.
Rick says, “I think we should form an association of businesses, try to clean this place up.”
“Sure,” I agree.
And Dave’s in some kind of trance now, the cops gone, our beers back, and still our elbows are right there on the railing. But he snaps out of it, and then he agrees, too. “Sure.”
Suddenly Rick bellows at the cracked-out teenagers, “Why don’t you go home to your mommies, you little deadbeats?”
Making all four of our eyebrows go up, as we lean away from him. All of these people will still be here, when the bars close – you don’t really want to go around making enemies out of them just for the sheer hell of it.
But the cracked-out runaways go ahead and move along, pretending to spontaneously decide to walk north. An unrelated decision, their demeanor tells us.
Then Rick launches into a very long description of how he behaved, when he was approximately their age, and also about the physical assaults he would have endured, from his father, on a regular basis, if he ever were to behave like a cracked out teenager, even now.
Dave and I block him out, and begin having a telepathic conversation using only our eyebrows and pupils, and when we catch a lull in Rick’s rant, we use it as a handhold to climb out of the conversation, and back into the South Station. We ask Rick if he wants to come in and have a beer, but he shakes his head and says he’ll see us later, and he walks down the steps with his hands on his hips.
About a half a dozen games of pool later, we hear a scream outside. It’s normal, to hear screams outside, but this isn’t a hammered girl, leaping on someone for a piggyback ride or anything, so we go on back outside and put our elbows back where they were, and try to figure out who’s screaming about what.
The scattered pedestrians have frozen, and to the south, where the roped-in sidewalks have begun to fill up with future meat market patrons, dozens of faces seem to stare directly at our feet. We look both ways; a paddy wagon is in sight, but no actual cops in either direction.
Scooter, a three hundred pound man with an elaborate set of sideburns and a pierced lip, leans out of the Subway restaurant next door. “Was that you, TC?”
Hard not to get offended. No, the girl screaming was not me. But all I do is shake my head, continue looking for the source.
Then I realize why everyone seems to be looking at our feet – they’re looking below us, at the door to the Baja Café, which is in the middle of its Grand Opening. To figure out what’s going on down there, we’re going to have to take our elbows off of this railing, and go look.
We didn’t bring our beers with us this time – that’s the level of urgency we were experiencing – so we just put our hands in our pockets and saunter on down.
Right away, we spot the source of the scream, a frowning Asian girl in a very puffy yellow coat. It looks like, you could drag her behind a truck in that coat, and she’d be okay, it’s so soft. She’s backing away from the door of the Baja Café, and when she sees us, she says, “A guy just got stabbed!”
That’s new. Usually, if someone gets stabbed around here, it’s at the end of the night.
Then Rick blasts open the front door, shouting, “What the hell are you doing? Are you kidding me? Does this look like a hospital?”
At first we think he’s yelling at the puffy girl, and maybe he is, a little bit. But much more of his message is directed back inside, at a wiry, acne-scarred man wearing several necklaces, and a Baja Café tee shirt.
Dave’s gone now, mentally, because the Asian girl showed up. He freezes right there on the steps, locking up like a computer. He’s the first person to acknowledge her without yelling, since she screamed a minute ago, so she tells him, “A guy got stabbed and he went in there!”
Pointing now at the Baja, but Rick’s in the way, lecturing the door guy.
“Are you kidding me, Timmy? I put you on the door and the first thing you do is open it for a guy with a knife sticking out of his leg?”
“Rick,” Timmy tells him. “Man, look, he was bleeding. He needs a doctor.”
Scooter again, from above: “I called 911, there’s an ambulance right around the corner.”
They usually keep one parked there on Thursdays through Saturdays, because of fights and alcohol poisoning.
“You see any doctors in there, Timmy?” Rick wants to know.
And now I go past him, leaving Dave on the steps, talking to his new puffy friend, and I look through the window. It’s a wide window, but it’s painted from the inside, with cacti and piñatas and banditos and all that crap, but I can look through gaps in the paint, and there he is, a guy I’ve never seen sprawled out ten feet inside the nearly empty restaurant, on a wide, dark stain.
I don’t see any doctors in there.
Timmy says, “Rick, it’s freezing out here. That’s a human being.”
“It’s a goddamn panhandler!” Ricks splits the air with the statement, and even Dave snaps out of it and looks over at us. Then everyone who isn’t Rick exchanges really uncomfortable expressions – we’re all pretty sure, panhandlers are in fact human beings.
“You know what?” Timmy says. “Screw this. I quit.”
And back in he goes, stepping around the bleeding panhandler, and Rick follows him, ranting. “Good. That’s fine. Because I don’t need a door guy who doesn’t know how to work a goddamn door. You can just get your…”
Their voices trail away again, and then an ambulance warbles up next to the curb. It’s time for us all to get out of the way.
Later, we’re sitting up at the South Station with the puffy Asian girl, and Scooter, and a small crowd of regulars, and Timmy comes in, tentatively at first, checking the place for Rick.
I buy him a beer, and he tells us that the cops have taken his statement, and that they’ve assured Rick, dragging the stabbed man back outside would have itself been a crime. Sure, it was true, he didn’t have to let the guy in, in the first place, but what would the rest of us do?
Probably the same thing, we tell him.
“Did they catch the guy who stabbed him?” A good question, from my brother, which hadn’t yet occurred to me.
The girl in the puffy coat – who has attempted to teach me her name three times, unsuccessfully – says, “I was just walking down the street, and I looked up, and he’s staggering down the steps with a knife sticking out of him.”
“I asked the cops that. They have no idea who stabbed him.”
“Well, it wasn’t me,” I tell him.
“And now,” Timmy goes on, “there’s an actual tape outline of the guy, right inside the door with a big bloodstain on it. And the cops say, he can’t clean it up, because if the guy dies in the hospital, then it’s a murder scene.”
So most of us spill out of the place, and bumble downstairs to look through the windows at the crime scene, and at Rick, sitting by the all-you-can-eat buffet, looking both lonely and enraged.
“Welcome to South Campus,” Dave says grimly, to the window, and he accidentally gets a few laughs. Then we go on back upstairs, and we take Timmy with us.