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I’ve never been robbed before, let alone at gunpoint. But that would change pretty quickly once I moved to Harlem from a small suburban Pennsylvania town. In fact, it would happen on my second day living in my new apartment.
It all started when me and my close friend, Dave, decided to pack up and move to New York City. I was a screenwriter and playwright and he was an aspiring actor. It was our dream to live in New York and, finally, we did it. However, Dave was able to move into our new apartment on 116th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard a month before me due to some obligations I had to fulfill at my soon-to-be former job. Now, this was back in 2005. Harlem wasn’t like it was in the 70’s and 80’s. Or even the 90’s. But, it was still a bit sketchy. If you were heading uptown from Central Park West, the moment you’d hit 110th Street, you’d see a change in the scenery, Central Park now in your rear view.
After completing my job obligations in Pennsylvania, I was in New York. The first night was dedicated to relaxation after moving all my stuff in. But my second night was all about celebrating. Dave and I found a cool little bar on the Upper West Side and got shit-faced drunk. I mean SHIT. FACED. Then we made our way to Gray’s Papaya and stocked up on hot dogs – probably about 15 hot dogs to be exact. So, still unfamiliar with the subway system, we took the 1-Train to 125th and Lennox Avenue when the C or B trains would have taken us much closer to our apartment. We also should’ve got off at 116th but we missed it. So, it was about 3:30 in the morning and we were walking back to the apartment, which was about eight blocks away. And I’m leading the way for some reason. Finally, I get to my apartment, turn around and Dave’s not there!
Now, I suppose I could’ve just went into my apartment right? Well, I only had keys to the entrance door and not to my actual apartment. So, I guess I could’ve just called Dave to see where he was, right? Nope. I had a pre-paid cell phone and I was out of minutes. And I didn’t have a single dime on me, only a bag-full of hot dogs. So all I could do was wait for Dave. But soon 3:30am became 4:00am. And 4:00am would become 4:30am. Before I knew it, it was almost 5 a.m.! No sign of Dave, I was fed up. I walked a block down the street to use the payphone when I realized - “Oh, yeah, I don’t have any change on me.” So I kindly asked a passerby for change, explaining to him my cell phone was out of minutes. Instead of change, this “gentleman” pulled out a gun and asked for money – in front of about five or so spectators hanging out on a nearby stoop. I tried explaining to him I didn’t have any money – why else would I ask him for change? The guy seemed a little out of it and I didn’t want to get killed. So I gave up the cell phone. On my way back to my apartment, I even saw the guy trying to sell the phone to a bunch of dudes hanging out on a stoop.
Obviously frustrated, and perhaps stupidly, I asked another stranger for a cigarette. The sun was now up and a bunch of people were now out and about, so I didn’t see any risk. What a dumb move. This stranger came out of a bodega with a pack of Newports and a six-pack of Heineken. He seemed sympathetic towards my situation, so he gave me a cigarette and even offered me a beer. So I was like, “Sure, why the fuck not?” I needed a beer after this shit. This stranger cracked one open for himself and asked me to join him on the stoop across the street from my apartment to talk about. So I sat down next to him at the top of the stoop. But he shook his head and said, “No, sit here” while pointing the next step down, in front of him. Where the back of my head would be right near his crotch region. Immediately sensing what was going on here, I made up some bullshit excuse and headed to my apartment across the street, letting myself into the front entrance. I sat there for another 15 minutes until the stranger was gone. I went back outside, downing hot dog after hot dog while waiting for Dave.
Finally, it was after 7 in the morning and here comes Dave moseying his way to our apartment. “What the fuck happened?” I screamed at him, telling him everything that had happened. “Settle down,” Dave said to me. He then told me that he was so drunk and disoriented that he got lost during our walk home from the subway station. So his instinct was to go back to the train where he fell asleep and did figure-eights around New York for almost four hours. He offered me some Jamaican beef patties as an olive branch. But I screamed at him - “I just ate 15 fucking hot dogs!” Luckily, this never happened to me again and I still live in New York City nearly 15 years later but another incident would occur during this time...
It was late January, 2006. I had lived in New York City for roughly six months, on 116th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. My 2nd night out in the city, I got robbed at gunpoint right down the street from where I lived, which would scare off a lot of people. But I settled in and everything seemed to be going pretty well ever since. I felt like a hardened criminal at this point, minus the crime. I was friends with a lot of people in the neighborhood and found a few cool bars and restaurants where I became friendly with more neighborhood folk.
Frederick Douglass Boulevard
On this freezing cold January night, I was nice and cozy, watching the Grammy’s with my roommate, Dave. I was always an underground hip-hop kind of guy, but I remember watching Justin Timberlake ripping shit up, playing every instrument you can think of and singing PERFECTLY while dancing, no lip-syncing. I was never a boy-band kind of guy but I remember saying out loud, “Holy shit, this motherfucker is awesome.” My stomach started to rumble – I was starving. So, halfway through the Grammy’s, I looked in the fridge only to find butter and mustard. I could have ordered out, but it was like 9 p.m. and I wanted something healthy to eat this late. So, I took a walk down to 110th to the grocery store bundled up in a big, puffy North Face winter coat and a beanie. I quickly picked up a box of Bran Flakes, bananas and skim milk and headed back to my apartment.
But, as I reached 113th street (3 blocks away from my apartment), I got the feeling I was being followed. As I was crossing over to 114th street, I saw two shadows behind me, getting closer. Sure enough, they converged on me. Of course my first thought was that I was being robbed again, so this time, I fought back, swinging wildly. But I was overpowered by the two men who dressed very similarly to me. They slammed my head against a brick wall and pressed my face to it while zip-tying my wrists together, right near my laundry mat where all my neighbors could see the whole thing. I offered the two men my wallet but then they showed me something – each of them showed me police badges. That’s right, I was being arrested for lord knows what. I had to backtrack a little to make sure I didn’t have any outstanding parking tickets or something.
One of the cops was extremely aggressive, screaming at me - “What the fuck’s in the bag, tough guy?” To which I replied sheepishly, “Bran Flakes, bananas and skim milk”. His partner, who was much, much nicer checked the bag, looked to the angry, plain clothes cop and said, “He’s right. Bran Flakes, bananas and skim milk.”
The mean cop continued to scream at me, sure that he had his guy. Apparently, a Mexican looking dude dressed a lot like me robbed a bodega right down the street, firing gunshots. I’m half Filipino, can barely speak a lick of Spanish, but I’m often mistaken for Hispanic. After hearing me talk a little bit, explaining what I’ve been doing, even explaining what was happening with the Grammy’s, I could see the mean cop starting to doubt himself. But he wasn’t willing to let that show. He stormed off to wherever, speaking on his Boost Mobile walkie-talkie radio, as his nicer partner kept me zip-tie against the brick wall. He checked my ID and saw my last name, which isn’t a Spanish last name. And we talked a bit. By a bit, I mean 45 minutes. I was being held in the freezing cold for 45 minutes with my groceries on the ground. But this cop was very pleasant. Soon, he let me face him instead of being held against a wall. Though I had scrapes and bruises on my face, the man was very comforting, asking me about my life, my aspirations and why I moved to New York. We actually had a very deep conversation. I almost forgot it was 5 degrees out.
Finally, his unpleasant partner came back, screaming “Fuck! He’s not the guy!”, disappointed that I didn’t shoot up a corner bodega. The nice cop cut me loose, shook my hand, apologized for my face (not for the way it looks but for what they did to it)… and wished me luck. In hindsight, especially in today’s climate, I probably should’ve filed a complaint. There wasn’t much social media back then outside of Facebook, which was still pretty young at the time, so I couldn’t make it go viral. But one positive thing was that I gained immediate street cred after this happened in front of my neighbors. I also looked like a complete bad-ass with the scrapes and the black eye. The second positive thing was that, when I got back home, my skim milk was still nice and cold thanks to being outside in the winter weather for so long. And I made it just in time to see the end of the Grammy’s!