Thomas Colón

T Colon (Acentos)


Thomas Colón, a native Nuyorican, spent his formative years in Soundview and points south-west. After a 20-year career in finance, running trading desks in New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo, he moved to Spain where he teaches English and writes stories about the Bronx. He lives in Granada where he’s raising two sons and squeezing out his first novel.


I met my first murderer when I was sixteen years old. He was sitting on a big-ass Impala parked under the el, reclined against the sloping windshield, eyes half-mast, at once relaxed and alert, and he seemed in no hurry whatsoever. It was a sweat-box of a Saturday night in the summer of ‘77, a few weeks before the blackout completed the devastation of our neighborhood

I recognized him from Frankie’s block, where I would see him standing under the slim underhang of a tenement doorway, smoking or waiting or just watching. Viejo was a street generation older than me, three or four years, and looked nothing special. Trim, compact, his neat afro shaped up at the cocólo barbershop. But his grounded demeanor in our chaotic neighborhood distinguished him as someone not to be fucked with. Guys like Viejo operated in an alternate universe from mine. I was an SPE kid; the Board of Ed created a special class for the highest achievers but neglected to add a protective custody wing to my Junior High School, which could have been called Riker’s Prep. Walking the gauntlet to 123, carrying books that actually got read made me feel like I had a bull’s-eye on my back. As if it weren’t bad enough I looked like nobody else in my tribe.

Everyone in my neighborhood looked like Viejo, or like Frankie, who was darker- skinned with straighter hair, but they were all unmistakably Puerto Rican. Either that or they were Black in its many gradations, high yellow to blue-black, even the freckled, orange-tinged mother fuckers in the middle, they were all black and they all knew it, lived it, inhabited it, nodding “what’s up” to one another in passing. Puerto Ricans had more range and subtlety in shade and hair texture, but you were rarely fooled. Even the morenos had a feline set to the eyes or mouth, and we walked with a less pronounced bop, a half-beat pause on the left stride, not the near-limp that cocólos used.  They tended to overdo it, less nuance in their game, rolling up their right pants leg and flashing tube sock as if they were headed back to their parked bicycles.

Blacks and Puerto Ricans co-existed, smoothly, respectfully, and you could orient the gentle boundaries from the music wafting from open windows. We had the melodious horns and staccato rhythms of Latin while they had the sonorous bass lines and harmonies of R&B. Up the block, in the laboratory of the Projects, the cultures were blending. The Black Spades, having switching medium from violence and intimidation to nationalistic performance art, had become the Zulu Nation, pirating electricity from punched-out streetlamp fuse boxes for public exhibitions of rudimentary scratching and elementary rhyme. The younger kids, bare-chested and ribby in cut-off dungarees, were too exuberant and too erratic to be allowed anywhere near the turntables, so they ricocheted off the asphalt, inventing Break Dancing.

You could spot a Puerto Rican a mile away, from revolutionary black and afro-ed to green-eyed Papi Chulos with blow-dried DAs. But though my gait was true and my Spanish passable, I was never mistaken for Puerto Rican. My father was Irish or Italian, some kind of white – no one seemed to have known him well enough to say for sure, and I knew not to press. They never threw photos away in my family, fearing vague Santería hexes, and would instead cut an entire person out of a Polaroid, leaving half-carved remnants as if from a long-discarded jigsaw puzzle. I remember, as a kid, staring at a disembodied hand on my mother’s shoulder under her beehive hairdo and raccoon eye shadow, trying to divine whether the hand was part of a White or a Puerto Rican. My family weren’t communicators of particular emotional depth, but they knew what to do when gunplay erupted. My uncles had Superfly moustaches and sideburns, wore long curly fros, and they walked the streets armed and nobody fucked with them. From childhood, I had always regarded violence with the squeamishness and horror of the elderly and felt wholly inadequate compared to them and vulnerable in the streets and schoolyards. I learned to ignore quizzical looks and deflect boisterous questions, and I was later forced to scramble, a tense blend of running and avoiding, but mostly dodging taunts and escaping outright threats. I avoided eye contact, and tried to mask my fear, hide my shame.

Things got better once I went to Bronx Science, in classrooms where I felt safe for the first time since the second grade. Science was a ghetto nerd’s paradise with no physical threats at Science, no tough guys, and the only colors flown on dungaree jackets were the album cover reproductions the blancitos painted on. There were enough kids of color to feel comfortable but no hostility from the first teen-aged whites many of us had ever met. At school I could recreate myself and fortify my story with lies no classmate could refute.  But I still had to go down to 125th street twice a day to switch trains with the Clinton boys trudging between cars, and I was especially wary during the lower Bronx stops in rubble-strewn neighborhoods, holding my breath until the subway doors closed and I could exhale again into the books on my lap until I got home and stepped off the train and back out of the bubble.  Back to the realities of Soundview, I had learned to downplay my academic elitism and turned to sports to burrow acceptance from hostile peers. And more recently I had discovered the release, and accepted the social embrace of another means. Frankie was a shortstop and a weed dealer and we had become sandlot teammates and drinking and smoking buddies.

On this night, awash in a hazy bonhomie of beers and joints, we left his mother’s apartment and walked into the Saturday night exuberance. Frankie strutted down his block, swiveling from the hips, slapping five or hailing greetings in English to the energetic young bloods who popped up from stoops and street games to greet him and eyeball me. Kids dodged slow-moving sedans, slapping fenders and bounding onto the sidewalk. Adults jabbered in aluminum beach chairs, playing dominoes or spades, telling lies. Frankie gripped shoulders and shook hands, in Spanish, with old-timers in guayaberas, who gestured efficiently while nursing beers and half-pints wrapped in brown paper bags, huddled under the awnings of liquor stores and bodegas on opposite street-corners. They talked quick and passionately about baseball, or boxing, or women. The bright storefront windows were like footlights and, turning at the Chino-Cubano and crossing the Avenue, we happened upon Viejo, settled into his perch like a sated lion.

The car was parked in front of the steep, darkened staircase leading to El Exclusivo, an after-hours for the more resilient or the most desperate, where English wasn’t spoken at all. The intermittent squeals and rumbles of subway cars overhead were white noise amid the nocturnal din. Frankie introduced us and Viejo pivoted, bending his legs over the hood, unrushed. He nodded his chin slightly in recognition. He must have noticed me on the block, too.

“My man Tommy here, he’s our centerfielder.” Frankie grinned, red-eyed and squinty, enjoying his own head, “He goes to Bronx Science.” Viejo was dressed conservatively, an elder statesman of Watson avenue, blue pumas and faded glories creased with military precision. A thin gold chain flashed under his polo shirt. He glanced at me without expression, then back to Frankie.

“And check this out. He’s gonna write a book. About us. About all this shit. ¨ Frankie said, equal parts pride and irony. He spread his arms in an expansive arc, beer in his left hand, an unlit joint in his right. A passing car beeped encouragement. ¨Life in the Bronx,” offering me a working title, grinning, pinching the joint over his ear. I guessed Viejo didn’t get high.

Viejo sized me up, displaying the outward emotional depth of a Yakuza warlord. “You gonna write a book?” he said, curling a smirk, perhaps an understated threat, onto the end of his question.      

Frankie beamed at me, mustached and toothy like a cartoon wolf, and I felt like a potentially lucrative hostage. I unconsciously reached up and matted down my kinky-flower hair, sneaking a peek at my reflection in the car window. I wore it parted to the side, brushed down flat, but a week after a haircut the edges began to flare up like Frederick Douglas.

“You should write about my man here,” Frankie said to me, squaring up to Viejo, slapping five. “Write his goddamn story. He killed somebody and got off. On insanity!” As if it were the pinnacle of societal achievement. Viejo eyed him, flexing a slow, confident what passed for a smile.

I was too nervous to speak but too agitated to keep still. My eyes darted from one to the other, trying to deconstruct Frankie’s grin, trying to read Viejo’s face, wondering what he was thinking, flash-quizzing myself, questions flapping like a slot machine. Whom did he kill - some nosy mother fucker, no doubt. How did he do it – knife, gun, aluminum bat? Did he choke him with his bare hands? From what depths of fury could such an act emerge? I strove to stay put, straining to keep my face neutral, wondering if some manner of acknowledgement or perhaps congratulation was in order. I said nothing.

Viejo tilted back his chin and lowered a languid, measured gaze on me, then offered, simply, “I got crazy papers.” He leaned back against the windshield, the matter settled. A proof for some wild and feral geometry.

Frankie barked, “Ha-ha!  See? He got crazy papers. Ha ha. Life in the Bronx.” He flayed about, slapping five with Viejo, then me, then an extra, exuberant round of pounds and fraternal shoulder grips. Viejo allowed me a smile, too, his eyes relaxing their cautious set, their corners crinkling in a grin. He reached into his pocket, for a Newport, lit up, looking me dead in the eye, freezing me. He blew smoke into the air then reached his hand out in a gesture of welcome, and acceptance, the boisterous street life growing silent to me in a new intimacy.


© The Acentos Review 2016