George was lying on on the floor of his apartment waiting for us, his right forearm over his face hiding his tears. The door was ajar and as soon as we entered without knocking he knew Victor was with me. His family was in the same position I left them an hour or so ago, his wife holding his older daughter in her lap, lightly applying hydrogen peroxide to the open rat bites on the child’s legs, the foam bubbling rapidly above the flesh and then dissapating. His younger 3 year old girl was on her side sucking her thumb,staring through the crib slats at the wall, her arms, at this point, swollen, the rat teeth puncture marks visible even from where we we standing. I had left a madhouse of screams and fear, anger and confusion just hours earlier. Now, there was nothing, no eye contact, no sound, eerie stillness.
“Tomorrow afternoon, we meet the Black Panthers, the head of ’em,” I said as sternly, as authoritatively as I could, breaking the catatonia.
George didn’t move his body or his arm away from his face.
“No me venga con mierda, Felipe!”, he barked.
Victor jumped in, thank God.
“George, he’s not bullshitting. I was right by him on the phone when we got the okay. We gonna meet the guy who started the Black Panthers and he’ll tell us where we start; what we shoulda done a long time ago.”
George stayed quiet for a while. And then, in a very dark tone, scary, he said softly,”And what do we do right now.”
I jumped right in, there was no time to lose, no time to play games.
“First, let’s get your wife to the emergency room and get the babies some shots for this shit. And then we can…..
George took his arm away from his face, his bloodshot eyes blazing.
“I tell you what we gonna do, yea. We gonna bring them to Flower-Fifth, leave them….”
I opened my mouth to protest, but he pointed his finger at me, trembling and shouted, ” No, they can take care of themselves. You know my wife, she’ll do it and she speaks English good. But, I want to find this motherfucka. You promised me…..”
Victor, in his soft, dulcet tones, cut the discussion down to the basics.
” Then, let’s go.”
George jumped up, went to the tiny, foul smelling bathroom full of holes and exposed pipes, washed his face, buttoned his shirt, rinsed his mouth out and wrapped the rifle in a sheet. He didn’t even turn around to tell his wife we weren’t going to accompany them the 6 blocks to the emergency room. Flung the door open and knew we were going to be behind him. We were going hunting and pity the target. Pity the fool who tried to intervene.
We walked all over the immediate area, checking his landlord’s other buildings in the area. Puerto Ricans are funny when they know you’re on a mission. When they see 3 dudes, not smiling, not shaking hands or hugging, just asking quick, serious questions about the whereabouts of somebody, they give up the information quickly and honestly. They knew we were not on a joy ride or a robbery spree. They knew this was personal and had to be done. And they agreed so they gave us the intel, but, to no avail. We couldn’t find him. Expanded our perimeters beyond 102-106th to 110th Street from Madison to First Avenues. We swept El Barrio clean, damn near from the East River to Fifth Avenue. Still no landlord. Either someone tipped him off or he really wasn’t around that day. Either way he was a lucky man.
George had calmed down considerably. He saw we were as serious about finding this landlord as he was and just having that kind of warrior support eased his anger. Victor and I waited for him to give the next order.
“Whadda we do now?”, George asked wearily.
I just looked at George straight, Victor shrugged his shoulders. It was George’s call. Holding the rifle under his armpit, tired and sweaty, he said, “Let’s go to my house and target practice.”
There was a junk-yard between 103rd and 104th Streets. There was also a marble factory on Park Ave, but, after 6pm the entire area belonged to whoever wanted to claim it. In those days, as long as you kept the plinking to .22’s and the sound of firecrackers, no one cared and no one called the cops.
George had no military training whatsoever, but this fucken ‘Rican could hit the head of a running squirrel at 50 yards. And he loved to watch us miss and correct our technique. He couldn’t write English that well and he wasn’t a poet, but, Lord, could he shoot. Slowly, as his continued to hit the bullseyes of the cheap paper targets his demeanor changed, calmer, more serious and logical. And then he uttered the magic words.
“When do we meet these guys tomorrow?” George said calmly his eyes boring into me.
“12 noon!,” I said, “I’ll pick you up at 11. Victor?”
Victor smiled that beautific, rare smile of his.
“Don’t worry ’bout me. I’ll be right here. You better be up George. And eat before we leave. Don’t run that shit on me of ‘vamos a desayunar’ at the last minute, jibaro.”
We all laughed and as Victor and I left the backyard through the old broken wooden boards, George called out after us, ” Let me tell you now, I’m packing. Quizas Uds conocen esto maricones, pero yo no. (Maybe y’all know these motherfuckers, but, I don’t.” It was classic George. And James Foreman will never how close he came to losing his life by being assanine and arrogant the following day.