One good thing about being an Asian woman is the appearance of innocence. A petite, 17-year old Filipina is no threat. The pack of teenagers under the Tompkins Square Park bandshell knows this. So when the lookout marches by and whispers, “Bells. Five-oh,” they turn to Lailani.
Lailani opens her bag. The Velcro makes a quick ripping sound. The cross body satchel is Lailani’s creation, floral print stretch fabric and light interior padding, whip-stitched and cross-stitched with heavyweight nylon thread. Utilitarian and above suspicion. She collects beepers, a 9mm and two packages of skunk weed. Her movements are small and precise. She walks off toward the southeast exit. Her strides are short, slow and cocky. The rubber heels of her silver combat boots hit the pavement in soft rhythmic thumps. At the corner of 7th and B, she turns and looks back. Three cops in helmets and Kevlar vests order her pack to put hands on the hood and spread their legs. The cops pat them down, then order them to empty and turn out their pockets.
Another police car drives over the curb and into the park on the east entrance. From where she is standing, Lailani can see that three more are entering the west entrance on St. Mark’s. It’s that time of the year. The clearout of the homeless, the crackdown on the unwanted is in full swing. July can be the cruelest month.
Lailani lights a cigarette, adjusts her bag. The strap is heavy against her shoulder. She will have to fix this, insert some padding. She has more than enough left over. As she walks south, crossing East 6th, she hears sirens, bottles breaking. She imagines the neighbors, renters and squatters, rushing out of their apartment buildings, then linking arms, trying to chase the cops away with insults and chants. Whose Streets? Our Streets! Whose Park? Our Park! It will end up like usual. The mob will be broken up. A group will run west and go up 2nd Avenue; another will head toward the East River; some will seek refuge in Stuy Town.
Lailani decides to take the F train to 14th Street for the 2 to the Bronx. She needs to go to the video arcade at the Grand Concourse, the pack’s rendezvous point. The manager there is a friend.
She can go home for a couple of hours, eat dinner and use the bathroom before heading up. Her mother and sister are on night shift at Beth Israel Hospital. She can be alone at home. But, no, she stays on course. The streets in Alphabet City are not safe, crawling with NYPD. The tools, the commodity need to be stashed quickly. That is the protocol.
As she approaches Houston and 1st, she fishes for a subway token. In her pockets, she had Newport cigarettes, a book of matches and house keys. No tokens or money. Nothing in the bag either. There was no cash to hide in the bag. The police came before the pack can make a sale. She will have to hop the turnstile. No big deal. She has done it many times before, and she likes the virile rush.
At the station, Lailani pulls the wooden bar a quarter turn toward her. This forms a small arcing space, big enough for her to squeeze through. Before she reaches the stairs for the uptown train, two men in crisp baggy jeans and wearing blue baseball caps come out from the shadows. She sees metal bead chains around their necks. They do not need to pull out a badge for Lailani to realize who and what they are. Mouth dry, lips quivering, she musters a weak, submissive smile. They may simply issue her a warning, a summons, maybe a $30 ticket. One of the men reaches behind him. She listens. A patent leather-bound ticket book is inaudible. Handcuffs make distinct dull clinks.
–Art by Milan Vopálenský & Esmahan Özkan