Monday, December 1, 2008

Play Time

Play Time


When Brian Sims was 34 he took over the management of a small, alternative theatre in Dorado City. The theater was located in one of the worst parts of the city. It was known as The Blood Basket. There was frequent violence and gang warfare. But Jack Priest, the fellow who was leaving the job told Brian that the local gang, The Sparks, kept the street safe for the actors and audience. That wasn’t difficult, it seemed. The gang’s area stretched for 10 blocks north and south and 3 blocks east and west. The theatre was only a third of the block from the edge of their territory. Still, it was on the gang’s land and required their protection.
After showing him around the theatre Jack said, “C’mon, Brian, I’ll take you to meet Samuel. He’s the gang leader. He’s very dangerous and very powerful.”
They walked the long way to the end of the street. Jack pointed out a few places that Brian should know about. One was a small church with a sign that read Holy Name Evangelist Church. All Are Welcome. There was a locked metal gate in front of the door and the windows were boarded up. He pointed out steps that led down to a basement door. “That’s where they have dog fights.” When they reached the corner Jack said “At night here there’s a guy with dope. The chauffeurs buy it.”
“They buy for their bosses?” Brian asked. “No, they’re all limo service drivers. They stock up and then go get in line at the topless bars on the east side, waiting for the girls to come out. It’s first come, first served. But I guess some of them have favorites.”

They turned the corner and went two blocks south. In the middle of the next block Jack went up the stairs of a brownstone, Brian followed. Jack pushed a button on the registry. A moment later there was a click. “Samuel, the new theatre guy is here.” Then another click.

Jack led Brian out to the sidewalk where they waited. In a few moments two men came through the front door and looked around. Then one of them came down to the bottom step .He was a black man in his early 20’s, clean shaven, casually dressed, with a thick chain around his neck. Jack brought Brian over to him and said, “Samuel. This is Brian Sims. He’ll be running the theatre now.”
Brian put out his hand and said “Hi, Sam.”

There was no move from Samuel. Then he said,”No Sam. Samuel.”

Brian had never met anyone like this before. He looked at this young man’s face with fear. Samuel had seen so much cruelty and violence in his young life that there was an invisible cloud of evil around him. He looked at Brian with eyes that seemed to be stainless steel.

“Okay Samuel. Jack told me that you have kept the street safe in front of the theatre for our actors and audience. Can I please ask you to continue to do that?”.
Samuel stared at Brian for a long time without moving until Brian felt himself squirming inside. Finally Samuel said “Why not.” Then he turned abruptly and reentered the building.

“Good,” said Jack. “You’re approved of.” Brian thought, and he was correct, that there was probably a price tag attached to that approval.

After Jack Priest left Brian set to arranging things to suit himself. The theatre was a small three story brick building. On the top floor was a small studio apartment where Brian could live as part of his contract with the producers. The second floor held a small kitchen, a rehearsal area where they also built scenery and a sink and toilet. The ground floor contained the stage, the seats, the dressing room, another sink and toilet and the lobby which led out onto the street. The dressing room had chairs and a counter with mirrors and light bulbs around them. There was also a basement which had the furnace, lumber, rolled up cloth, pieces of furniture, boxes of odds and ends and other materials for constructing scenery. There was a lock on the basement door.
Soon Brian began to get the feel of The Blood Basket and the character of the gang, The Sparks. They were an ethnically mixed group: male and female, blacks, whites, Latinos, and a few Asians. The Latinos were mostly Mexicans. A few of The Sparks had scars on their faces from knife wounds.

It was summer, and when the theatre wasn’t busy, on the “dark nights,” he would sit on the front steps and watch. He could see that across the street, at the corner, was a small supermarket, The Goliath, which was enough for his daily needs. Next to it was an alley where the push cart salesmen stowed their carts for the night. Otherwise there were three and four story apartment buildings, the same on Brian’s side. People would sit out on the steps. There were some families. But mostly they were wasted, vacant looking teenagers, an older man in a dark blue suit, uncut slicked back hair, no tie, another man with a grey beard who always had a blue knitted cap on his head even on the hottest day, a hefty Hispanic fellow dressed as a cowboy who chained smoked filter cigarettes and put them out in a bucket next to him.

He saw the limos, just as Jack had said, drive along the street and stop at the corner. A young fellow in a green and yellow athletic jacket would come over to it, an exchange was made through the window and the limo would drive off.

On rare occasions he would see a van stop down the street and a muzzled dog taken out and down the stairs to the dog fighting parlor. Later it would be brought back up, either walking or being carried.

The sidewalks were clean and safe to anyone who happened to walk through. The police would drive through because they legally had to, but they never stopped to deal with anything unless they were called. Any crimes, except the permissible ones, were not allowed. Burglary, theft, unwanted intrusion, rape were all instantly and violently dealt with. The small businesses paid The Sparks to maintain their safety. So did the producers of the theatre, but Brian didn’t know it at the time.

Soon he got a phone call telling him that a company had rented the place for two months and they would be coming in the next couple of hours to set up and start rehearsals.

While waiting Brian sat on the front steps and thought about obligations, duties, rules, regulations, ordinances, laws. He wondered how this small patch of America could have dilapidated into its own small Totalitarian state. He had always supposed that all neighborhoods, being part of a larger community, were accustomed to the laws and regulations of that community. He remembered reading Locke and Hobbes on these issues. He believed that social behavior was governed by clear, pithy codes of conduct and that they were agreed upon and uniformly enforced. Laws were decided upon by city councils or selectmen, presented to the voters, challenged in the courts and upheld or replaced. It was a flawed system. But it worked.
But here in The Blood Basket things didn’t work that way. The casual visitor walking along or driving through wouldn’t know that. The street signs were correct, the traffic lights worked, the mail was picked up and delivered and life seemed normal. But the lives of the people who lived here were governed and controlled by a completely different set of laws which were enforced by the iron fists and precision fingers of The Sparks. No complaints were allowed, no questions were asked. If someone disappeared no one seemed to notice. As long as life stayed inside the buildings or out on the steps everything was calm. But if it spilled out onto the street there was violence. Brian witnessed a few street fights and he learned that in such a fight anything you get your hands on is a weapon: a bottle, a bucket, a garbage can lid, even another person.

Brian learned a lot about life in The Blood Basket by observing, listening and eventually, when he got to be better know, by asking questions. He learned that the name Blood Basket came from the days when the abattoirs were here. They’re gone now but the name remains.

He learned that The Sparks made money by protection pay offs from the local businesses, but more by a big area wide drug trade.

He learned that there were basements in some of the buildings that had rooms of gruesome equipment The Sparks used to question, punish or “correct” a rival gang member who happened to get too close or anyone they considered trouble, and sometimes just to amuse themselves.

He learned that some of The Sparks had respectable jobs as receptionists, paralegals, paramedics, dental assistants and so on.

He learned that The Sparks cleaned up and repaired a local park and playground for the youngsters in the neighborhood.

He learned that Samuel had taken over The Sparks from his older brother Byron who had been beaten to death by four members of a rival gang.

He learned that the gang once found a young woman called Maria asleep on the front steps of one of their buildings. She was badly bruised and had been raped. Samuel took her in, let her have the baby and now the two of them are raising it. The Sparks found the rapist and brought him in. There is no trace of him.

But there were paradoxes that Brian was having trouble understanding.
When “Bud” Bennet, the local Assemblyman who represented this part of Dorado in the state legislature, stopped by for a visit, members of the gang would come out to greet him. They would stand around for an hour or so talking and laughing with him. And yet at election time if any campaign posters were put up they were immediately removed, including his.

Why did the gang rush to get a neighbor’s dog to the vet because the dog had run out into the street and been hit by a cab, yet they burned to death another neighbor’s dog in font of its owner because she had called the police on them too many times?

And why was a new member of the gang welcomed with gladness and respect only after they beat him up?

There must be social and political lower levels and back alleys to life in The Blood Basket that Brian didn’t know about, nor did he want to.

While he was thinking bout these things a group of people arrived. There were six women and one man. Paying no attention to Brian and without saying a word they brushed past him and spread out around the theatre, inspecting things. Brian got up and followed them in. “Can I help you?” he said.

“Who are you?” asked one of them.

“I manage the theatre.”

That comment brought on a brace of questions and complaints. Brian answered their questions as politely as possible. Then one of them, the one in charge, dismissed him and said if they needed anything they would call him. The six women were four actresses, one director and one stage manager. The man would come and go. Brian didn’t know what his function was. The rest got busy.

One afternoon a few days later Brian saw something that he wished he had never seen. He heard a commotion out on the street, opened the door and saw a lot of people running toward the corner. He stepped out and closed the door. He walked to the corner and saw that there was a fight. A stranger from a rival gang had been caught in The Blood Basket territory. The Sparks circled around watching as one of them, a Mexican, was engaged in a vicious fight with the stranger. There were also some pedestrians who had stopped to watch. Samuel wasn’t there.

What Brian saw next stunned and sickened him. The two men were grappling together exchanging hits, when the Mexican pushed the stranger away from him. On the curb was a metal mesh trash can. The Mexican grabbed it and flung it at the stranger. But the stranger ducked and the can fell on the pavement and rolled. A few items fell out if it, among them a liquor bottle and an umbrella. The stranger grabbed the liquor bottle by the neck and made a lunge at the Mexican. The Mexican was too slow and the stranger smacked him across the jaw with the bottle which staggered the Mexican. Then the stranger smacked the bottle on the street, breaking it. He lunged again at the Mexican stabbing him in the stomach with the broken bottle. The Mexican doubled over but as he did he grabbed the stranger by the hair and spun him around in a circle until he lost his balance. The Mexican fell on top of him. The stranger tried to make more stabs with the broken bottle, but the Mexican pounded the stranger’s head onto the pavement over and over again until he stopped moving and was either unconscious or dead. Then the Mexican stood up and got the umbrella. It was a large, long umbrella, the kind with the pointed metal tip. He came back over to the stranger and with the grace and precision of a picador, lifted his arms in the air and plunged the tip of the umbrella through the stranger’s eye socket and into his brain.

The Mexican let go of the umbrella, which fell to the side, turned, and, with blood on his face and on the front of his shirt, walked back to his home to pick bits of glass out of his stomach.

Brian watched as one of The Sparks, a young woman, picked up the trash can and put it back on the curb, and gathered up the broken bottle and the other things that had fallen out of it and put them back in the can. She then went over to the stranger, pulled the umbrella out of his head and dropped it back in the trash can. After that the gang members dispersed.

Someone had called 911 because two ambulances and a police car came, but all they found was a dead man.

Brian went back to the theatre where the actors were still rehearsing, closed the door and stood there shaking with the horror of what he had seen.

About a week later Brian was cleaning up the mess the actors had left the night before when he heard a knock on the door. When he opened the door he was surprised to see Samuel standing there with two other men. One of the men pushed Brian out of the way and entered the theatre to look around. He nodded to Samuel who entered with the other man and said to Brian “Hide him.”

The man was dressed in dungarees, a blue shirt and sneakers. He had a pack on his back. Brian was tempted to ask what he had done that he needed to hide out, but he thought better of it.

“Why not,” he said, with a smile. “How long?”

“A week. Maybe more.”

“Do I have to feed him?”

“No. We will bring him food every day.”

“In the morning,” said Brian. “There are people here the rest of the day.”
“The morning,” said Samuel. He turned and walked out. The other man said, “He has a bed roll and a few clothes. Take good care of him.” Then he turned and left.

Brian looked at his guest who was frightened and embarrassed.“Come with me.” Brian took him upstairs to his studio apartment and motioned for him to sit. Brian poured a cup of coffee and offered it to the guest who accepted it with a grateful nod.
“What’s your name?” asked Brian.

There was no answer and Brian realized there would be none.

“Do you speak English?” asked Brian.

“Si. I speak English.”

“Well, my name is Brian.” His guest nodded with a smile.

“Well, I guess we’re roommates for a while. You have to be very quiet up here. There are people working downstairs most of the day. Samuel said they would bring you food every morning. You’re safe here. Hopefully you won’t have to hide out here too long. I won’t ask you what you’ve done. You can tell me if you want.” The man never did.

The next morning and every morning a gang member would knock at the door and pass to Brian a plastic bag with containers of spicy smelling food which Brian would take up to his guest.

Opening night came. People arrived to see the show. Brian’s guest stayed upstairs as he had promised.

The company had scheduled a late performance one night a week. It was not a good idea in The Blood Basket and Brian told them so, but they went ahead with it anyway. Only two women came to that performance and left complaining, so they canceled the rest of the late night shows.

Brian saw one of the performances and was not impressed. The play was about a homosexual relationship among three of the women, but that sensitivity was not expressed in the production, so it was quite vacuous and unimportant.

Brian was busy most of the time with the management of the theatre, but when he had time he would sit with his guest who, it soon became clear to Brian, was an educated man from some South American country. Gradually conversation opened up. He spoke of his home with eloquence but never named the country. He spoke of his family. He quoted poetry in a beautiful, musical Spanish that had Brian wishing he understood the language. When he asked his guest to translate he soon realized that his guest was the poet himself. His English was almost as crystal and perfumed as his Spanish.
And Brian talked about his home, about growing up in Waynesburg, about his parents and his sister, Louise. He spoke of his College days and now as a temporary theatre manager. His guest was fascinated and eager to know about it. They became friends.
The guest had a bed roll. He slept on Brian’s floor. And every morning the bag of food would arrive.

Nine days later Samuel came to the door with another gang member.

“I will take him now. It’s safe.”

Brian told the other man how to get to him and then stayed and spoke with Samuel.

“We sort of became friends. He didn’t tell me his name. He’s a poet.”

“Yes,” said Samuel, “he’s a poet, and very dangerous to some people.” Then, after a pause, “His name is Pedro.”

“He’s very important to you, isn’t he?”

Samuel looked down and away from Brian and said softly, “Yes. He’s very important to me. Thank you for taking care of him. You’re a good man, Brian.”

Brian took a big chance, “So are you, Samuel.”

Samuel looked at Brian with a strange, hostile look, as if Brian’s comment had been a threat. Then, for the first time, Brian saw Samuel’s face relax and soften. It seemed that the idea of himself as being good had never entered his mind before. That seemed to be something Samuel would have to think about.

At that moment Pedro came downstairs with the other man, walked over to Brian, looked at him for a few moments and then they hugged. “Adios amigo.” said Pedro, quietly.

“Adios amigo,” said Brian, and they left. Brian hoped that he would meet Pedro again some day.

A few days later there was another commotion out on the street. When Brian looked out he saw one young gang member being held by two others and Samuel standing in front of him with a switch blade in his hand. Brian walked over to the group and watched. One of them said to him,” The kid stole something from a neighbor.” Brian could see that the youngster was very frightened of Samuel and his knife.
Brian had a sudden impulse and took a big risk. He stepped between them facing Samuel.

“Samuel, it’s not good to cut people up,” he said.

Samuel stared at him with the same dangerous, stainless steel eyes Brian had seen before. The knife was close to his chest. He thought: I am really a fool. Here it comes. I’m about to get slashed.

But with a sparkling quick move the knife was closed up and put away. Samuel nodded to the other gang members to let the kid go, then turned and walked away. The gang dispersed without saying a word to Brian who stood shaking.

The next few days were uneventful. Then, one night after the performance Brian heard screaming on the first floor. He quickly ran down the stairs to check on it and found two of the actresses in a terrible fight. They were yelling at each other with the foulest language imaginable. The subjects were bad timing, stepping on lines, up staging, stealing focus; the usual stuff of angry, insecure actors. But Brian suspected there was probably more to it. The other two women were trying to calm things down without much luck. Finally, one of the combatants left slamming the door. The other one broke down in tears. Brian sat on the bottom of the inside steps and waited. He thought about the paradox of life in the theatre, where two people can play roles that are the best of friends on the stage but off stage they hate each other, or they can be mortal enemies in the play and then go home and sleep together.

He then remembered that upstairs in the rehearsal hall there was a box of costumes and props. He ran up, poked through the box and came up with a beanie which had a thin spring coming out of its top and a clown’s head attached to that. Every time he moved it the clown would wobble back and forth. He strapped it on his head, went downstairs, knocked on the dressing room door and entered. And with a straight, poker face asked, “How long are you girls planning to stay around?”

As he looked from one to the other the clown head was dipping this way and that. One of the women smirked and another laughed. Finally the one who had been crying laughed. They soon gathered up their stuff and left, leaving Brian with a clown on his head.

The next day there was a matinee performance and last night’s argument seemed to have been resolved. He heard no more yelling. But he did hear a police siren very close. He went outside to find two police cars in front of the theatre, which was odd because the police seldom stop in that neighborhood. The four cops were looking down the street. A man came running toward them with no shoes on his feet and followed by a bunch of The Sparks. He ran up to the cops and put his hands on the car. The gang stopped. In a moment Samuel arrived bearing the guys shoes which he handed to another gang member.

One of the cops said to Samuel, “What do you want me to do with him?”

“Get him out of here,” was the reply.

The one holding the shoes wanted to know what to do with them and the cop told him to throw them over the lamp post.

They put the guy in one of the cop cars and drove away. The gang dispersed leaving Brian and the two cops standing there. One of them turned to Brian and said, “Street justice. The best kind in the world.”

”What just happened?” asked Brian

I don’t know what the guy did, but Samuel made the smart choice.”

“What were the choices?”

“Well, he could have said ‘Take him in’ but then he would have to come down to the court and testify which he doesn’t want to do ‘cause there’s probably a bench warrant out for him.’ He could say ‘Get him outta here,’ which he did, or he could say ‘let him go’ in which case he would never make it to the corner alive.”
“I see,” said Brian. “Thank you.” The police got in the car and drove off.

A few days later the show closed. Two men came by to help the women take down the set, pack up the costumes and props and leave, to Brian’s great relief. The women came and went totally oblivious to what had been happening out on the street while they were, and to most other things in life, as far as Brian could tell. Over the next few days one or the other of them would come back to pick up something forgotten. Brian was cordial but glad to see them go.

The next day he received a phone call from the producer telling him that the building had been sold and the new owners were going to turn it into luxury condominiums. Good luck, Brian thought. I wonder what Samuel will have to say about that.

But Brian wasn’t out of work for long. Two days later he got an offer to manage and direct at a larger theatre in a better part of town. He quickly found an apartment near it, moved in and left The Blood Basket for good. A few months later he heard that the murdered man had been an important leader in a rival gang which took revenge by coming into The Blood Basket and killing every one of The Sparks. Brian didn’t know if Samuel survived, but if he did Brian wouldn’t be surprised if he met him again.

The End

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