“C’mon,” Robert Watkins said to the tree branch, as he maneuvered it back and forth. “Get it! Get it!”
Robert was trying to grasp a metal supermarket shopping cart, but the tree branch kept bending each time he managed to guide it into one of the cart’s openings. Another tree branch he’d tried earlier proved to be too short for Robert’s undertaking.
Robert was wearing a pair of black cargo pants, a long-sleeved grey cotton shirt, a soiled windbreaker, and a pair of boots given to him by one of his cousins. To protect his hands while engaged in his bottle and can collecting, Robert also wore a pair of heavy duty, work gloves and a wool hat he’d purchased from a local .99 cents store. A moderately-sized backpack was also strapped to his back under his arms and over his shoulders.
As he was walking through The Bronx’s Crotona Park pushing a damaged, four-wheeled baby stroller laden with two large, plastic bags of empty bottles and cans, Robert had seen three young teenaged boys using the cart to push each other around the park’s three-acre lake. When a Parks Department employee yelled at them, they rolled the cart into a shallow part at the edge of the five-foot deep lake and ran off towards the basketball courts, while shouting assorted expletives.
He knew that the shopping cart could carry more bottle- and can-filled bags, as well as other items than the stroller. It would also be much easier to maneuver on many of New York City’s uneven, ragged streets and sidewalks. Additionally, he could store a bag or two on the cart’s undercarriage and small foldable top section.
“Damn, I wish I had something longer and sturdier,” Robert thought to himself. He then had an epiphany. The Parks Department worker, who had gone into a building, had been using a rake when he’d shouted at the kids; that rake would be perfect for what he was trying to do. Looking around, Robert saw the rake leaning against a tree. He slowly and casually walked to the rake, grabbed it and walked back to the edge of the lake. He looked around once more and then extended it towards the shopping cart.
Just as he thought, the rake made it easier for him to reach and pull the shopping cart closer to edge of the lake. When it was close enough, he used his hands to lift it onto the lake’s concrete perimeter.
“Wow,” thought Robert, as he looked at the shopping cart. “This is beautiful.” The cart was wider and deeper than others he'd seen and used before. Its undercarriage was also wider, and would therefore enable him to place a large bag on it, as well. The cart’s handle didn’t have the name of a supermarket on it.
“Shit!” Robert said aloud to no one in particular. “I can probably fit a tractor trailer tire in this one.”
Along the way, however, it had scraped the shallow lake’s bottom causing it to acquire several scratches of various lengths and depths on its stainless steel frame. Additionally, inside of it were rocks of various sizes and other debris it had accumulated along its dragging journey. After cleaning out the cart, he turned it upright, and wiped it off with one of the old, soiled rags he kept in his backpack along with a Bible, heavy duty chain and other items. Once it was dry, he placed the stroller and plastic bags inside of it, and then began rolling it towards the park’s exit; he placed the rake back against the tree.
After ridding himself of the now unneeded stroller in a nearby dumpster, Robert exited the park and began walking up one of the streets adjacent to it. Now, with his newly found, larger cargo carrier, Robert carefully scanned trash receptacles on street corners and outside of residential and commercial buildings for bottles and cans. Superintendents and porters in a few buildings often set aside the blue, plastic recycling bags containing redeemable bottles and cans from the regular garbage. This allowed Robert and others like him easier access to these coveted items. Additionally, it kept some of these searchers from leaving garbage thrown around the receptacles.
Robert had been born in Harlem in the mid-1950s, grew up in the turbulent South Bronx of the 1970s; his family moved uptown when he was ten. He had experienced many of the ups and downs that life has to offer and, thus, found himself in his current situation.
As he walked, with the empty bottle and can-filled cart, its wheels rolling on the coarse pavement, resulted in grumbling, rumbling, metallic jingling sounds. Most people he passed, however, paid little or no attention to the sight of sixty-two year-old Robert. Now and then, someone might hand him an empty bottle or can. He’d thank them and continue on his journey.
His cousin, Vincent, the superintendent of a five-story, residential building, allowed Robert to sleep in the building’s basement/compactor room; he told tenants that Robert was his porter. On occasion, when needed, Robert helped him with assorted tasks such as mopping, sweeping, putting out the garbage for collection, snow removal and basic repairs. The basement also had a small bathroom that had a sink, shower and toilet.
Walking pass the multitude of trees planted in sidewalks, with their assortment of discarded plastic bags clinging to and blowing from leaf-bare branches, Robert finally reached the fenced bottle and can redemption facility. He saw that there were several people waiting in line to place their items in the redemption machines. After a person placed their items in one of the two machines, a slip of paper was emitted from a slot indicating how much money the person would receive from the center’s owners-operators.
Standing just outside the fence, Robert saw his friend George Wilson drinking a bottle of Coca Cola. George was a tall, fifty-seven year old, dark-skinned black man with dreadlocks that hung down to his shoulders and an unkempt salt and pepper beard. He was originally from North Carolina and walked with a slight limp, which was the result of his having been shot during one his younger southern days. Like, Robert, he, too, had once been involved in assorted illegal activities. He had migrated to New York in the late 1980s. George had also served a short time in prison.
“Hey, George,” said Robert. “How’d ju make out today?”
“Almos’ twenty dollas worth, Bobby!” George smiled. His dungaree blue jeans had an assortment of stains, and his black and gray flannel shirt was a size too small.
Robert whistled softly and then replied, “Not bad. Not bad at all.”
“Looks like you got one helluva load there,” said George. “Plus that looks like a brand new cart.”
“Had to fish it out of Crotona Park Lake wif a rake.”
When Robert saw the quizzical look on George’s face, he laughed.
“Some kids rolled the damn thing in there when the Parks guy yelled at ‘em for playin’ with it.”
George walked around to more closely examine the cart. He kicked the wheels, rolled the frame back and forth and examined it more closely.
“Looks like a good, sturdy one,” said George. “Really big.”
Got a few small scratches on that one side from where I hadta drag it to get it outta the lake,” replied Robert.
“But, it’s still looks nice. Can get a truck fulla bottles an’ cans in here. What supermarket does it come from?”
“I don’t know,” replied Robert. “Ain’t no name on the handle.”
From out of the corner of his eye, George saw a short black man standing off to the side smoking a cigarette. The man carefully watched each of the people as they redeemed their bottles and cans. Occasionally, his eyes squinted, as he tried to look at how much money was on their receipts.
“There’s that low-life, thieving bastard,” said George.
Robert removed one of his gloves and pretended to pick up something from the ground, as he looked to see the person to whom George was referring.
“Yeah, I saw that motherfucker diggin’ through the pockets of that drunk guy who’s always passed out on the corner near the bodega on Freeman Street,” said Robert.
The man, in his late thirties, was just under five feet tall. He was wearing blue jeans, a gray sweatshirt, a down jacket and a wool knit cap.
“What’s that creep bastard’s name?” asked Robert. He put his glove back on.
“I think it’s Frank, Frankie or some shit like that,” responded George. “I just call ‘im ‘Asshole Creep’. He lives in that shelter a few blocks from the one I’m stayin’ in.”
Robert laughed and said, “Always schemin’ to get over some kinda way.”
“I just hope he stays the fuck away from me,” said George. “I’ve seen ‘im doin’ some fucked up shit ta people.”
“You know,” said George. “Goin’ to the store for old people in the neighborhood an’ not comin’ back with their change. Stealin’ other people’s cans an’ bottles.”
“I think he’s got some sorta drug problem, too,” said, Robert.
“Yeah, I know,” replied George. “But that ain’t my fuckin’ problem.” George stared unblinkingly in Frank’s direction.
Robert shook his head. He saw that the redemption line had gotten shorter.
“Lemme get on this line, ‘fore more people show up,” said Robert. “Are ya done with that bottle?”
George laughed, drained the remaining Coca-Cola from the bottle and handed it to Robert, who placed it in his shopping cart basket.
“Alright, you crazy fool,” said George. “I’mma gon head on over to the liberry to read the papers an’ maybe take a nap. Might do some mo' collectin' before I have to check in at the crazy house.” The ‘crazy house’ was his homeless shelter, which was located a few blocks from where he and Robert were standing.
George began rolling his cart in the direction of the local library.
Robert got on line; there were two people ahead of him. After finally reaching the machines, he began placing his bottles and cans in the chute. When he finished, he pressed a button and a receipt was discharged from one of the machine’s openings. Robert was startled by the amount it showed.
“Seventeen dollars and twenty cents,” Robert thought to himself. “Not bad. Not bad at all. This cart is definitely a one-of-a-kind keeper.” He looked over his shoulder to see Frank staring in his direction. He stared at hard at Frank until the short man looked away.
Robert, with cart in tow, began walking towards his favorite local store. “Get a few loosies and a can a beer,” Robert thought to himself. The store sold both packs of cigarettes, as well as singular cigarettes colloquially called “loosies” by local residents. He also wanted to check out a few more streets before it became darker. Like some others, he resented the fall time change, as it became dark earlier.
Later that evening, as Robert was walking up the small hill leading to his cousin’s building, he saw someone running towards him. He heard the person call his name.
“Hey, Robert! “Wait up!”
Robert stopped. As the person got closer, he could see that it was George. When George finally reached him, Robert saw a distressed look in his eyes.
“What happened, George? What’s wrong?”
George used a small, napkin to wipe dry, white spittle from the corners of his mouth and drank from a plastic bottle of water.
“Man, shit!,” said George. “Remember that motherfucker Frankie we saw at the redemption centa earlier?”
“Yeah. What about him?”
“I think I kilt that bastard,” replied George.
“What!” exclaimed Robert incredulously.
George took another swig of water and continued. “I was going down an alleyway near that building they’re renovating on Bryant Avenue. Since it’s Friday, the construction guys often leave me a bag of the empty soda, water bottles and cans they use during the week. They put it down the alleyway behind one of those pillars, so nobody else can find ‘em and take ‘em.”
Robert knew the building to which George was referring. It had been undergoing renovation for the past several months. In addition to a large amount of scaffolding, it also had an extensive amount of blue construction tarp wrapped around it from the roof to the sidewalk.
George continued, “Anyway, as I was coming back up the alley, that short motherfucker was coming towards me asking for a cigarette.” George took another sip of water.
“And?” said Robert.
“Anyway, I saw he had a boxcutter in his hand,” replied George. “I told ‘im I didn’t have any cigarettes. He then asked for some spare change.”
Robert kept staring at George.
“The motherfucker moved forward and said, ‘C’mon, my man. I know you got a dolla or two I can hold.’ He then took another step forward.”
“You think he was gonna do somethin’?” asked Robert.
“I don’t know,” said George. “But, I wasn’t taking any chances. So, I picked up one of the bricks from a debris pile. When he got close enough, I slammed that short motherfucker in the face with it as hard as I could.”
Robert’s eyes grew wider.
“He fell, and as he was going down, hit his head on one of the columns on that scaffold thing.”
“Shit!” said Robert.
“Yeah,” said George. “Shit is right. I almost shit on myself.”
“You think he’s dead?” asked Robert.
“I checked for a pulse, but couldn’t find one,” said George in a low, quivering voice.
“There was just a little on the side of his face where I hit him,” replied George. “But, I wiped it off with a few leaves and some paper bags that were on the ground.”
“Where’s he now?” asked Robert.
“I dragged his dwarf ass back down the alley and put it behind some tarp, so nobody could see ‘im. Then I ran up here to find you.”
“Find me? Find me for what?” asked Robert.
“I need help movin’ that fuck’s body.”
“Are you crazy?”
“No, listen up for a minute,” replied George. “I ain’t goin’ backta jail for this shit. Besides, that low-life motherfucker probably would’ve hurt me or somebody else if he didn’t get taken off the count first.”
“So why’d you come for me?” asked Robert.
“Cause I thought about how I could move the body without getting any attention an’ I remembered this big ass shopping cart you had.”
Robert shook his head. “Are you crazy?”
“No,” a smiling, but still shaking George replied. “We can do it. You got those big ass black bags you get from your cousin’s building’s compactor room right? Big enough to hold a body his size?”
“Yep, they would.”
“Anyway,” continued George. “After we put his dead ass in a bag, put a few cinderblocks in the bag, we load it into the cart, roll it to Crotona Park Lake an’ splash!”
“Plus it’s dark enough now so that if people see you walkin’ around with a big ass plastic bag in a shopping cart, they’ll jus’ think it’s some bottles and cans.”
“Where’s your cart?” asked Robert.
“I put it in the basement of that building,” responded George. “I figure I can pick it up later before I have to check in at the shelter.”
“Damn!” said Robert.
“C’mon,” said George. “We can get this over and done in no time. His ugly ass won’t be missed. They’ll probably jus’ think the bastard got locked up or somethin’”. He took another sip of water and put the bottle in the left leg of his black cargo pants.
Robert started to tell George that he didn’t want to get involved in this madness and walk away from him. But, then he remembered how George had helped bail him out of jail when he was caught shoplifting at the newly-opened supermarket in a local mall. Additionally, he never hesitated when Robert asked for an occasional beer or cigarette. The distressed, hopeless look in George’s eyes also moved him. Finally, he said, “Alright, you crazy fool. Let’s go.”
Approximately a half an hour later, Robert was pushing the shopping cart towards Crotona Park. He and George had struggled when putting the dead body in a large, black plastic garbage bag; in his nervousness, Robert joked that it was worse than putting on a condom. Once the body was in the bag, they lifted into the cart and put a few cinderblocks in the bag. They strategically placed a few bags of empty cans and bottles on top of the bag containing the body. “Camouflage,” said George.
They decided that only one person should push the cart, as it would be unusual to see two people collecting empty bottles and cans with a single shopping cart, especially if both were men; it might draw unwanted attention to them. George walked on opposite sidewalks and a few yards behind Robert.
When they finally reached the park, George crossed to where Robert was standing.
“I think we should go in where that Parks building is,” said Robert. “The lamps are either totally out or really dim on that side.”
“Yeah, then we can roll the cart up to the other side of the lake away from the street,” replied George. “That way we won’t have to worry about any passing cars, the Parks Department patrols or police.”
After rolling the cart down a small hill and close enough to the lake, Robert and George carefully lifted the bag containing the body out of the cart onto the lake’s edge and pushed it into the water. It made a soft splash.
“Don’t you think we should say a prayer or somethin’?” asked Robert.
“Yeah, okay. Let me see,” replied George.
After thinking for a few seconds, George finally said, “Holy Father, please don’t let me an’ my friend Robert get caught for doin’ this shit. Amen.”
Robert stared at George for a few moments.
“You wanted a prayer, didn’t you?” said George.
Robert shrugged his shoulders. “I guess that’ll do.”
“Okay,” said George. “Let’s try this. Heavenly Father may this man rest in peace and in this water. How’s that?”
“That’s a little better,” replied Robert.
George made the sign of the cross and then said, “Now, I think we should leave the park in different directions. I’ll go towards the hill near that baseball diamond and you can cross the street where those tennis courts are. Make sense?”
“Sounds good to me,” replied Robert.
George took the bottle of water out of the leg pocket of his cargo pants and drank.
Robert waited patiently and then asked, “You done with that?”
George laughed and handed Robert the empty bottle, which he put in a black bag on his cart.
The two men parted ways, with George walking stealthily under trees towards the baseball diamond. Robert headed in the direction of the bright lights of the tennis courts, which due to the hour of the day, were empty.
Nearing the edge of the park, Robert stopped to retrieve three empty beer bottles he saw on a bench; he carefully placed them in the bag on his cart.
As he walked, Robert began to think about the fire in his cousin’s building last year. The fire had begun on the roof and resulted in the death of an elderly tenant who lived on the fifth floor. When he smelled smoke, Robert ran from the basement and up the building’s stairway. He heard the roof door slam and then saw the newly deceased Frankie running down the stairway from the roof. Robert never told anyone about what he had seen, as he didn’t have any way of proving it. Ultimately, the Fire Department just listed the cause of the fire as “unknown”.
Robert stopped walking and looked back towards Crotona Park Lake once again. He moved the cart back and forth and thought to himself, “All things considered, I think I got the better part of the deal when it comes to my trade with the lake.”
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