Stereotypes in Boogie Down

About fifteen years ago I was transporting all the bridesmaids to my daughter’s wedding from the church in lower Manhattan to the reception in Westchester Co. My ex for some reason did not give us good directions to the place, so my brother, Ralph, and cousin, Ralph, and I formed a caravan as we tried to make our way north through the Bronx into Westchester. My protective male relatives insisted that my car be in the middle so they could better keep an eye on us. Well, naturally, the best laid plans of mice and men go awry. We did not plan on my running out of gas in the middle of the worst area of the Bronx. Fortunately, I found a gas station right away and pull in. The two carloads of anxious male relatives followed me.

Now picture this. I was the mother of the bride, wearing a pink floor length, silk gown with a bejeweled bodice and matching shoes; my hair and makeup were perfect. I was also wearing every gaudy piece of expensive jewelry that my ex had given me over the years. I glittered like the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. The reasons why I would do such a thing are best explained some other time. Needless to say I was following the strict commands of every female in both sides of the family.

OK, so here I am in a gas station in the heart of Boogie Down just as the sun is about to set. I waited for my brother to get out of the car to fill the tank. Nope, he stayed put; his wife clutching his arm with a terrified look on her face. I looked for cousin Ralph to rush to my rescue. Nope, his wife was clearly in wide-eyed distress.

Annoyed, at their inaction, I jumped out of the car and immediately realized why everyone was frightened. In seconds my car was surrounded by the meanest looking gang of Boogie Down pirates I had ever seem. Straight ahead, the gas station attendants quickly closed the door to their office.

One of the gang stepped up to me and asked, in Spanish, “Where are you going, doña?”

I turned to face him, hoping for the best and fearing the worst.

“To my daughter’s wedding,” I replied. And I smiled because when I am nervous I smile—not the big, wide I-am-glad-to-see-you smile, but the twisted, I-hope-things-are-going-well kind of smile.

The man’s angular features softened. “You shouldn’t be here alone,” he said in a gruff tone.

“But I need gas,” I explained.

“Don’t you have a man to do that for you?”

“Only you,” I replied and smiled again; this time it was a wide smile.  At this point I knew that this man meant us no harm.

The man sighed and crushed his cigarette with the tip of his steel-toed boot.

“Well, you are lucky it is me here and not some evildoer. This is not a safe place, you know, doña. I can’t believe that you are standing here, looking like that with a carload of young, beautiful girls and there is no man here with you. Get in the car; I’ll take care of everything. You don’t want to get your dress all messed up.”

Finished with his admonishments he opened my car door, wiped his hand on his pant’s leg and offered his wide palm to help me inside.

Without a second thought I took his hand; it was a very strong hand. “Muchisímas gracias, señor.”

“Es un placer servirle, doña.”

OK, I am going to cut this long story short. In the end, this “pirate” would not allow me to pay him for his help. He wished us well and sent us all on our way—and the other men in the group? While the gas was pumping, they were busy chatting with the girls in the car as if we all had known each other for a long time. It was kind of surreal.

My point here is that there are good people everywhere and that even bad people are good at times. It is true; stereotypes have a basis in reality, but sometimes reality becomes enchanted as it did that July evening. I will never forget that man in the Bronx gas station, but I have never returned to the mean streets of Boogie Down because although I believe in magic, I never press my luck.


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