A book with a tattooed cover

I spend a lot time in pharmacies. It’s the wages of rage. I now need several medications to stay alive. Thank God for Big Pharma, I always say. Without it I’d be in the ground.

A few days ago, I was in the pharmacy waiting for my prescription to be filled. Sitting beside me was a man in his forties. He was a Latino, heavily tattooed.

On his neck was “13,” which means he belonged to Puente 13, the biggest gang in the San Gabriel Valley. It has ties to the Mexican mafia and is extremely dangerous.

Jerry’s Kids are the prisoners being released from our overcrowded jails. We’ve been told that these are “low-level, nonviolent offenders” and their recidivism rate is miniscule. One thing the state did to make sure that only nonviolent criminals were released was redefine violent crimes. Killing a police officer while resisting arrest is no longer considered a violent crime. Terrorizing with arson or the use of explosives is no longer a violent crime.

Where I live the violent crime rate has skyrocketed, as many of these low-level, nonviolent offenders return to the San Gabriel Valley. We’ve had several mass shootings, murder-suicides, and botched robberies that end in murder.

My parents were the victims of a home invasion. Tim and I turned the tables on the invaders, who were complacent imbeciles used to dealing with the elderly. They folded when vigorous, middle-aged men confronted them. It’s the closest I’ve come to shooting someone dead. Tim and Dad talked me out of it.

I’ve never been so angry. The invaders begged me to not hurt them. I could’ve shot them dead without a qualm, and I could’ve slept peacefully the rest of my life. To protect my parents as they became increasingly enfeebled, I bought special ammunition that creates holes the size of a soccer ball. I hate criminals. Hate them. Especially those who prey on the helpless.

So in the pharmacy, I took a seat beside this Puente 13 O.G. He had a heavy black mustache and a solid-blue teardrop tattooed under the corner of his left eye. This could mean either that he’d murdered someone or served a long prison sentence. He had a smart phone, and his right foot was encased in a walking cast. On his left wrist was a plastic hospital bracelet that said “ER.”

After a few minutes, the gangster got up and plugged his phone into a wall socket. As he sat back down, he glanced at me, sighed, and made a disgusted expression.

Although I hate criminals, I also never treat anybody badly until they show me that they deserve it. And I’m now fearless.

“Battery dead?” I asked him.

He sat down. “Yeah. I tell people, ‘Just call me,’ but they insist on Facebooking, texting, Instagraming, everything. So my battery dies in about five minutes. I can’t get anyone to listen to me! I tell them, ‘It’s a phone! P-H-O-N-E! Phone me! But no; they have to send giant photos and everything else that sucks the juice out of my battery.”

It was the weirdest thing: He sounded like a news anchor. His voice was totally clear and resonant. He sounded brilliant.

“How did you learn to use that thing?” I asked. “I’m still too afraid to buy my own.”

He laughed. “I just bought it and started tinkering with it. Taught myself everything. It’s really not hard. You could probably do it pretty fast.”

“Is it totally indispensable now?”

“Absolutely! It’s my whole life and brain in there! I have no idea how I managed without it. But you know what bugs me? Everyone’s on their cells all the time, so they forget what it’s like to be a human being. All day today, people have asked me about my ankle. ‘Does it hurt?’ No, it feels great! I shattered it and they put it in this huge cast, so why would you think it hurts?

As he spoke, he stared straight ahead. Gangsters don’t look you in the eye, because that’s called “mad dogging.” It’s a challenge. So to make sure that we wouldn’t fight, he aimed his gaze at the wall instead of me.

I told him that his story about the cast reminded me of Sean Connery, who was plagued with chronic laryngitis all his life. When he couldn’t talk, he’d carry around a pad of paper, write, “I can’t speak right now,” and pass it to the person who’d asked him a question.

The gangster began smiling.

“Connery said that every single time he passed people the pad, they’d—”

“Take the pencil and write, ‘Why can’t you speak?’” the gangster said. Which is exactly what Connery said happened.

We both laughed, and he turned his head to look at me. “I love Sean Connery,” he said. “His best role is in The Untouchables. ‘Thus endeth the lesson.’”

It was a perfect imitation of Connery’s voice.

“I hate the scene where he dies,” I said.

“I do too!” he said. “It’s awful!

We talked about movies some more. He turned in his seat to face me and said that he was recharging his phone so he could text his daughter, who lived in another state. The daughter had just had a baby, much to the gangster’s distress.

“I thought she had her head on straight. She’s going to college, has everything planned out, and then she had a baby. I can’t tell her, ‘That’s the end. Your life just went down the drain, honey.’ She calls me all the time now, asking me what to do about the baby. She’s regressed back to childhood.”

He paused and looked into the distance. “We all make mistakes,” he said softly.

“Well,” I said, “at least you’re there for her. Plenty of people wouldn’t be.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Her mother isn’t. She lives right down the street, but she can’t be bothered. So I’m on the phone all the time, saying, ‘When the baby cries, it meanssomething. That’s the only way he has of communicating with you. He’s not doing it because he’s being a brat. All he can do is cry. He can’t speak yet. You can’t let it make you angry. Find out why he’s crying. There’s always a reason.’”

He told me that his private health insurance policy had just been canceled, and his job was cut to twenty-nine hours a week so that his company wouldn’t have to give him insurance. He’d been forced to enroll in Medicaid because he couldn’t afford any of the new plans being offered.

“My life has been turned upside down,” he said.

“Have you thought of moving to another state?” I asked.

“I’m going to have to. I need to go somewhere with a lower cost of living. I have to make whatever money I earn go much further.”

“Will it be hard for you to leave?”

“No, not at all. It’ll be good for me, actually, to get out of here. I’d like to make a fresh start.”

“Me too,” I said. “Let’s go together.”

He laughed.

They called his name. He said, “Nice talking to you, boss,” and went to the counter. There, they told him that there was a copay for the pain medication. He discovered that he’d left his money clip and credit cards at home. In Southern California, lots of people don’t carry wallets, since they’re so easily stolen. I’ve had my pocket picked twice. People put their ID in one pocket, their money clip in another, and credit or debit cards in a third. He wouldn’t have needed money or credit cards at the emergency room.

The copay was $1.15.

“Can’t I come back tomorrow?” he asked. “I’m in so much pain I have to get home. I promise I’ll come back.”

They refused, so I went over and handed them $1.15.

“No!” the gangster said. “You don’t have to do that!”

“It’s a buck fifteen,” I said. “C’mon!”

“What’s your name?” he asked. I told him, and he shook my hand in both of his, looked me right in the eye, smiled, and told me his name.

“God bless you,” this book with a tattooed cover said. “I really appreciate your help. It’s just that the pain makes it impossible for me to think straight.”

“It’s my pleasure,” I said. And it was. Talking with him made me very happy.

As he left he paused in the doorway and called to the pharmacists, “Take care of this man. He’s very rare.”

Wasn’t that a nice thing for him to say?

This blog post was written by Thomas Wictor on November 12, 2013  (shared with written permission)