Every weekend, Jon and I joined several dozen regulars at the plaza San Jose, a corner park with few trees and a statue of Joseph the carpenter, step-father of Jesus.
We gathered each Friday and Saturday nights, many bringing musical instruments and their voices, joining in song throughout the night and often into the early morning.
Jon had recently gotten a small cache of LSD and had brought it with him to our parties at the plaza over the course of a couple of weekends. Not a lot of the partiers care too ingest the drug, but to Jon a sale was a sale, so, along with is normal stash of hashish, he brought the acid along.
One weekend, a group of three rough-looking, seamy locals, residents of the dangerous neighborhood, La Perla, made their way to the placita and hung around the fringes of the gathering, looking for something. I noticed them, uncomfortable but without fear of any kind, as their eyes combed the crowd, browsing for what – I couldn’t figure.
I nudged Jon as I watched them, wanting to see what he thought they might be up to. They were outsiders, their bearing, s they prowled on the outside of the group showed them to be separate and distinct, outsiders.”Yeah, I see them.” Jon said. “I don’t know.”
Soon the three were approaching people, their attitude serious, intimidating, asking questions. The responses of those they questioned were mostly a shaking of their heads, hands turned palms up, arms spread, as if to say: “I don’t know”.
Their eyes shifted from face to face, darting around the crowd, seeking a source for the information they wanted. They eventually made their way, nearby to where we sat and as they approached, the feeling of intuitive apprehension grew. I could feel Jon’s similar sense that these guys were wrong and we kept a close watch on their progress. One of the men bent down to ask something of a boy named Juan, a casual friend of ours who often sang with us and sometimes brought a guitar to the weekend festivities.
I watched as Juan looked from the man to Jon and I, angling his head toward us and mouthing the words: “ellos, ahi” Them, there. Great, I thought, here comes trouble. I looked at Jon, he rolled his eyes and said nothing.
The three thugs walked around the perimeter of the group, eyes glued to Jon and I. By now upwards of thirty people, sitting on the hard stone of the plaza under the streetlights, continued to talk and laugh, some drinking beers kept in small, brown paper bags.
Two of the men were taller than the third, all of them wore filthy t-shirts and chinos. The shorter of the three jerked his head toward the corner of the placita as he said; “Venga” – “come here”. Jon paused for no more than a second and then stood up. I followed, wondering why he was even complying with this sleaze’s demand. “Jon,” I said as quietly as I could, so as not show any fear. “Don’t worry. It’s okay. He said. I wondered if, somehow he knew them, but I sensed that he didn’t, that he was driven by nothing more than his greedy desire to sell some drugs. He’d been the business way deeper and far longer than I ever had, so despite my reluctance, I followed as the five of us walked across the plaza and around the statue in the center.
“Que tu quiere?” said Jon. What do you want?
“Acido” said the short guy Acid.
Jon looked around, clearing the area for police and other possible dangers, then reached into his pocket, pulling from it a small baggy with several, perhaps a dozen, tiny, round orange tablets in it.
“Quanto?” said one of the taler guys. How much?
“Cinco pesos.” Said Jon. Five bucks.
“No, mira, no cinco, meng, tres pesos bastante!” He was negotiating, as I’m sure Jon had expected going in. He wanted it for three dollars. Look, he’d said, three dollars is enough.
“Okay, mira”, said Jon. “Quatro, solamente. Es acido excellente, amigo.” Okay, look, four bucks, only. It’s great acid, my friend.
The tension was palpable by this point. I could feel the anticipation from the three guys across from us, clearly as if they were plotting something, as if they were considering, right then and there, whether to grab the acid and run, or perhaps to assault us and take it. But they had something different in mind.
“Okay, quarto, para uno. Pero si es no buena acido – volveramos. Usted será arrepentido. Usted lo sentira” There was a learing, sinister glint in the eyes of the little guy as he said this,as if he knew that, however good this acid might be, he’d be enjoying what was to come. “Okay, four dollars.” he’d said “But if it’s not good acid – we’ll be back. And you’ll be sorry.” I was already sorry.
“Okay, cool. Tu quiere?” said Jon, pretending not to be phased in the least. Okay, cool, you want it?
Jon handed the small guy the hit of acid after seeing the money in his hand. Jon took the bills, folded them and we turned and walked back across the plaza to join our frinds.
“That was a big, fucking mistake.” I said to Jon.
“It’s okay”, he replied. “It’s great acid. They’ll love it and be back for more. Watch.”
“I’ll watch” I said. Those guys, I was certain, were just aching for trouble. “That’s for sure.”
Throughout the next week, we spoke little of the transaction with the boys from La Perla. I had asked a couple of people about them, and they confirmed that they were, indeed from the neighborhood outside the city wall. Fort El Morro, with it’s imposing ancient walls and turrets around much of the outside of San Juan had few breaks in it. One such opening was the road that lead down to an area of beach where a small city had been erected, consisting of shacks fabricated literally from garbage. Some had tin roofing, many were walled by tires, plywood – virtually any and all means of forming a space in which to sleep and get out of the daily rains. Life in this mini city was some of the worst squalor I had seen, pigs roaming through the little community at the water’s edge by day and at night a few made their way up the road and into the streets of San Juan, rummaging for anything they could find to aid in their survival. Most, I’m sure, met their end on the dinner plates of the residents of la Perla.
Friday night, as we readied ourselves for the weekend gathering at the placita, I went to Jon’s room and sat on the edge of his bed.
“So…what?” I looked up at him as he buttoned his black shirt.
“What – what?” he replied, looking in the mirror.
“You know those guys are coming back tonight and they’re gonna give us some shit about the acid being bad and either want more or want their money back. You know that they’re gonna try something.
“Maybe” said Jon, pulling an elastic band around his ponytail and pulling his shirt partially out of his pants.
“Maybe nothing, Jon. Those guys are fucking junkies from La Perla. You know they’re gonna fuck with us! I’m bringing this.” I pulled out the switch blade that I’d dug out of my box of miscellaneous possessions. I’d gotten it while on a weekend trip to Quebec City six or seven years earlier while at Great Oaks, a summer camp I’d attended for several summers. “You do what you want, but you better have more than me to watch your back”.
Jon opened his dresser’s top drawer and pulled out a small box, from which he took a small canister of mace.
“I’ll bring this.”
I felt relieved that he was at least carrying something, though my sense of dread was still growing.
We each took two Quaaludes, checked ourselves one last time in Jon’s mirror and left for the placita.
By the time we got there, it was dark, the sun having set an hour earlier. A substantial crowd was already gathered on the south side of the square, music was playing, people sipping from bag-covered beer cans and liquor bottles.
We saw Guille and Hermando, two good friends with whom we spent many evenings partying. Guille smiled at us, guitar in hand, strumming away, as we approached the seated crowd and found places to sit near our friends. The Quaaludes were taking their euphoric effect and we joined in the songs, settling in for the evening.
It wasn’t long before Jon nudged me. Following his gaze, I looked up to see the boys from La Perla, all three of them, plus two additional, rough-looking - maybe brothers. They stood near the statue in the center of the plaza, staring directly at us, talking as they did. Finally, one of them, the short guy who’d done most of the talking the previous week, approached us. He walked to the edge of the circle under the watchful eyes of his boys, stood across from Jon and I and spoke: “Veng aka” Come here he said, looking at Jon, as he waved us toward his friends.
As I’d fully expected, they were back. With an obvious agenda, and looking pissed off.
“Beautiful,” I said to Jon, “Here we go. Fucking five of them, no less. This is great.”
“Maybe they want more ‘cause they like the first one so much”, Jon said, facetiously.
“Yeah, that’s it, I’m sure” I mocked.
We stood up, mid-song, and, looking back at our friends in the circle, fear in our eyes, we started across the placita, towards the five hombres. As we neared them, they started to slowly walk around the statue, out of sight of all the festivities.
“Mira,” said the short guy from the previous weekend. “el acido es malo. Dame mi dinero” The acid is bad. Give me my money. “Ahora.” Now
Jon, foolish, stoned idiot that he was, decided to object.
“Mira, meng, el acido es bueno. No uno problemo, por favor.” Jon slurred. Look man, the acid is good, no problem, please.
“Dame el dinero ahora.” Give me the money now. This so needed to be over, I thought.
“Permiso, un momentito” Please, a moment. I said. I grabbed Jon’s shirtsleeve and started to pull him a coupe of steps back toward the crowd, so as to have a private word, just in case any of them spoke English. The two new guys moved immediately into our path blocking our movement. Now we were effectively surrounded.
“Jon, just give them the fucking four dollars.” I didn’t care if they spke English. We need out of this, fast. “You see what’s happening here.” I looked into Jon’s eyes, glazed over now with the effects of the Quaaludes. He looked down, thinking, then back into my eyes. “Okay” he said. Thank God, I thought. Jon paused, staring.
“Jon, just give it to ‘em, really. No big deal. Four bucks” I started thinking I’d just give them $4 f my own money, if Jon was going to be stupid about this.
“Usted tiene que pagar nosotros. Nos dan todo su dinero” said bad guy #1. You have to pay us. Give us all of your money. Oh Jesus, I thought. We’re fucked.
I started to reach into my pocket for the money. Seeing me reaching, the three in front of us took a step backwards.
Then all hell broke loose. Like lightening, each of them reached into their pockets and came out with blades. They had both knives and straight razors. I looked back over my shoulder in time to see a fist coming straight into my face. I was able to duck only partially out of the way and caught a glancing blow above my right eye, to the temple. It stunned me but wasn’t severe. Jon was being grabbed by his jacket and dragged away, towards the street side of the plaza. I darted away from the two of them who were closest to me and reached into my pocket, producing the switchblade and flicking it open as fast I could. The look on their faces was of total surprise.
I pushed the one closest to me as hard as I could toward the nearest one of the other two, effectively blocking the third. I looked behind me to make sure they were all where I could see them. As I turned back toward the one I’d pushed, he slashed toward my hand that was holding the knife and laid a small gash onto the outside of the base of my thumb. It was bleeding, but nothing serious. I slashed back at him, missing, and turned just in time to miss being caught unaware by the taller of the other two. The third guy had, by this time, fled over to help the two that were after Jon. I looked across, past the statue, in time to see Jon spray on of the two he was fighting. He hit the guy directly in the face, the man’s hands immediately going to his eyes his body folding over, screaming loudly in pain.
As I saw this, I was grabbed from behind, a hand on each of my elbows and I was jerked backwards. I staggered, nearly loosing my balance, but managed to turn, twisting as fast as I could, breaking free of one of the hands. I turned and pulled free of the other hand and, once facing the man, slashed at him, narrowly missing him. He lunged at me with his right hand, the handle of a razor gripped between his thumb and forefinger.
I looked over and Jon was not anywhere I could see him. I turned my attention back to the two guys still dancing around me. I repeatedly thrust and slashed, trying only to keep them at bay, the one man cut and bleeding steadily from his hand. My own hand was bleeding, but not badly enough to divert my attention.
I looked for Jon but didn’t see him anywhere. Perhaps he’d run off, but the three other bad guys were nowhere to be seen either. I continued my standoff with the two guys, neither they nor I connecting. Suddenly I heard Jon’s voice, screaming out “Aaaahhhhgg” The sound suggested that he might be being punched hard, perhaps in the stomach. Looking in the direction his voice came from but still unable to see him, I gave a last flurry of slashes at my two attackers and broke away, running around the statue to the other side. There, I finally caught site of Jon. I gasped at what I saw across the plaza.
He was being pinned, face against the wall on the east side of the square by two of his attackers, one on either side of him. The third was stabbing him in the back, his arm arcing down repeatedly. Every time it landed, Jon yelled out, seemingly in agony, making that awful sound. I looked across the plaza at the crowd. The music had stopped. The crowd was silent. They stood there, every last one of them, watching as their friends were attacked. Not a single one moved to help us.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, my best friend being murdered, dozens of people who knew us, at least casually, standing, watching, as if this were some Coliseum spectacle in which men were slaughtered for the public’s amusement.
I raced as fast I could across the placita to where Jon and his attackers stood against the wall. Without thinking, as I neared the guy stabbing Jon, I raised my knife and, as I reached him, slammed it down into his back, then raising it again, as if outside of my own body,
I watched as his body slackened, and then plunged it into him a second time. As his body dropped to the pavement, I punched the guy holding Jon’s left arm in the face, smashing his head into the concrete wall, stunning him temporarily. The guy on Jon’s right side had released Jon immediately upon seeing his friend drop. He was now reaching down to his stabbed comrade, mumbling at him fearfully. Two of the others were now coming toward us.
I grabbed Jon and pulled him away from the two men that had been holding him, repeatedly thrusting my knife towards the others to keep them away from Jon and me. I hooked Jon’s arm around my shoulder and, as the two attackers that had held Jon attended to their wounded friend, quickly walked Jon across the placita away from them. The two I’d been fighting had by then run to join their friends and, as I looked over my shoulder back to the wall where they’d stabbed Jon, all of them were dragging their fallen amigo around the corner and down the street.
I brought Jon over to the crowd of useless onlookers, stunned and silent now that the fight was over. I was furious at their complacency, but needed to stay focused on Jon.. Jon sat down, dazed yet totally conscious. I told him to take his jacket off and when he did, I was amazed to see that there was little blood on his shirt. The black velvet jacket that he’s been wearing had served to cushion him from what must have been an incredibly dull knife. I told Jon that we needed to get away from the plaza immediately, as it was likely that someone would have called the policia. We left and went back to our apartments, shaken and glad to be alive.
When I looked at his bare back later on, the evidence was at odds with the bloodcurdling cries that Jon had let loose with from his place against the wall and with what looked like powerful slashing motions of the attacker who’d cut him. There were but a couple of long slash marks but no punctures, two long cuts from the top to the base of his back, but no deeper than a bad cat scratch. There were no cuts requiring medical attention, indeed nothing even close to requiring stitches. We’d both been very lucky.
We were told over the next couple of weeks that the man I’d stabbed had nearly died, landing in intensive care that night and remaining there for two days. I was thrilled that he recovered fully. I’d acted entirely by reflex, under the numbing effects of two 400 milligram Quaaludes, reacting to the sight and sounds of my friend being murdered – I’d thought.
Nearly two months later, on a beautiful, sunny day after a filling lunch, a friend and I walked down Calle San Sebastion, heading back to our respective apartments. We talked as we walked, having passed by the Placita where the awful confrontation had taken place. Walking on the south side of the street, we thought nothing of the two shabbily dressed men as they approached us until one of them, looking at me, said: “Hello, sir. How are you?” I didn’t recognize him for a moment, and then it registered. It was the guy I’d stabbed. “I’m good, man, how are you?” I replied, my stomach tightening with apprehension. I was shocked, by seeing him again in the first place and second by his friendly greeting and use of the word “sir”. He backed away, almost in an act of respect and said “I’m fine sir, thank you.” He nodded, almost a kind of bow, again, respectfully, and moved away down the street. I never saw him again.