“For weeks,” Mr. Hernández intoned, “I have been apprising you of an impending grisly experiment, and now the time has finally arrived!” Filing into science hall, the students were greeted by the bracing smell of formaldehyde. Spread out on tables were a dozen pans covered in plastic. Walking over to get a better look, Colin gasped as the instructor unwrapped the plastic, revealing some sort of organ which glistened in the glare of overhead fluorescent lighting. It took Mr. Hernández a few minutes to calm down some girls who shrieked with fright, but finally the students took their seats and broke up into pairs.
“I’d like you to dissect the amygdala,” the teacher urged, pointing to the center bottom portion of the brain. The class tittered, but Colin’s partner, a Latino boy sporting wide-rimmed glasses, took to the task at hand by making a deft incision with his scalpel. Observing his capable partner, Colin felt relieved that he would not have to work too hard. Ever since Colin walked into class, he’d felt a sense of disquiet, not because of the macabre experiment per se but rather because Mr. Hernández had apparently made a number of changes by rearranging some beakers, vials and other paraphernalia to make room for dissections. Listening to his instructor, Colin tried his best to take notes, but felt agitated when the students whooped, guffawed and yelled over Mr. Hernández.
“No one volunteered to donate their own organs to science,” the teacher noted in a dead-pan, ironic monotone, “so I took the liberty of providing sheep brains to the class. Nevertheless, in light of certain anatomical similarities, this experiment will suffice for our purposes.” Dispassionately continuing in his staccato tone of voice, Hernández mused that the amygdala fulfilled a key role in fostering the development of emotion. “To be sure,” he added, “the amygdala isn’t the only important part of the brain, and some people might have strengths in other areas, allowing for greater processing of vast amounts of information. If it weren’t for such innovative abilities, we’d probably still be chattering in caves and never fulfilled our evolutionary destiny.”
Colin found it increasingly difficult to concentrate. Whenever Mr. Hernández wrote on the board, students would take out their phones and play videos, or run to-and-fro in the aisle. It was the ultimate sign of disrespect, and yet Colin seemed to be the only one in class to be upset. Amidst hooting and shouting, one student named Adrian mocked Mr. Hernández while the instructor’s back was turned. Both he and the teacher played a constant game of cat and mouse in class, in which Adrian would mimic Hernández by robotically imitating the educator’s awkward physical bearing and tics. But this time, Adrian’s impersonation gave rise to hilarious guffaws which gave him away.
Turning around, Hernández turned a deep shade of red and announced crossly, “Adrian, travel!” Once more, Adrian would be headed back to the principal’s office. Shuffling out of class, the students hollered once more while the teacher warned the class to behave. In the middle of the commotion, Colin wondered why he had ever left the Village and his old friends, a situation that had felt secure and familiar. Unfortunately, his old school only went up through the eighth grade, and subsequently Colin was obliged to transfer to a large public high school in Chelsea with a substantial Latino student body. All of a sudden, Colin’s social world had become confounding. For his age, he was fairly competent at language study and excelled when it came to memorizing Spanish vocabulary. On the other hand, he was thrown by incomprehensible idiomatic expressions and rapid-fire insults outside of class. As long as he had a kind of “script,” he could respond to novel situations, but dealing with this new challenge left him feeling baffled.
At lunch, things took a turn for the worse. He had wanted to make friends with some fellow students from Spanish class, who would sit at the same table in the cafeteria. Sitting down with his tray, his heart sank as he spied Adrian approaching from the other direction.
“Learn any new vocabulary today, loco?”
Colin’s classmate had been a relentless source of torment. It was unbearable, he thought to himself, how he had been constantly ridiculed. Colin bristled, hoping that Adrian would continue to another table, but he sat down to join them.
“Yo, see how Colin’s face never changes?” Adrian remarked, opening up a carton of chocolate milk. “It’s almost like he’s a miniature Mr. Hernández. That’s why I sometimes call him loco, since he’s gonna turn into an axe murderer when he gets older.”
To his dismay, Colin noticed that Adrian had intrigued the other students.
“What’s up loco, insano, maniático?” teased his tormentor, now coming up with a new rhyme. The table began to titter in amusement. From there, Adrian started riffing on some other terms. “Alienado, demente, lunático!” Colin wanted to respond, but by now, Adrian had the others in the palm of his hand, and it was too late for a comeback.
olin ate his lunch briskly in the cafeteria while avoiding his classmates. Then one day, after exiting the cafeteria, he heard a voice behind him.
“Put down the Spanish grammar textbook and learn some real slang!” someone remarked. Turning around warily, Colin saw a fellow student whose black hair flopped comically in bangs from the sides of his head. Colin paused for a moment, trying to place him. Ah yes, now he remembered: his partner from the dissection experiment in Hernández’s science class.
“Me llamo Manuel. I saw that incident in the cafeteria the other day,” his companion said, adding “Qué grosero! How rude! To be honest, I don’t understand the students here; if they had to go across the border like me and my family, they wouldn’t have such a big attitude. I don’t like to curse much, but back at home, we don’t mess around when it comes to insults. You need to be quick on your feet and ready for a recovery.”
For the next hour or so, his new friend introduced him to all manner of florid and outlandish insults, some of which were so elaborate that Colin had a difficult time even remembering them.
“And remember,” the youth explained, “don’t worry about Adrian: él se cree la última Coca-Cola del desierto: he thinks he’s the last Coca-Cola in the desert.” Colin broke out into peals of laughter.
On the subway home, Colin reflected that it was one of the few times since he’d switched schools that he’d actually felt relaxed. But why, exactly? It was as if, by suddenly meeting a foreigner, he over-compensated, felt encouraged to banter in Spanish and became a different person. Getting off at the West Fourth Street stop as usual, Colin made his way through the Village, lined with outdoor cafes, fashionable restaurants and honky-tonk boutiques. Turning a corner, he crossed onto a side street which was secluded and abruptly felt like entering a separate world. Colin lived in a leafy townhouse his parents had purchased decades ago, before prices had gotten out of reach.
“Manuel’s family is from the state of Puebla in Mexico,” Colin said, now sounding uncharacteristically animated. Looking up from a decorative painting she was working on, his mother remarked “Puebla! Don’t you remember when we took you there as a child? As a matter of fact, Mexico had a big influence on my art.” The piece displayed intricate geometric patterns and symbols which evoked Mesoamerica and ancient pyramids. On the walls of her studio, his mother had hung a number of other recently completed paintings, sporting a rich palette of earth-like tones, interspersed with splashes of turquoise, serpent-like creatures.
Colin gazed at his mother’s work, trying to remember their earlier trip. For a moment, he frowned: it was his typical, default expression which frequently led others to conclude that he must be anti-social, when in fact he was simply thinking to himself. He had a dim recollection of the family vacation years ago, when they had visited ornate, brightly-colored churches, local handicraft shops and a dramatic volcano. Suddenly, Colin had a new mission: he would learn as much as possible about Puebla. As long as he could recall, his pattern had been to learn all there was to know about a given topic, before methodically moving on to the next subject.
“I still remember the food, like those stuffed poblano peppers with walnut sauce,” his mother exclaimed, her eyes rolling in rapture. “Let’s see if I can come up with some of the ingredients and try to imitate one of Puebla’s traditional dishes.”
While Colin buried himself in online research about the history and archaeology of ancient Mesoamerica, in addition to the particulars of indigenous clothing, parades and local customs, Colin’s mother rustled in the kitchen. Logging on to the National Geographic web site, Colin read up on the macabre details of human sacrifice among the Aztecs and gazed at photos of the Popocatépetl volcano. Before long, however, he ran out of his quota of free articles and went into the kitchen where he was greeted by exotic smells from his mother’s cooking. Colin’s father, a dealer who managed an art gallery in Chelsea, was working late as usual, so it was just the two of them at supper.
“We didn’t have any walnuts, so I made chicken mole poblano instead: it’s not perfect, but it’s the best I could do with whatever I had in the kitchen,” his mother announced, bringing a steaming plate of food to the table. Curious, Colin took a bite of the dish, which was full of complex flavors ranging from bitter to sweet and more.
Suddenly, from the corner of his eye, Colin spotted the outlines of a furry shape which jumped up on the table.
“Oof!” his mother said. “It’s that cat again, he always manages to find his way through the window.”
The family shared a common courtyard with neighbors, and the creature was fond of wandering in at odd hours. The cat had a luxurious white coat, bushy tail and wide blue eyes. Gingerly, Colin’s mother picked up the sheepish animal and dumped him outside.
Now back at the table, she asked, “how do you feel at school now, and have you been to see the psychologist as I urged you to do?”
The new line of open-ended questioning left Colin feeling vexed. For that matter, meeting the psychologist had been a non-starter for months whenever his mother brought it up around the kitchen table. After moments of silence, his mother paused and patiently returned to their earlier topic of conversation by further inquiring about her son’s new friend.
Now brightening, Colin said, “Manuel taught me a new expression which goes something like, ‘you’re so ugly, you made an onion cry!” Colin then morbidly repeated all of the other arcane Mexican slang that he had learned, much to the amusement of his mother.
“He sounds like a sweet young man,” she said. “If his family has any immigration problems, maybe your father can even find them a decent lawyer.”
Later, as Colin was in the hallway, he overheard his parents talking in their bedroom.
“I hope this new friendship works out for him,” his mother said to Colin’s father. “There’s something very earnest about our son, and that worked fine in grammar school but…” her voice trailed off.
“Eh?” grumbled her aloof husband, who was reading a copy of Art in America magazine.
“…but I’m concerned that his naïveté might become a problem now, in the new school and everything. On the other hand, I reached out to the psychologist and this Mr. Hernández, a very intriguing character. I’m going to do some online research based on his suggestions.”
With that, she got out her laptop and frenetically started typing on the computer. Colin’s father mumbled something, before turning off his bedside lamp. Lying in bed later, Colin reflected on his parents’ conversation, when suddenly the cat appeared once again, peering at him in the bright moonlight from on top of the bedroom window sill. There was something comforting about the creature’s wide eyes, but Colin still felt frustrated that there was seemingly nothing he could do to make people understand him, and no one, save his family, was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Or so he thought? Over the next few weeks, Colin found solace by texting Manuel.
“My mother says Mexican food is more interesting than Puerto Rican cuisine,” he wrote.
“Ha ha ha! Their food has no sazón! We have some taquerías in my neighborhood but my mother cooks better.”
Colin hoped maybe Manuel would follow up by inviting him to his house, but their text exchanges tapered off, leaving Colin with a feeling of unease. At school, meanwhile, he saw less and less of Manuel, who had been spending more time speaking to the girls in Hernández’s class.
“My father says he might know an immigration lawyer in case you need one,” Colin wrote one day, randomly. This time, Manuel responded immediately.
“Ah, fantástico hermano, thank you so much! By the way, would you like to come to Harlem for the Mexican Day of the Dead parade? Just doing my best to keep up the friendship!”
According to Manuel, his neighborhood used to be solely occupied by Puerto Ricans, but gradually, Mexicans had been displacing older residents while making the area their own. East Harlem, formerly known as “Spanish Harlem,” provided a stark contrast to the Village.
Colin couldn’t have been more pleased at the offer, but there was something about the sporadic pace of their exchanges which he found discomfiting. That evening, the cat found its way into his room from the courtyard. Pondering the earlier texts with Manuel while scratching the creature’s ears, Colin wondered where he stood.
His mother had advised him to purchase a gift before heading over to Manuel’s house. Years ago, she had been commissioned to design a public mural in the vicinity, and seemed to recall there was a kind of curio shop, or botánica, on 116th Street. Getting off the #4 train, Colin wound his way through streets with tightly-packed apartment blocks, spilling over curbside with families reclining in chairs and children playing stickball. Weaving this way and that, he suddenly found himself on a more deserted block and spied a young couple passionately embracing in a doorway. When the woman saw Colin looking at them, she exposed herself by pulling up her shirt and displaying her breasts.
“Like what you see?” the man asked Colin in a taunting tone of voice, while grabbing his girlfriend.
Pretending that he hadn’t seen anything, Colin hurried up the block to the botánica. Lining the walls of the shop were rows and rows of candles, oils, religious figures, amulets and incense. Colin was simultaneously enchanted but somewhat disoriented by the wide array of candles, which, according to the labels, could be put to use in most any situation, from controlling one’s husband to making a killing on the lottery and more. Colin opted to buy a simple candle for good luck.
Manuel had suggested they meet at a food cart which sold tacos and gigantic sandwiches called cemitas, which could be ordered with whatever fillings you could imagine. Though he was supposed to wait for his friend before ordering, Colin was extremely curious and purchased his meal. Sitting on the curb with his sandwich, Colin contemplated how to attack the roll. He noticed a group of old men playing dominoes and listening to music, which had a kind of retro, nostalgic sound.
“Boogaloo!” came a voice from behind him. Turning around, Colin found Manuel swaying his hips to the music.
“Say what?” Colin asked, holding his sandwich in mid-air. For a moment, he lost track of the meal while some black beans and avocado oozed out and fell on his pants. He carefully repositioned the sandwich and paper plate on his lap. Biting into some tacos which he’d purchased from the food cart, Manuel explained that the musical genre dated to earlier times in Spanish Harlem though today, few people from the younger generation listened to it.
“Boogaloo,” Colin mused. “Sounds…scary?”
The two of them looked at each other, before suddenly and spontaneously breaking into laughter once more. Suddenly, all of Colin’s disquiet from the previous few weeks seemed to evaporate.
“Mr. Hernández’s bald head from chemistry class!” remarked Manuel.
“The Puerto Rican posse at school!”
And on it went, until the two of them had devised a whole new code language for things they feared and dreaded most, from the #4 train to stale pizza to Colin’s extensive research into human sacrifice in ancient Mexico.
“Did you know that Aztec priests sliced out the hearts of their victims with razor-sharp blades made of obsidian?” Colin asked in a deadpan voice.
“Ha ha ha! Reminds me of the scalpel we used for the dissection in Hernández’s class!”
“And when they were all through, they used to throw the bodies down the steps of the temple,” Colin added, simulating a push with his hands. He was pleased that Manuel, unlike many others who tended to tune out his interests and obsessions, apparently shared a penchant for the morbid and macabre.
Finishing the cemita and wiping his hands off, Colin followed Manuel to his dilapidated apartment building. As they made their way up the stairs, Colin noticed how a few windows had been smashed in, which took the edge off their earlier banter. The apartment itself was well-tended, though Colin felt humbled by his friend’s modest two-bedroom living space. Manuel mentioned something about problems at the border, adding that it might even get tighter, if and when his brother and two sisters managed to make their way here. In the corner of the living room sat a makeshift altar dedicated to the virgin of Guadalupe, adorned with candles and flowers. From the ceiling, overhanging the shrine, hung an assortment of pierced color flags honoring the Day of the Dead which had been inlaid with traditional motifs.
If there was a father or father figure, Manuel made no mention, and apparently it was his mother, Doña Bertha, who ran things around the apartment. On his way in, Colin glanced at her watching telenovelas on TV as she lay ensconced within a sparse bedroom. A matronly, stoical woman with close-cropped hair, Bertha shuffled out into the kitchen, receiving Colin’s good luck candle from the botánica politely. She paid him little attention, however, preferring instead to mind her cooking. When she wasn’t tending to a saucepan, she chopped and diced some kind of unfamiliar vegetable. Bertha had her sleeves rolled up, and Colin noticed the woman had a scar on her left arm.
“She’s making chile peppers with walnut sauce!” Manuel said, smacking his lips before abruptly disappearing into his room.
There was a silence as Colin hesitated. He had never felt comfortable making small talk, preferring instead discussions about whatever topics or information he happened to be fixated upon.
“My parents and I visited Cholula, Atlixco and Zacatlán when I was a child…” Colin said, hoping that mention of Puebla’s principal cities might elicit conversation. His voice trailed off as Bertha nodded, barely looking up from the counter.
Colin remembered some earlier exchanges he’d had with his mother about Mexican cuisine. “I remember that religious nuns first invented your dish, and even today the people of Puebla are proud of their food. y mother tried to make it for me the other day, but it’s difficult to find the ingredients.”
This time, Colin tested out his tentative Spanish with the Señora, hoping this might finally endear him within her graces. But again, Bertha barely acknowledged him. Referring to the odd vegetable on the cutting board, she remarked, “this preserved cactus is available at the corner store.”
It was excruciating: whatever he said, Bertha would simply nod. From the other room, the loud sound of telenovelas and banter had begun to exasperate him. Looking around, he wondered what had happened to Manuel. Then another idea occurred to Colin: recently, he had glossed over an article on the internet about Santa Muerte, a Mexican folk saint associated with healing, protection and safe passage to the afterlife. Perhaps the Señora would be able to fill in some of the details.
“We don’t speak of such matters here,” Bertha stated with a note of finality. A scowl had now replaced the earlier diffidence. Fortunately, Manuel then returned and broke the silence.
“Oye hermano, remember when Mr. Hernández urged us to enter that science competition?” he noted excitedly, running into the kitchen. “They told me a month ago by e-mail that I won! Here’s the prize they shipped to me.”
He reached inside a custom carrying case, which had come with the prize, and brought out a small, black drone. Colin had never seen one of the devices, and he was intrigued by all of the propellers and buttons.
“It’s equipped with remote control via an app on my phone, HD camera and GPS,” Manuel said, adding that he’d secured a special license and only flew the drone within a local park which was safely permitted. From the park, he had sent the drone on a couple of test flights which allowed him to observe the neighborhood, much to the amusement of his neighbors.
“I’m gonna shoot some aerial videos of the parade today,” Manuel declared, “and download it to YouTube for the entire community!”
After the cemita, Colin could barely shovel any more food into his mouth, but to be polite he accepted a plate of the chile peppers with walnut sauce. The seductive smell of cinnamon, raisins and squash had already wafted through the kitchen, making Colin’s mouth water, and the dish was appealing visually with pomegranate seeds sprinkled on top of the chile peppers. While Colin enjoyed his mother’s Mexican cooking, Bertha’s dish was like nothing he’d ever tried.
On their way out, Colin said goodbye to Manuel’s mother, who nodded silently while washing the dishes. “I overheard you from the hallway talking about santa muerte,” Manuel said. Laughing raucously, he added, “why did you bring up that narco religion? We don’t talk about those things around the house. A few years ago, one of my mother’s relatives was extorted and since then Bertha never talks about anything smacking of danger.”
Colin frowned. Perhaps, he thought, this might be a good time to bring up the immigration lawyer? Digging in his pocket, he brought out a scrap of paper. “Here’s the contact information my father gave me.”
“Buena honda, hombre!” Manuel said. Looking pleased, the Mexican placed a mask over Colin’s face which had been painted over with a skull. Out in the street, the two were greeted by a spectacle of paraders dressed in colorful feathers and sporting wide-brimmed sombreros or devil-like horns. On the margins of the parade, vendors sold alcoholic pulque while others hocked pan de muerto, a type of sweet bun.
Typically, Colin was disturbed by loud noises, and he particularly dreaded performers who foisted themselves on passengers in subway cars. In this case, however, he found himself caught up in the offbeat sights, sounds and smells of the parade. Whenever the street got too intense, Colin would simply pace himself by retreating into a doorway or alleyway, later returning to cheer the incoming floats, or wave and hoot at Manuel’s drone along with the crowd. From the corner of the permitted park, Manuel controlled his drone remotely. Though he enjoyed the parade, Colin eventually grew fatigued and felt he was ready to go home. When he tried to make eye contact with Manuel, however, his friend seemed oblivious or was caught up conversing with his neighbors.
“Did you see the footage?” Manuel exclaimed later, after the parade had died down. The two of them reviewed the video on Manuel’s phone, which at one point zoomed in on Colin trying a glass of pulque, and then spitting it out on the pavement in disgust. The crowd was thinning out and heaps of garbage and decorations had piled up, with only a couple of drunken men singing folk songs in the street. While waiting for the #4 train, Colin took out his phone and did some research. Though he hadn’t enjoyed pulque, he was curious about it and found some articles on the internet which spelled out the history and typical preparations for the drink.
Colin wasn’t sure he wanted the drone video uploaded to the internet, though he was taken aback the following Monday when a number of students at school complimented him on his dance moves at the parade, not to mention his attempt at downing the pulque. But then one day, he felt troubled at the sight of Adrian coming towards his table.
“Oye loco, insano, demente,” Adrian taunted, sitting down next to him. The others started to titter just like before, as Colin grew increasingly agitated. This time, however, he was prepared and had developed a kind of script. Over the past few weeks, Colin had been practicing his Spanish grammar and trying out new conversational expressions with Manuel. With a great deal of effort, he managed to tune out the background noise in the cafeteria, glaring fluorescent lights and laughter around the table.
Concentrating intently, Colin spoke in the best polished Spanish he could muster, “Your vocabulary is quite uneducated. Haven’t your parents bothered to teach you proper language skills? For example, you could have used a number of other words including enloquecido, desequilibrado, or perturbado.” Adrian looked confused and seemed unsure how to respond to this new twist in the conversation. “On the other hand,” Colin continued, “if you are going to insult someone, I prefer other phrases from Mexico such as cabeza de mierda, vete a chingar! and malviviente.” At the mention of such novel and colorful slang, Colin’s Spanish classmates initially seemed puzzled, but then spontaneously burst out into laughter. Not knowing what to say, Adrian shrugged. To Colin’s relief, he seemed to lose interest and eventually walked away.
Feeling more comfortable at school, Colin became increasingly engrossed with internet research on Mexican culture, ancient history and customs. Indeed, he became so fixated on his new interests that he barely noticed when, some days later, school was abruptly cancelled due to the pandemic. Colin almost felt smug about the city’s new day-to-day reality, since all his peers on Snapchat seemed frustrated at not being able to socialize, whereas he felt perfectly fulfilled with his own topics. For hours on end, he would delve into the mystery behind the fall of the Maya civilization, only occasionally emerging at mealtimes or to text Manuel. Best of all, his mother had seemingly decided not to pepper him with personal questions anymore, while purchasing Colin an unlimited subscription to the National Geographic web site. Even better, the cat in the courtyard had recently produced a litter, and the neighbors had agreed to give them a kitten.
Due to the pandemic, Colin’s science class was obliged to convene online and pupils were mandated to stay at home. Surveying his classmates on Zoom, Colin reflected how the mood had shifted and become more subdued. Before the pandemic, science class would have been utter pandemonium, but now, to Colin’s relief, the students were composed and more orderly. Even Adrian, a constant thorn in the side of Mr. Hernández, now nodded silently and refrained from interrupting the teacher, who had launched into a lecture about the Cambrian explosion, as well as the distinction between vertebrates and invertebrates and all the many technical differences between different animal lineages.
At one point, Colin interjected rather randomly, “but Mr. Hernández, in light of all the problems we’ve had with the pandemic, how will we survive as a civilization?”
“It seems the world has been witnessing a multiple cascade of escalating conundrums as of late,” his teacher said. “Fundamentally, humans must learn to stay in their proper lane while respecting the environment around them.”
At the end of class, Mr. Hernández announced the next reading assignment and then paused.
“Colin, would you mind sticking around for a moment?”
Curious, since he had never really had any personal exchanges with the teacher, Colin stayed on the Zoom call as other students signed off. Suddenly, the kitten jumped up on the desk. Like his father, he also had deep blue eyes, and the creature pressed its nose against the computer screen. Placing the animal on the rug, Colin momentarily focused on quirky details within Hernández’s apartment, including a vintage Marvel comic book poster of the Avengers which hung on the wall.
“From what I understand,” his teacher said, “you display a distinct penchant for research. I would highly encourage you to pursue your special interests, if the notion of further enquiry is something which appeals to you. Perhaps you might want to explore the issues we discussed relating to the pandemic, for example. Were you to carry out your research to its logical conclusion, there is little doubt in my mind that you would be able to publish your findings in the school paper, or even other outlets farther afield.”
Colin liked his teacher’s suggestion, and he started reading online about wildlife and the transmission of viral diseases. Creating a separate folder on his computer which stored all his planned articles, Colin began to develop an intense feeling of satisfaction. Then, one day while conducting his research, he received odd news from Manuel.
“There’s a fleet of big trucks constantly moving their way through the neighborhood,” his friend wrote in a text. “I followed them up to the tip of Manhattan, and they’re headed to some kind of bizarro island near the Bronx!”
While there hadn’t been many cases in the Village, a spike in the virus had caused dire concern in East Harlem.
“Boogaloo?” Colin typed.
“Ha ha! I want to get to the bottom of the mystery and bring my drone. Vamos?”
Colin doubted his mother would let him go up to Spanish Harlem in the midst of lockdown. On the other hand, he calculated that it would take her quite some time to perform her afternoon shopping, in addition to helping his father close up the gallery. After hearing her slip out the door, Colin quickly grabbed his bicycle in the basement and started riding uptown. With so little traffic, Colin felt exhilarated. But then, as he hit Times Square, his mood became more somber: with the exception of a couple of stray tourists, the streets were deserted. Though huge lights were still illuminated over Broadway, the theater district, too, was abandoned with storefronts all boarded up. As he rode on, Colin came to Central Park and decided to ride along some secluded paths. It seemed as if animals had decided to reclaim the area, and Colin marveled at the cacophony of birds. Pedaling along, he almost ran over a frog.
Turning off Fifth Avenue and into East Harlem, Colin was struck by how different the neighborhood now looked. Gone were the old men playing dominoes. All shops, including the botánica, were now shuttered. Perhaps, he mused, he could return his mother’s good will gifts after the pandemic by purchasing some special Mexican spices. Except for the distant wail of a siren, the place was oddly silent, and the mood at Manuel’s felt subdued. Collecting his friend, Colin somehow had the impression that Bertha was none too pleased to see him there.
“Don’t mind her,” Manuel exclaimed gaily, adding, “let’s go to my room and wait until the coast is clear.” A while later, the two of them observed that Bertha had fallen asleep in front of the TV, which was blaring telenovelas as usual. Taking to his bike outside, Manuel exclaimed, “follow me, I’ll show you what I was talking about.”
The two wound their way north until they came to a park near the water, another area where city authorities permitted the operation of drones. Off in the distance, Colin could see an abandoned looking island linked to a causeway, just as Manuel had said. After Manuel sent the drone aloft, the two waited patiently on a park bench. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before several large, unmarked trucks made their way onto the bridge, comprising the only traffic in the vicinity. “Can you zoom in on where they are going?” Colin asked.
Manuel directed the drone remotely from his smart phone, and then the two spotted an unusual sight: from the back of the trucks leapt dozens of figures in hazmat suits, carrying what looked like human bodies toward a large ditch. Colin suddenly felt queasy: though he enjoyed studying macabre topics, he now wished he could return home.
Despite Colin’s pleadings, Manuel persisted, frenetically directing the drone this way and that. “This needs to be publicized!” he declared.
Some police cars suddenly emerged from the side of the island, sped onto the bridge, and moved their way toward Manhattan. Glancing back and forth between the naked eye and Manuel’s smart phone, Colin followed their path closely, until he realized with a sink to his stomach that the cops were headed towards them. With sirens wailing, Colin counted no fewer than six squad cars. Whatever could they want with the two of them? Careening towards them, the cars screeched to a halt and the cops jumped out of their cars. Staring in disbelief, since he’d only seen such dramatic scenes on television, Colin froze completely. Getting out of their vehicles, the cops angrily approached Manuel.
“What do you think you’re doing? Land that drone immediately!”
“But we’re in a permitted area!” Manuel protested.
He took out his special license and handed it over to the police, who swatted it away and shoved Manuel to the ground. To Colin’s alarm, his friend’s body hit the pavement with a loud thump. Not knowing what to do, Colin stood rooted in place as he observed that Manuel’s face was bleeding. Before Colin knew what was happening, the police drove off with the drone, leaving them alone once again in the park. For a few minutes, Colin still felt disoriented: it was as if his “on” switch had been delayed. It took time for him to collect himself, and he felt awkward helping Manuel to his feet.
“Pinche policía,” Manuel said. “It’s always the same, whether it’s on the border or here in the city. They never leave us alone.”
Helping Manuel wash his mouth out in the fountain, he vowed to himself that he would do something about such underlying unfairness. As his friend managed to hobble back to his bike, Colin felt at a loss and tongue-tied. Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to demand the police hand over the drone, Colin wondered? Neither of them spoke much during the return ride to Spanish Harlem, as Colin fretted over their treatment at the hands of the authorities. Back at Manuel’s apartment, Bertha peeked out of the door while frowning and avoiding Colin’s gaze. This time, however, Colin paid little heed to such matters. Cycling back towards the Village, he barely noticed the abandoned streets, as his mind reflected on what the two of them had seen on the island, as well as all the many articles he would write once he got home to his computer.