After a bad couple of nights, I woke up, and it’s a different world. First, they said, don’t wear a mask. Then, they said, wear a mask. Then, they decided to call it a face covering. I’m not sick, but the numbers are rough, and I’ve got no money coming in. My towing job’s dried up. The shop’s been empty for weeks. It doesn’t look like I’m getting a moving gig anytime soon. I can use the rental income to pay for child support, but that leaves me barely enough for food and nowhere near enough for that credit card.
My ex-wife moved to the west coast last year with a new guy. That’s after the first guy. There was another one too, but I don’t care. The thing is, I’m still paying off the trip that she took three years ago. She’s gone, but that bill hits me every month like an illness, stealing my strength, pushing me down, and leaving me feeling like I need something that I don’t have.
After another nightmare last night, I was making myself something to eat when my business cell started playing from the bedroom. I nearly broke my neck getting to it. When I answered, the guy in the apartment across from mine began yelling at the wall. He drives me crazy with that. I couldn’t hear anything through the phone until I got the window closed. Back in the kitchen, I understood, the guy called for a tow.
He had a broken bike on the FDR in the East Village, a Honda NC. He was looking for a haul to The Bronx. I’d take the FDR to the village, drop the bike off, jump on 278, and make it back to Astoria by three. Without traffic, I figured it’d be a breeze. I gave him a fair price. He agreed. I kept the guy on the phone as I found my gear. I usually try to stay on the line with a customer before I get to them. That way, I make sure that they aren’t wasting my time by calling someone else.
The guy sounded like he was having trouble with the traffic. “If it gets unsafe, you might want to call a cop to redirect the cars,” I said, pulling a bandana from a drawer.
“I’m not calling the cops.”
“Well, I don’t think that there’s a shoulder there. I don’t think that you can get the bike over the divider or get it on the walking path either. Don’t stand in front of the bike. Stand behind the bike and put your hazards on. I’ll be there in fifteen,” I said.
I had no idea what this guy was doing, riding a motorcycle around during a pandemic, but it felt good to work. I locked up. I hopped down the steps. When I got to the glass doors in the lobby, I paused. With my toolbox on the floor, I pulled out that scarf. In my reflection, I put the scarf around my face and tied it in the back. With the face-covering, my leather, and those sunglasses, I looked a little shady.
I never saw the block so silent in the middle of the day like that. It was nice – chilly, but sunny. There were maybe three people out. By the park entrance, a woman was wearing a face covering. A man and woman across the street, getting out of a car, didn’t have anything on. It was hard to breathe with that scarf around my mouth, so I pulled it down once I got in the truck.
I started the engine. The muffled sound of the exhaust pipe reminded me of the cost to fix it. With the GPS on the cell and with the phone on the dash, I pulled out. I took Vernon. The street was empty. The ramp to the bridge was practically all mine. Within minutes, I was crossing the Queensboro. The sun was high in the sky. The water in the river sparkled. From the height of that overpass, the air felt clean.
Riding over those open lanes early in the day like that – having the prospect of putting some money in my pocket, feeling the wind sweeping through the cab – I could forget about the virus for a while. I must have crossed that bridge more times than I can count. Every time, it’s like my ex said. “The city seen from the Queensboro is always the city seen for the first time.” I think she was quoting from a book.
I coasted off the ramp, sailed down the FDR, made a U-turn at Exit 5, and as soon as I started north, I spotted the guy. In the middle of the road, he was standing right in front of his bike, just like I told him - not to do. Every hour on the hour, the news talked about not touching your face, and there he was, holding a cigarette in his mouth and biting his fingernails. He was bone-thin, in dirty jeans, and had tattoos on his arms and neck.
To block that lane, I stopped in front of him. I put my hazards on. As I got out of the truck, I pulled up my scarf. The guy had nothing on his face. He looked cold, bouncing back and forth on his heels. As I checked over the bike, he kept staring at me with his bloodshot eyes and looking around like he was expecting something. He leaned over my shoulder and breathed all over me, and I had to keep moving back and ducking away.
He was right. The bike was dead. There was no way I was getting it running, so I went back to the truck, pulled down the hatch, and set up the ramp. I’m not that tall of a guy, but I’m pretty strong, and I’ve towed a lot of bikes, so when I say that the motorcycle was heavy, I mean that it was unusually heavy. “You might want to take out whatever’s in the case,” I told him, working hard at angling the bike towards the truck.
“I-I just want to leave the bike the way it is.”
“Well, the way it is, I doubt I’m going to be able to get it up the ramp.”
“I-I don’t want to get into the cases. I’ll help you push it over the ramp.” He said, putting his hand on the handlebars.
I stepped away from the bike.
The guy freaked out when I mentioned the cops on the phone, and now, he didn’t want me to see what he had in those side cases. The kid was transporting something. From the looks of him, it was probably guns. “I said I’d take you and your bike to the Bronx. I didn’t say I’d take you and whatever you have in those side cases to the Bronx,” I told him, talking through the bandana.
“It’s a couple of miles, dude. It's gonna take you like ten minutes. I’ll pay you double, alright? Double.” He said, spitting as he talked.
I was ready to bail, but I needed the cash. I hadn’t had a call in weeks, and I was already there. From the looks of the guy’s dirty jeans and worn sneaks, I doubted that he had any money on him. With the cars, speeding past and driving up and around the truck, I had to act fast.
“Alright, well, it’ll be double, and you’ll have to pay me half upfront,” I said. I had a bad feeling about it, and I figured that he wouldn’t have the cash. If he didn’t have the money, I’d have an excuse to cut out of there. Then, he pulled out a bundle of cash from his pocket and handed me half the payment.
I kind of regretted taking it. As a precaution, I ducked back into the truck. I’d installed a recording device on my dashboard some time ago. If things went south, I’d at least have a video and a record of anything that happened within ten feet of the truck. I snuck back into the cab, put on some hand sanitizer that I had near the gear shift, and turned on the camera.
“So just to be clear, I don’t know you. You don’t know me. You paid me half, so now I’m hauling your bike to the Bronx.” I said, standing in front of the camera.
The guy nodded. He helped me push the bike onto the flatbed, and as he leaned over me, I kept ducking away from his face. I wrapped the tire straps around the back wheel and the handle straps around the sides bars. He got into the passenger’s seat, and as I got into the driver’s side, I opened the window. I had trouble breathing through the scarf, so I pulled down the bandana down, and instantly, I smelled the smoke from his cigarette. Once he caught my look, he took one more drag, and then, he flicked the butt out of the window. I put on some hand sanitizer, and in my rearview mirror, I checked that the bike was stable before pulling out.
“Wearing a mask, using that sanitizer, you’re one of them media-junkies, I’m guessing, aren’t you? Believing everything you hear and doing everything they say, media-junkies are something else. I bet you just love getting crazy over nothing. Over nothing! It’s nothing! There is no virus!” he hollered out the window.
“The media is just trying to sell papers, man. The more papers they sell, the more money they make. Get your head out of your ass, dude. They’re making this stuff up!” He yelled, moving around in his seat.
“Is that so?” I commented.
I wasn’t going to argue with the guy. I’d give it to him that no one knew much about the virus, but the media didn’t invent it. Corona was all over the world, and it was no joke. Covid 19 already killed more people than 9/11, and this guy wanted to talk about the media spin in popular culture today. I kept quiet. With the GPS on my cell, I followed the FDR to Harlem River Drive and Exit 17 over Willis Bridge. To avoid attention, I took it slow and steady off the ramp, and at the yellow at the end of Willis, I stopped.
People talk about the Bronx like it's some crazy place, but it's mostly filled with regular people just doing everyday things. Out of my windshield, a businesswoman with a shoulder bag was leaving an apartment. A mother with her hair up was holding a kid’s hand and walking into a Laundromat. One had a scarf over her nose and mouth, and the other didn’t. An old guy and a young kid at a bus stop were both wearing medical-grade face-coverings.
When the guy told me to take a right and then a left, I ignored the GPS and followed his directions. The basketball courts were empty. The further east we drove, the more closed-down businesses we passed. On each of these small buildings, wood planks covered over the windows and metal shields concealed the garages. Then, we’d see a bagel store with an “open” sign out front or a man from a “Plastics” place, wheeling boxes in and out of a garage.
“So you got a little towing biz, huh?” the kid commented as we passed by a warehouse with lots of small grimy windows.
“You know, on Saturday, we’re having a protest march up Broadway. You should go. We’re marching from 17th to 76th Street, in celebration of our Right to Bear Arms. You could help us out with transport. How many people do you think you could carry in the back of this truck?” he asked.
“There might be a regulation against carrying people in the open bed of a truck,” I offered.
“You bought this vehicle with your money, and you’re going to let the government tell you what you can and can’t do with it? Seriously? I don’t know about you, but no one’s going to tell me what I can do with my property. Anyway, you should come out. With it empty like this, we’re going to own those streets!”
I had no intention of going, but I nodded anyway because I didn’t want to aggravate the guy. He was a little temperamental. There were guns on the bike, and Hubrees Street only a couple blocks ahead, I wanted to keep everything cool and calm. It was two in the afternoon. I was close the shop, and with a little luck, I might make it back to Astoria by three.
“Stop over there,” he said, pointing to a space around the corner. “I’ll walk the bike over.”
As we passed the shop, a few of his buddies outside were throwing a basketball around and faking jump shots. On the sidewalk, one guy was in a lawn chair. The kid wanted to walk the bike to the shop because he didn’t want his gang to see him getting towed. As I pulled to the side of the road, I could hear them calling each other out.
I left enough space behind me for the bike, and I put the gear in Park. I didn’t ask for payment right away. In sketchy situations like that, I usually ask for payment before I take the bike off the truck. That way, I have the bike as collateral if the guy decides not to pay. As I heard his gang hooting and hollering around the corner, I figured that it’d be better to give the guy the bike now and be ready to let out quick if I had to.
I got out, put the ramp on, jumped on the flatbed, and unstrapped the bike. The guy helped me move it down the ramp and into that spot. Once it was there, the kid pulled a screwdriver out of the side case. The guy still owed me half, so I waited and leaned against the truck as he worked at getting the case off the bike. He was going to bring the guns to the shop first, and then, walk the bike over.
“I’ll get you the rest of the money when I get to the shop,” he said, hoisting the metal boxes to his shoulder. As the guy crossed the intersection, I understood that he was stiffing me. When he paid me the first time, he pulled out a thick bundle of cash. Now, he didn’t have anything on him. If the kid brought something back to me, it wasn’t going to be cash. It was going to his friends, looking for trouble.
Right before he turned the corner, that asshole turned around and blew me a kiss. It was alright. I got paid something. I didn’t get hurt, and I didn’t get caught up in any of that crap, I told myself, rubbing my temple and getting back into the truck. I started the engine. I got paid something, I told myself, pulling out. With the GPS running on the phone, I took a left at the end of the street. If I ever got a call from that shop or from any business on that road, I’d turn it down fast.
I made a right, another right, and I turned onto a road and spotted the highway entrance. I was about to merge into a lane when a brown Pontiac drove up right behind me. Red and blue lights flashed. I slowed down, figuring it wanted to pass. Then, it beeped its siren. I wasn’t speeding. I hadn’t made any wrong turns or blown any yellows, but it wanted me to pull over. As the lights bounced off my windshield, I knew in my gut that it had something to do with the kid.
In my rearview, I saw two guys in the front seats, a white guy and a black guy, and they were both wearing face-coverings. They could be cops in an unmarked car, trying to avoid the virus, or they could be thugs, pretending to be cops and wearing scarfs to hide their identities. As I pulled to the shoulder and parked by abandoned warehouse, I felt my mouth go dry.
If they were thugs, they’d probably assault me right away, so I braced myself and put my hands in the air. They got out of their car and slammed the doors. They walked with a swagger. With clean necks and sculpted abs, they didn’t look like thugs. The blond guy coming to my window had on pricey sunglasses, and the black guy, looking over the toolbox in my truck, had on an ironed t-shirt. They didn’t look like thugs, but they didn’t look like NYPD either.
These guys probably had revolvers strapped to their legs, so I held my hands up so as not to scare anyone. When the blond guy got to my car, I made a point to speak clearly and calmly. I motioned to the bandana lying by the gear shift. “I can put my mask on if you want me to,” I said through the opened window.
“It’s alright. What are you doing driving around today?” the blond guy asked.
“I just towed a bike.” I said, keeping my voice steady.
“Can I see your license and registration?”
“The registration’s in the glove compartment. My license is in my wallet. I’m going to reach for the docs now if that’s alright?”
“You’re not having any problems with me here, officer. My insurance is up to date. I got no points on my license. I just towed a bike. Towing is an essential service as far as I understand.” I added, pulling the registration card from the glove compartment and my license from the wallet.
“Maybe you could tell me what this is about, officer.” I asked, handing him the docs.
“We’re checking up on something in the neighborhood,” he answered. Without saying more, he and his friend returned to their car.
As I waited, the trucks on the highway shook the pavement and pushed a film of dust into the air that hung on that sun-drenched street like a coat of heavy paint. The shipping port on the corner looked like it’d been long closed down. There was a six-foot-high chain-link fence on the street up ahead, and as I gazed at the road, a dog barked behind it. When an eighteen-wheeler trampled past, a lid on a garbage can dropped to the ground.
I knew that I wasn’t supposed to touch my face, but the smoke in the air kept making my cheek itch. I couldn’t get it to stop, so I put some hand sanitizer on my hands and then, some on my face. Then, I put some on my head too. When the gel on my cheek dried, it got even itchier, so I didn’t know what to do. Finally, the blond guy got out of his car. Right away, I put my hands on the steering wheel so that he could see that I wasn’t reaching for anything.
“Mr. Damir, Mr. Dillan Damir, we like to ask that you step out of your car and that you come and talk to us for a few minutes,” he said under that scarf.
That I what? They were asking that I what? They wanted me to go with them. That must have been a joke, and I wasn’t in the mood for games. “I’d like to know what this is about, officer.”
“We’d like to have a little talk is all,” he said, with my license and registration card still in his hand.
“If you want me to go with you and have a talk with, you might want to give me back my license and registration,” I said.
“Sure. Of course.” the officer replied, handing them to me.
At that point, I asked to see his badge. I knew that he was a cop, but seeing his badge would give me a better idea of what kind of cop he was. Also, talking about the badge kind of reminded him that he was a police officer. I was referencing his duty to serve and protect, so with that, I asked to see his badge.
He nodded, pulled it out his case, and through the window, he showed me a gold ATF emblem. He was a Fed for the AFT, the division of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. He was undercover on something in the neighborhood. He put away his wallet. I got out of the truck, and as I closed the door, the guy waited for me to walk in front of him.
He followed right behind me. When I got to his car, he opened and closed the door for me like I was some Special Guest of Honor. I sat in the back. The two of them were silent in the front, and as we drove ten blocks south and four blocks east, the car sagged. Every crack in the street vibrated through the floor, and the pot-holes in the pavement made the springs squeal.
We stopped next to a van on the corner, and I got out. Like bookends, they escorted me into a white, ambulance-shaped Mercedes Benz. It was pitch-black inside. As I shuffled towards the back, I knocked over a pile of laptops and headphones on a desk. A fan was blowing in the corner. The blond guy guided me towards a bench, and the black guy closed the doors.
In that dark room, I had to feel for the seat before I sat down.
“I’m Art. This is Roger.” Art said. “We’re going to remove our face-coverings right now if that’s okay with you?”
“We think it's important that you see our faces,” Roger added.
“We appreciate your willingness to talk to us this afternoon, Mr. Damir. Can we call you Dillan?” Art asked.
I nodded. I was the only one using a real name, I guessed. As the two men took turns speaking, I got dizzy looking from one to the other.
“We understand that you towed a car to the T Auto Body shop this afternoon.” Art stated.
“Have you frequented this shop before?” Roger inquired.
“I didn’t go into the shop. I dropped the bike off on the corner near the shop.”
“You transported a Mr. Michael Malin to a location near the auto body shop, is that correct?”
“The guy called himself Mikey.”
“You didn’t have contact with this, Mikey before.” Roger clarified.
“No. I don’t know the kid.”
“During transport, did you have any reason to suspect that your passenger had illegal firearms in his possession?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head.
As it got quiet, I wondered if the blond guy, Art, knew that I was lying. When Roger eyed him and shook his head, the blond guy nodded. Then, Art shook his head, and the black guy nodded.
“We’re eliciting the help from people like yourself in an effort to expose a criminal operation that we believe is working out of T Auto Body Shop,” Roger explained. “We are hoping that you might be able to use your relationship with this Mr. Malin to obtain information that could help with the investigation.”
“I wouldn’t call the deal that I had with the guy a relationship.”
“Your acquaintance, then,” Roger replied.
“He stiffed me, actually,” I commented.
“Well, then, you might want to get involved. We are prepared to provide you with monetary compensation.” Art noted.
“If you’re interested in working with us, we are prepared to compensate you with an amount that we think you will view as somewhat substantial. As a gesture of appreciation for your time today, we would like to issue you a first payment,” he added, handing me his card and a couple of hundreds.
“If you’re interested, call us. If you’re not interested, we understand. Keep the money. All we ask is that you keep this conversation to yourself.” Roger explained.
“We’d like to come to a mutually beneficial arrangement here.” Art added.
“We’d like to hear from you, Dillan. We’d appreciate whatever help you could provide.”