The Hustler

I rarely got excited to see family growing up. We would always visit los viejos – elder Dominican’s who helped my mom assimilate to New York. I’d mope in the backseat of the brown beaten-up Pinto with two sisters as my mom drove us from Long Island.

Vamos a vistar tus primos,” my mom said one day.

My ten-year-old eyes lit up.

My cousins lived in Queens. My sisters would go off with their prima and I’d hang with Alex the teenaged tiguere – a hustler.

Alex sensed my frustration living out on the island – awkward with glasses, lonely male offspring navigating a new world. He taught me how to throw a football, and introduced me to streetball.

Alex was tall, always with a tight fade breaking up the colors from his black hair and olive complexion. He wore gold chains that bounced off his sinewy chest as he strode the boulevard with a wad of cash stuffed in tight pockets of loose jeans. I can still picture him wearing Adidas breaking to his boom-box on the stoop.

When Alex would leave me with his crew, they took care of me too, so Alex could make some negocios – deals.  I confessed to the crew I wanted to runaway to Queens.

After my mom yelled from the high-rise apartment, her voice resonating off bricks and cement, informing us it was time to go – Alex always put up his fists, his smirk punching through the space between his wrists. Every visit to Queens culminated in a ritualistic slap box and I wasn’t allowed to go until I beat Alex.

“Gotta toughen up primo,” he’d say before his open hand met my cheek. He’d always win the first match and then let me win the next two.    

I was the last one to hear news of Alex’s death. His crew got into it with their rivals not long after our last visit, everyone scattered when Alex was shot. He took his last breath alone. I didn’t attend his funeral, Alex always wanted me to toughen up and I couldn’t fill that promise if I went.