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Harlem Hustleby Janet McDonald
IN A BUSTLING MANHATTAN BOUTIQUE, THE GAME OF COPS and robbers was playing itself out with the heart-pounding tension of a bungee jump. Hustle glanced over his shoulder as he walked between racks of warm-up suits. He felt off somehow, unable to tell customers from cops. Everybody seemed to have that Five-O look, the darting eyes, the police academy swagger, the bad vibe.
For both the bungee jumper and the shoplifter, once the leap is taken, there's no turning back. The jumper can't defy gravity, and the thief, once spotted, can't elude security. But Hustle was determined to try. He slipped on a black velour sweat suit top, the price tag sticking out at his wrist, and ran his hands over the fabric. If there were any electronic tags hidden in the cloth, he was going tofind and remove them. His theft-trained fingers felt something hard in the seam of the collar.
Hustle spun around. A young guy in a dark blazer was watching, on his lapel the letters TSU for Times Square Urbanwear, a boutique that not only clothed hip-hop stars but carried their personal brands of overpriced gear and accessories. The store also sold its own fashions under the label GangstaThreads.
"Hey what?" Hustle's body tensed as he spoke the words. This wouldn't be the first time he'd fought off store security. And this skinny dude, he was sure he could handle.
"All those sweats are on sale, but some of the tags still show the old prices. Just so you know."
The sales assistant moved on. Hustle wiped sweat from his eyebrows and hung up the outfit. He thought he saw another guy, tall and bald, scoping him but decided it was just paranoia.
Hustle wandered from one aisle to another, squeezing past shoppers. He circled tables piled high with designer underwear. The store resounded with rap music and cell phone conversations. Like a foul-line shooter tuning out the opposing team's noisy supporters, Hustle heard nothing when he was working. Almost nothing could shake his concentration. Except girls.
Three caught his eye. They seemed to be doing moreloitering than shopping. TSU had become a hangout for penniless project girls hoping to meet stars. And this unholy trinity was undoubtedly straight outta the hood, with their pink and black braided extensions and provocative attitude. Dishin' and dissin', they shouted over the pulsing beats of Ciara's latest hit.
"Oh, check this one out. And that hair, it's irkin' my nerves! How somebody that dark gon' be a blonde? She ain't even trynna make it look real."
"Truuue! She need to be buying husself some new clothes 'cause no she di'ent come out the house wearing them more-Parks-Sausages pants." It was interesting that the girl speaking was quite a bit chunkier than the blonde.
"Oh yes she did, guuurl, and that panty line ... it's cuttin' deep in that butt! What's all that she heistin' anyway? TSU do not take food stamps."
The girls laughed rowdily, giving high fives all around. Hustle had just picked up a white suede hoodie when the blonde in question bumped into him. In her arms she carried a mound of clothes.
"Oops, 'scuse me!" She giggled in a way that made Hustle wonder if the collision was really an accident.
"No problem, shorty." Her eyes held his for a brief moment. The reaction a few feet away was less charitable.
"Oh no she di'ent walk dead into him on purpose with that doll hair weave!"
"Guuurl, no you di'ent say 'doll hair weave'! You need to stop before you make me fall out on the flo' laughin' !"
"Yes, I most definitely did, and if she don't peel them beady eyeballs off me, I'ma go from sayin' to doin'!"
The girls were rolling, tears in their eyes. The blonde glared at her insulters. Then she rolled her eyes as slow and hard as she could and walked away.
Hustle laughed. Girls could be crazy nasty, hatin' on each other at first sight. For no reason. At least a dude always had a reason. Of course, if they had been dudes, somebody would've already been bleeding. Still, he'd rather be beat down with a fist than tore down with a dis. Toe-to-toe, he could hold his own in a brawl with anybody, but words could put more of a hurtin' on a dude than anything.
Hustle had long ago recognized the power of words. They had drawn him as a boy to rap music. When he was in the fourth grade, he found a rhyming dictionary in the school library and wrote his first rap. The kid fantasy later blossomed into a young man's dream. Whether he would stay on the path to make that dream a reality was uncertain. An early detour had already taken a nightmarish turn.
Boosting was all he knew, and he'd been one of the best because he loved it so--the challenge, the adrenaline, and, of course, the money.
He'd started young, after quitting junior high, and had the gift of invisibility. Uniformed guards, plainclothes agents, store personnel, no one ever seemed to see the oddly bulky little boy. As his skills developed, he could leave a store wearing three shirts and a pair of pants under his own clothes without a bulge in sight. His specialization was S & S, a technique of switching and substituting old clothes for new ones. He took orders uptown and filled them downtown. Neighbors called him "Harlem's professional shopper." His famous boast was that he could move merchandise with one eye open. But be they celebrities seeking thrills or hustlers making a living, shoplifters eventually are caught, and the day came when Hustle wished he'd kept both eyes open.
Maybe if he hadn't played hooky the day NYPD guest speakers visited his school he would've learned about advances in store security. And maybe he wouldn't have walked past the sensors of the Leather Outfitter wearing a beautiful royal blue leather bomber he hadn't paid for. And maybe he wouldn't have been exposed by that soft sensor tag embedded in the jacket's lining. But none of these maybes happened, and Hustle was busted, booked, and jailed.
He'd been arrested before and always let go with a warning, thanks to fake names and a baby face. This time he slipped and gave the same false name he'd given once before. That matchup led to a second match, which led tothe truth, and soon Eric Samson and all his aliases were known to the police. Arguing with great skill and truthlessness, his lawyer, Olivia Sigal, negotiated a sentence of probation for misdemeanor larceny. Not, however, before Hustle had spent his seventeenth birthday behind bars, awaiting trial. Shaken by what he'd seen angry men on lockdown do to one another, he made one of those never-again promises people make to themselves in the dark moments of their lives only to blithely abandon with the first rays of sunlight.
Within months of his release he'd followed his desire for easy money back to the doorstep of that same darkness, and entered Times Square Urbanwear, where shoppers zipped up zippers, unbuttoned buttons, and fingered fabric. They bounced and bobbed to the music, some singing along. Hustle held a burgundy fleece jogging suit against his body, running his hands over it for cut and quality. A girl had her eyes on him. He felt them but pretended not to. She looked too young to be undercover, he thought, but you never know. Suddenly she was right there.
"I like how you feeling on that top," she said in a flirty voice.
"Oh yeah?" he answered. Rubbing his chin, he looked her up and down. "When you in the, um, clothing businesslike me, you gotta be able to feeel. Everything." He was close enough to smell her perfume.
"Ooooo," she breathed.
"Like this," he said, touching her hair, "nice ..." Her giggles spurred him on. "You know that Mario song about love?"
"Sheree!" A bull of a woman stomped towards them. "If you don't get your fresh tail"--she gave her daughter's arm a ferocious yank--"away from that--" Hustle stepped back from the woman's blazing glare. "Cain't you see she ain't nuthin' but a chile of thirteen? Ain't got a drop of decency, not a one of y'all!" She whacked the girl's head and dragged her away. "Just you wait till I get you home!"
Copyright © 2006 by Janet McDonald All rights reserved
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