It was on Christmas Day and I was around 16. I'd stopped in on some aunts and uncles and while walking back to our apartment noticed a very familiar sight: this neighborhood guy named Rudy trying to get a passerby to tie his shoelaces for him.
That's got to sound strange. Maybe I should explain.
You see, Rudy was a cripple. He'd had polio as a boy. His spine was bent and both hands curved inwards and to his wrists; this meant that, among other things, the man could not tie his own shoelaces.
That task fell to those of us around him. If you were a neighborhood boy or girl, man or woman, butcher, barber or even plumber, and took serious the concept of community, then tying Rudy's shoelaces was one of your jobs. You know, like helping one of the old ladies get across the street or keeping a little kid from running out in front of a city bus.
I got down on my knees and helped the guy plenty of times. At first, when I was really little, it seemed funny, even kind of creepy. But as I got older, I began to not mind it so much. In fact, I learned a lot about compassion and humility just by kneeling in front of Rudy.
He was around my parents' age, and lived with his sister Frances and brother Johnny in the brick row house where they had grown up together as children. He was as much a fixture in our neighborhood as anybody. Because he never held a job, Rudy was always hanging around where you could run into him, either on the stoop outside his house, a street corner where other men gathered, or on the sidewalks where he constantly—and very slowly and deliberately—walked alone each day.
"Rudy Tie My Shoes" is what people called him. This was not to be cruel to the man. A guy who lived across the street from me had a face that was framed by almost perfect right angles. We called him "Frankie Squarehead" because, well, why the hell wouldn't you? His name was Frank and his dome was square. Nicknames like this were just the way of the time, that's all. They weren't meant to insult or to hurt anybody.
Anyhow, back to this Christmas we were talking about. I was a short block away from where Rudy was standing when I noticed what was going on. He'd been walking in the light snow and happened upon a group of four guys around my age. I could see right away who they were and briefly slowed my pace in order to read the situation. It was Crazy Philip and three of his friends, which did not bode well at all for poor Rudy.
Philip was trouble from the day he moved into the neighborhood, around a year earlier. He'd quickly formed his own street gang and seriously got off on intimidating people. I saw him beat the shit out of plenty of guys for no reason whatsoever, on occasion doing the kind of damage that required a visit to the ER. The two of us had come close to a run-in a few different times but luckily nothing ever came of it. To be honest, I was afraid of the guy. He was pure anger and rage, with not a shred of good judgment. Not so long after this day that I'm telling you about here, Philip got killed in a knife fight. Nobody was sorry to see him go.
When I saw him and his boys make a circle around Rudy I knew that I had two choices: Find another way home or take my chances and hope for the best.
"Felipe, que tal?" I yelled loudly while approaching the scene. Unlike me and everybody else within a five-block radius, Philip's people were from Puerto Rico, not Italy. "Feliz Navidad. You seen Anthony today?" Anthony had been my best friend as a young boy; he still was my friend, only we'd grown apart ever since he and Philip started hanging out. They were equals in the gang they were a part of, the only two equals that I could determine. I had always believed that, if not for Anthony's long history with me and influence over Philip, his new friend and I would have come to violence long ago.
"We're busy here, man," Philip said, staring at Rudy in a way that I had seen and feared before. "Tony's at home. You want him, you know where he lives." Anthony had only recently come to be called Tony, just not by me.
The snow picked up and Rudy didn't have on a hat or even a scarf or pair of gloves. He was his usual slow self, not speaking and kind of out of it, but clearly the man had sense enough to be afraid of those who surrounded him.
"What you lookin' at?" one of Philip's friends said pushing the side of Rudy's face with an open fist as the others laughed.
"Hey, retard, your shoe's untied," said another. "C'mon, let's see you tie it right now."
This was not looking good at all. The only chance I had would be to act quickly and decisively.
"Felipe," I said in a way meant to strongly draw his attention away from Rudy and toward me. "Respect. Sabe? But I'm going to bend down now and help this man out with his shoes. Bueno? I don't want no trouble here."
Asking this prick's permission to do anything, let alone assist a helpless cripple like Rudy, was enough to make me wanna hurl. But it was the only way. Philip's boys would do whatever he told them. If he decided to let Rudy go on his way, then Rudy would go on his way. If not, then there was no telling how far they would go to fuck with or even hurt the poor guy. Or, for that matter, me.
Philip stared me down in a way that suggested I had miscalculated my ability to diffuse the situation. But when enough seconds passed without him saying something, I moved through the pack until I got to Rudy. I could see how frightened he was but also noticed a bit of relief in his face. Rudy knew who I was. And he trusted me.
"Who he to you, man?" said one of Philip's boys as I kneeled and brushed the snow and slush off of Rudy's black leather shoes. "Maybe you should mind your own business, you know."
Rudy's left shoe trembled as I tied it, maybe from the cold but more likely not.
"OK, now the right one," I said as much for the others to hear as Rudy.
Philip had yet to speak and his boys had turned quiet. I imagined being kicked in the head and pummeled to the ground. Honestly, I'd never before wanted to be at home with my mom and brothers more.
"There you go, good as new," I said standing to face the man I had assisted since I was a child. "Merry Christmas, Rudy."
All that was left now was to turn around and face Philip.
"We're done here, right, Felipe?" I said summoning more courage than I'd thought I had. "The man can be on his way?"
Philip's frizzy dark hair was topped with white snow, his black and red leather gang jacket moistened around the shoulders and down his chest. The guy had the blackest, scariest, most intimidating eyes I'd ever seen. Being stared down by them made me feel small.
"One day, we're gonna get it into it, Tony or no Tony," Philip told me, turning his stare first to Rudy and then to his boys. "Vamos, chicos."
Rudy stood motionless as Philip and his boys walked away. After they turned the corner and were out of sight, I gently grabbed Rudy's misshapen elbow. I'll be honest, I only felt a little less scared shitless than I did before the gang left.
"I'm gonna walk you home now, Rudy," I said. "That OK?"
He didn't smile or nod or speak, but did let me keep hold of his arm for the couple-block walk back to his house. Before going inside, Rudy motioned for me to tie his shoelaces again. They didn't need tying this time and so I took it to mean the guy needed another connection before the two of us parted ways.
Which was OK by me. I needed the same thing.