A Salvadorean Chinese man wearing a red Hebrew National apron with a black-checked kefiya around his neck and a Yankees hat on his head -- in short, a typical New Yorker -- jaywalked across Tenth Avenue at Fifty-second Street, contemplating, like so many of his fellow citizens, a minor offense. He was a food vendor, the January dusk was closing in, and he wanted to dispose of the considerable trash that had collected on his cart after twelve hours of dispensing edible garbage. He was supposed to carry it back to the cart depot, but he was now about to deposit a fat plastic bag in one of the row of trash cans he knew was kept behind the pizza joint across the street. The commercial trash collectors of the city were still recovering from a week of snow and ice, though, and he discovered that the five cans in the alleyway off Fifty-second were full, with bulging black bags stacked around them. The man looked over his shoulder to see whether anyone was watching and lifted up one of the bags. His plan was to secrete his own modest contribution behind one of these stinking blimps. Instead, he froze, goggling, and stumbled backward, knocking over one of the trash cans. Someone else had obviously had the same idea, because a dead baby was lying on top of the trash bag he had uncovered. It was slaty-blue, faceup, the little face shriveled like an old vegetable. It was a boy, with the exaggerated genitals of the neonate, and its long, ropy umbilical cord dragged down into the shadows beneath the trash.
"What's happening?" said a voice in Spanish behind him. A kitchen worker in whites and a cheap black parka stood behind him. The vendor was speechless. The kitchen man said, "Hey, man, what're you doing, kicking over my...," and then he saw the baby, too.
"Oh, shit!" said the kitchen man.
"Oh, shit, is right," said the vendor. He spoke both Spanish and Cantonese and was thus able to converse with nearly every low-level food-service worker in the city.
The kitchen man looked at him narrowly. "You didn't put that baby there, did you?"
"What're you, crazy? I just come here to stash my garbage from the wagon. That baby's been here awhile. Look, it's all blue and stiff."
"Poor little bastard! It's a boy, too," said the kitchen man. "Hey, man, where're you going?"
The vendor had turned away and was starting back toward Fifty-second. He paused and said, "I got to get back to my wagon, man."
"Hey, but we got to call the cops."
"You got a green card, man?" asked the vendor.
"Yeah, I got a green card."
"Well, you call the cops, then," said the vendor, and walked off.
What followed had happened well over a thousand times in the previous year, and already twenty in the current one, the digestion of a dead human by the bureaucracy established for that purpose. The police arrived, two patrolmen, who secured the crime scene and took an initial report from the kitchen man. Then the crime scene unit arrived in its van and examined the dead baby and its surround for clues. The baby was lying on some paper toweling, and they bagged that. Then the patrol sergeant arrived, and an ambulance from Bellevue, and shortly after that two detectives from the unit assigned to Midtown South. These looked at the baby and the scene and asked questions and found the Chinese Salvadorean vendor and yelled at him a little. Then the ambo took the dead baby away to the morgue. The next morning, an assistant medical examiner autopsied Baby Boy Doe Number One and discovered that it had died of exposure. Since exposing a baby to January weather in New York falls under the section of the homicide statute having to do with death resulting from a depraved indifference to human life, the death was ruled a homicide. The District Attorney's Office for the County of New York -- that is, the isle of Manhattan -- was duly notified, and thus it came, but only modestly, into the cognizance of the district attorney's chief assistant by means of a pair of lines on a computer printout. This printout was generated by the complaint bureau, an organization that was to the district attorney's office as the little ovoid plastic tube on the top is to the Cuisinart. The lines for Baby Boy Doe Number One indicated that this was a fresh case, that no arrests had been made on it. The chief assistant's name was Roger Karp, called Butch by everyone except his aged aunt Sophie.
Copyright © 2000 by Robert K. Tannenbaum
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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