Zeskind's hardware store at Payson and McHenry streets is a throwback to another time.
You don't shop here as much as you line up in a cramped aisle, say what you want and wait for Rick Zeskind, the third generation of Zeskind owners dating to 1925, to search shelves cluttered with everything from shower heads to drill bits. If he knows your name, and he most usually does, he adds the total to your tab scrawled on a paper receipt.
But these days, it seems Rick Zeskind talks to the cops as much as to his customers. He knows most of them who clear his corner and keep his store safe for the people who want a quarter-pound of nails and not a half-ounce of heroin, safe, he hopes, to stay open long enough for a fourth-generation Zeskind to take over.
Rick Zeskind, at the age of 60, doesn't have a disparaging word to say about the police.
But it troubled him when the cops barged into his shop about a week ago and hauled out one of his semiregulars, a laborer fixing an apartment building nearby on Fulton Avenue, working for a landlord who wants the crew to buy from the local shops rather than the box stores in the counties, wants to contribute to the revitalization of the neighborhood instead of to its disintegration.
The encounter was quick and efficient. The plainclothes cops had him stand in the street and raise his arms while they patted him down for drugs or guns. They asked if he was on methadone. Then they simply said, "You're free to go, sir" and left. The customer walked back into Zeskind's, apologized to Rick and bought a stove pipe, caulk and duct tape.
It was, in every sense, the most routine "stop and frisk" imaginable, one played out on street corners throughout the city every day. The 90-pound cocaine seizures, such as the one city police did last month, get the attention, but the real drug war is fought like this, corner to corner, stop to stop, seizures, if there are any, measured by the ounce.
Rick Zeskind told me he overheard one of the cops give a reason for the stop: "He told him he came from a bad area."
And now Rick Zeskind is in a quandary. "I don't want to say anything bad, they help me," he says of police. He needs the cops to kick out the dealers to keep his customers so he can keep his store. Rick just doesn't know what to say. He, too, was stopped and searched once while taking out the trash.
"It was just a bad situation," he said.
That's where we are. Nobody's outraged. Nobody cares whether the cops stop the right people or the wrong people. Nobody asks whether this is the right way to fight a war, whether it does any good (though thousands upon thousands of stops and arrests suggest that it is not), or whether we're winning (and how we'd measure our successes or failures).
It is just a bad situation.
At Payson and McHenry, the bad can blend with the good, and from inside a squad car, it can be hard to distinguish whether a guy walked out of a broken apartment looking for a cheap high or for duct tape.
The customer pleaded with me not to use his name, for fear of retribution. The day he was stopped, he was dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, but the needle marks on his arms probably left the cops satisfied they had the right guy. Until two years ago, he had filled his veins with heroin 10 times day and shoplifted to support his habit. He says he has been clean since then, and at least by his criminal record that I reviewed, he is telling the truth.
Getting pulled up by the cops is considered part of the game, and collateral damage is as accepted here as it is in battle. This is no hit on the cops - they're doing exactly what Rick Zeskind needs them to do when he calls.
It is the way the game has always been played.
But we have to remember that we need the recovering heroin addicts of the city to make it as much as we need the Zeskinds of the city to make it. They're both in the game, whether they belong there or not.
"As long as you're down here, there is no way to escape," the laborer told me. "If it's not the dealers, the cops are going to keep pulling you back in."