The Case of the Layaway Men

By: Edward-Yemíl Rosario

My mother never left my side even when all others had forsaken me. She was always there, no matter what, and though I broke her countless times, her love was the one constant in my life. As a person, she modeled courage, determination, and a lust for life for life I have rarely encountered. This is not to say my mother was a saint — she was far from it! She was (and still is) impulsive, stubborn, and willful. My mother led an essentially hilarious life with her children in tow. This story is just one of many. Sorry, Moms, this one had to be told.

We were all crying because the bad men were going to take the TV away.

There was little else in that living room, I don’t think there was even a couch. We would sit on the plastic covered kitchen chairs to watch TV. And that’s what we were doing when these two strange men came into the room and started taking the TV away. I couldn’t have been more than five and my two sisters Darlene and Yvette were 3 and 2 respectively.

We were crying.

These two big bad men were taking the TV away.

There were two things I remember most about that Lower East Side five-story walk-up apartment. One was that the bathtub was in the kitchen which made for funny situations during dinner time. The other was that it had this long, narrow hallway. So long, in fact, that I used it to ride a tricycle up and down its length. My mother was obsessively clean and the worn linoleum would gleam with floor wax and we would take a running start in our socks and slide across that long hallway.

But most of my memories of that apartment weren’t so good because it was the first time I would remember my father not being around. And when my father wasn’t around, things were hard for my mother and we had less to eat, less furniture.

But we had this nice, brand new TV and these strange men were getting ready to take it away, so I cried, and my sisters followed suit. And my mother was standing there, not knowing what to do.

Then she started arguing with these men. At first it was more of a plea. She was actually begging these men not to take the TV away. You see, the TV was bought on the ghetto “lay-away” plan which was actually a scam to rip off those who had nothing to rip off in the first place. You would put an item on “lay-away” and that would allow you to take it home. You paid for the item in weekly installments. The thing was that the weekly installments often added up to more than twice the sticker price. In fact, most of what you got on “lay-away” was used — items that were taken away from other families who had failed to pay the weekly installment.

Aside from the long, narrow hallway, it was the only form of entertainment we had.

Soon, my mother was engaged in an all-out argument with the men, who seemed to care less and weren’t even paying attention to my mother. You have to understand my mother is a petite woman who barely measures five feet tall — not an imposing physical presence. So the men were ignoring my mother which made her more pissed off, which made us cry more.

“You can’t do this!” My mother yelled.

And everything stopped. We stopped crying because we knew that tone of voice. We had heard that tone many, many times before and it usually meant someone was going to get their ass kicked. So we stopped crying, perhaps hoping it wasn’t one of us. The men stopped because it was a defiant, authoritative voice. I guess they were used to taking orders and my mother had just barked one out that would’ve made a marine drill sergeant proud.

The pause lasted a split second and the men continued preparing to take the TV and we got back to crying, knowing that it wasn’t one of us that was going to get our asses beat down.

I remember my mother tried pleading one more time to no avail and then I got really scared because when I glanced over to her, she had The Look. I can’t ever sufficiently describe The Look. It was the look of death and it actually made my mother look taller, more powerful, but these guys just weren’t getting it, but we knew. We knew some shit was about to jump off. I felt so bad, I almost warned the men, but, having learned even at that early age that discretion is the better part of valor, I chose to stay quiet.

My mother, seemingly defeated and frustrated, left the room…

And when she came back, she had the largest knife she owned in her hands. It was the same knife used for special occasions for cutting a pernil (roast suckling) or something like that, and she had this wild-eyed look in her eyes. I swear her hair was standing up!

“YOU’RE NOT TAKING THAT TV!!!” She roared.

“You will take that TV over my dead body! My children are not going to suffer.” and with that, she yelled her death roar and made her charge, willing to die.

Now, I was really scared because I feared for my mother’s safety. My mother was small and petite and she was a woman. Surely she wasn’t a match for these two big idiots who didn’t even know better to leave. The men, who had until then been ignoring my mother, freaked out when they saw my mother charging them with this huge knife in her hand. They tried to calm her down, but it was too late, I could’ve told them that. She went after them and the funniest thing happened:

The men started to run!

Or rather, they tried to run, but my mother had them pinned down, slashing at them with her knife and she meant to cut them. Through some miracle, they managed to elude my mother’s slashes and make it out the living room into that long hallway, whereupon they slipped and slid through the length of that recently waxed and gleaming long expanse. Somehow they managed to make it out of the apartment, though my mother almost managed to stab the unfortunate one who slipped and fell.

But that wasn’t enough for her. My mother chased those men down five flights of stairs and down the street where they had their truck parked. They almost didn’t make it. By then my mother had ripped open her blouse and was yelling, “Rape! Rape!” at the top of her lungs which caused all the unemployed Puerto Ricans who happened to be hanging out on the street corner that fine summer day to join in on the chase of these two poor men. I know this because I was running behind my mother the whole time. I’m her oldest, after all.

They jumped in the truck making their final escape in a squeal of tires and a cloud of dust, never to be seen again, a mob of oppressed and frustrated Puerto Ricans on their tail.

There we were in the middle of the street, my mother with a knife in her hand, clutching her blouse closed. She looked at me and said, “C’mon, let’s go home.” Somehow, I remember, my mother managed to look regal, her head held high, and no one dared say a word to her…

And that’s what we did; we went home up five flights to that sad almost empty apartment. She put the TV back, plugged it in and told us that we could watch as much TV as we wanted and that no one would ever take our TV away. She left and got some overpriced, stale meat and other things on credit from the corner bodega. It is said that Cuba, the proprietor notorious for refusing credit to his own mother once, took one look at my mother and decided that was not best time to mention her credit was stretched too far. Later she cooked us dinner, with a Blackout Special as a treat.

And we were so happy.

That was the kind of mother she was: ferocious, fiercely protective of her children. Later in life, it was her power of example that maintained me and taught me never to give up when the odds seemed insurmountable. It was also her fierce love that nurtured and protected me, serving as beacon to a path for becoming a better man. I believe that if I were to carry my mother on my back for the rest of her life, I still could never repay her…

I love you, moms.

12 Comments on “The Case of the Layaway Men”

  1. I have read this story before and no matter how many times I read it … I am left with a smile/smirk on my face … ‘rican mothers are nothing to mess with! lol

  2. I strongly doubt that she could get away with such actions today – as many repo men now carry guns (shitty economies tend to result in people who are *very* defensive of their meager possessions – hence the need for added protection).

    But really, it was her own fault for buying on layaway – if you can’t afford to get something (particularly something that’s a nonessential – like a TV or decorative furniture), just don’t fucking buy it: doing otherwise results in some nasty consequenses: stick to essentials for living (food, water, clothing, shelter and guns – yes, I list guns as an essential).

  3. Great story! I do miss some of the “momma days”. Hearing the “voice” or seeing the “stare” use to give the same feeling of oh sh!t that at the time seems like the lord delivering smite, but now its like a warm hug of nostalgia. Wonderful! You should make a screenplay! Your mom might kill you, but it would be great! Something many of us could relate to.

  4. Sayntj: thanks for reading and I’m glad you were able to identify. Not everyone gets the core message of the story, though it’s not that deep. LOL

  5. Lisa & Elsa: thanks so much for stopping by and for leaving your thoughts. They are much appreciated. And yes, my mother definitely loved her children and she was most assuredly fierce. LOL

  6. Funny, twenty or thirty years ago, there wouldn’t have even been a question of the woman getting arrested, especially since she had the foresight to rip her blouse and shout rape. A mom struggling to make ends meet for three kids with the dad recently out of the picture… most people would have been content to just let things go. A television isn’t really worth a tarnished reputation. In fact, if the story had been circulated, it would have been used more as an example of how hard life was for this poor mother. Dig back a little farther, and the social attitude would have been even different. It would have been met with delight at the comedic, don’t mess with the mama aspects of the story by an American citizenry that had still not become totally intimidated by minor infractions of the law, and were sympathetic with those who were a little outside the law as the letter of the then much simpler consequences of infractions simply weren’t affordable. They still aren’t affordable and the infractions have been compounded, but the sympathy is gone.

  7. Karlsie: I couldn’t agree more with the lack of empathy or inabiloity to identify these days. Also, some here have focused oin the “infractions” by my motyher, while conveneiently ignoring an earlier form of “predaotry leanding” that has evolved into a financiual disaster the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Great Depression. Also, my mother was TWO fuckin payments away from owning that damned TV. But the issue of the story isn’t the “crime.”

    Also, I doubt very much that 1) a WHITE repo man would get away with shooting a single mother in front of her kids (not in a Puerto Rican neighborhood, and 2) Yeah, right, the police would come to a mother’s house, arrest her, and put her children in a foster home over a TV?

    SMH

  8. I think some of the commenters here miss the cultural aspect of a Puerto Rican mother and the power she holds both in the community and in the family. I daresay even today there are folks who would tremble in their boots at the thought of coming up against a mother such as yours. These women demand and deserve respect.
    And it isn’t just the Puerto Rican mother. There are women in our midst that just demand respect. It is something learned and passed down woman to woman. This wolf mother aspect that protects. Yes a television seems like a small thing. But to a poor familiy it can be the only connection to relaxation and education. It can be that one thing that makes everything else bearable.

  9. [quote=Eddie]I couldn’t agree more with the lack of empathy or inabiloity to identify these days. Also, some here have focused oin the “infractions” by my motyher, while conveneiently ignoring an earlier form of “predaotry leanding” that has evolved into a financiual disaster the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Great Depression.[/quote]

    All I said is that she should have been smart enough to spot the con and avoid it – spending her limited resources on only the essentials for survival in a hostile world.

    [quote=Eddie]Also, my mother was TWO fuckin payments away from owning that damned TV. But the issue of the story isn’t the “crime.”[/quote]

    Be that as it may, getting involved in the con at all was a poor act of judgement on her part – I’m not ignoring the predatory aspects of layaway (cons like this will always be with us in some form or another), but at the same time I acknowledge that once one takes the bait (as your mother did) it’s very difficult to escape the consequenses that follow from that lapse in judgement.

    [quote=Eddie]Also, I doubt very much that 1) a WHITE repo man would get away with shooting a single mother in front of her kids (not in a Puerto Rican neighborhood,[/quote]

    Typically no, but throw a knife into the equation and one can always pull the “mentally unstable” card (regardless of whether or not that’s actually true) to justify the shooting.

    [quote=Eddie]and 2) Yeah, right, the police would come to a mother’s house, arrest her, and put her children in a foster home over a TV?[/quote]

    I said nothing about the pigs with badges – as far as I’m concerned they are all but completely irrelevant to the situation in question.

  10. Christopher: I’m not going to get into a defense of the story. I DO think you miss the point. And if you’re saying in any way that the shooting of a mother in front of her infant children could ever be justified, then I daresay you’ll never get the message of the story.

    Because part of my outlook is using education as a form of activism, some of the questions I think you’re missing are:

    HOW did those men get into the apartment? Did they force themselves in? did a child let them in?
    2. How much did it take for a woman, a woman alone who often experienced racism as a daily fact of life — how much did it take for her to risk her life? How much did it take for her to out it on the line like that?

    I’m not really looking for you to answer these questions — some questions are best savored. I will say this: my mother was and is a power of example and this story, though you don’t see it, illustrates her courage.

    Thanks for taking the time to read the story though I feel there’s a cultural/ gender gap here.

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