By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Even in East New York, where the pop and bang of gunfire is common background noise, the shot was impossible to ignore. Emilio Batista, an unemployed warehouse worker, heard it as he lay in bed just before midnight. It was one loud shot, and it sounded like it came from something powerful. He got up to check it out. His mother was already standing at the living-room window, watching someone race down the street. From their third-floor apartment at the front of Cypress Hills Houses, Batista and his mother had a direct view of a person crumpled up on the sidewalk below, at the intersection of Sutter and Euclid avenues, next to the storefront of a Chinese takeout place that everyone calls May May's.
He watched the commotion and the police cars' lights flashing below for a bit longer before he returned to bed.
By the time he went downstairs and crossed Sutter Avenue late the next morning to buy a vanilla-flavored cigar from the Valero gas station/car wash/fried-chicken joint across from where the shooting took place, the drama was long over.
In its wake, there was the dead victim: Her name was Ihsia Golphin. She was 21, the same age as Batista. She had dimples, and a grandma who called her "Muffin." Someone had shot her in the chest while she was walking to a friend's house.
She was part of a grim statistic: one of four women shot within a 24-hour period in late February in East New York.
As Batista neared the gas station, he recalls, he noticed May May, the owner of the Chinese takeout restaurant, kneeling on the sidewalk with a plastic bucket, scrubbing hard at the pavement with a brush and water. May May was cleaning up the dried pool of blood that marked the spot where Golphin fell. Nasty. Maybe, somehow, May May didn't know that he could hire a crew to mop up the crime scene. Batista decided to point this out.
"May May, you don't got to clean that," he hollered from across the street.
But "May May got attitude," as people in the neighborhood say. For more than 25 years, May May has sold chicken wings, fried rice, and a locally popular iced tea behind bulletproof glass on that corner. He's known as a scrappy man with a limited command of English, disconcertingly crossed eyes, and a razor-sharp tongue. Batista wasn't surprised by his response.
"Shut up!" May May yelled back at him.
Batista couldn't quite make out what he said next, so the unemployed warehouse worker returned to his mission for the dollar cigar and May May continued with his cleaning and venting. "Fuck you!" he was heard screaming at passersby.
And, as the story of Golphin's death made the rounds in the neighborhood, as a result of the gallows humor of those numbed by violence, some people found May May's cursing as he went about his gory task hilarious. That was just May May being May May.
May May opened his restaurant in 1983, at the beginning of what became known as the "crack epidemic." By 1989, a typical newspaper headline was "East New York, Haunted by Crime, Fights for Its Life." Like other parts of the city—perhaps worse than anywhere else—East New York was scary, full of dangerous people lurking in front of abandoned buildings.
Some people called East New York the "Dead Zone"—it reportedly had the highest murder rate in the city in 1988, 1993, and 1994.
Some of the bodies, other than Golphin's, fell at the sidewalk in front of May May's joint—how many is uncertain. But as neighborhood resident Chanel Armstrong says, as she emerges from May May's with a cup of iced tea, "A lot of people have been killed on this block."
In 1990, for instance, 16-year-old Kimson Russell left his family's apartment at Cypress to buy bread from a bodega across from May May's. He was shot to death on his way back home, the loaf of bread found crushed under his body. Faison recalls that shooting all those years ago: His bedroom windows looked out on the scene, and he says he can still remember standing on the sidewalk with other neighbors, watching police investigate the scene. At one point, the cops inserted a slender stick into the hole in Russell's head to determine which direction the bullet came from. Faison recalls that some onlookers thought the cops were sticking him with a pencil.
In 2007, a man was shot dead just before Christmas on the walkway in front of the projects. But not every senseless death on the block has been a homicide: Last October, a Con Edison worker was killed in a freak accident when the manhole he was working in next to the gas station exploded.
There was also an earlier murder that Faison still recalls, but, like those of so many others, the details have blurred in his mind. He doesn't remember the guy's name or the year—only that he was young and tall, and that after his body was taken away, he saw May May outside, cleaning up the blood.