Dinner With Bruce
One of the first things I heard about Bruce was his way with cheesecake.
Rumor has it that it was celebrated in all the prisons in upstate New York. The cook at the Harlem halfway house calls Bruce “The Institutional Junior,” after the originator of “The World’s Most Famous Cheesecake.” In prison, Bruce baked most weekends, particularly during football season. He used a pan and put a lifter on the little stove in his cell to keep the cheesecake from burning. “I used to do it for therapy,” he explains.
Bruce’s therapy consisted of six ounces of cream cheese, eight ounces of sour cream, one tablespoon of vanilla extract, one can of condensed milk, and two cups of sugar. For the crust, Bruce crushed plenty of graham crackers and mixed them with butter.
After moving from prison into the halfway house, he became nervous about his cheesecake. After all, he wasn’t accustomed to using a regular oven. He was relieved when the cheesecake turned out well and other residents asked for more.
I have come to the halfway house to explore the topic of “re-entry,” but now I am sitting here eating cheesecake. While I eat, Bruce stares at me intensely, as if trying to determine what grade I would give his cheesecake. On a scale from one to 10, I would give it a 10—no exaggeration.
Bruce and I are as different as can be: I am short, young, white, and female, a writer with an insatiable curiosity about how everyone else lives, thinks, and eats. Bruce has spent almost half of his life (24 years, to be exact) in prison. Born and raised in the Bronx, he is a 53-year-old murderer with a broad six-foot-six-inch frame and a rather conservative palate. His hands are the size of dinner plates, and his clunky, square prison glasses make him look like a time traveler from 1985. As if trying to make himself look shorter—and perhaps less intimidating—he sits with a slight hunch. His head is shaved smooth and covered by a comically small baseball cap.
I found it baffling when I heard that a stranger’s comment about his friend’s ass led Bruce to murder another human being. It seemed to me that there must have been more to it. Today, Bruce seems empathetic and reasonable. But ages ago, he must have been a different human being.
What 24 years can do to a man! What can 24 years do to a man?
On April 22, 1983, Bruce and a female friend pulled up in front of Monte Carlo liquor store in the Bronx. Bruce parked the car and followed his friend inside to buy wine. There he encountered pandemonium. Tyrone, a man Bruce had never met before, had cornered his friend and was making sexual advances toward her. The girl screamed, but the man persisted. The scene sparked a fight between Bruce and Tyrone. The fight spilled out onto the street, and Bruce shot Tyrone.
The moment he squeezed the trigger, time froze. Though no newspaper even took note of his crime, Bruce’s life changed forever. His case faded into the anonymity of daily statistics: In 1984, almost 1,800 New Yorkers were murdered. Men killed men. Whites killed whites. Blacks killed blacks. Men killed with guns. Men killed under the influence of alcohol, heroin and cocaine. Drunk and high black men in the Bronx killed one another.
That day in April, Bruce could have left town, but instead he decided to get something to eat. He was arrested at a neighborhood restaurant called Munchtown.
In prison, Bruce cooked almost every day. To prepare a typical prison dinner, he combined rice, calamari, octopus, and beans in a trash bag and dropped the bag in a heavy-duty bucket filled with water. Then he put a “stinger”—a spiral, water-heating device—into the bucket and went out into the yard for an hour.
When he came back, the stew was done—and it was much better than mess hall food.
On the outside, it took Bruce a while to realize that he wouldn’t have to eat bucket stew anymore. At first he stocked up on tuna, peanut butter, and jelly—the staples of his prison cell “pantry.” He bought 20 cans of tuna, but barely touched them.
While he’s been trying to shed his jail eating habits, he doesn’t know quite how to eat. The same is true of making friends, which is proving more difficult than he imagined. He still feels guilt and shame.
Bruce’s old friends are mostly dead or locked up—or they belong to a drug-ridden past he wishes to avoid. He wants to find people who haven’t been in jail, but that is easier said than done. The people at the halfway house, “the criminal element,” are okay, he says. They are friends of sorts. As he sees it, it’s just a living arrangement. Outside the halfway house, he needs to establish new social connections. But what can he talk about? It always leads back to the same old facts. Bruce spent more than two decades in prison because he killed another man. He knows that if he wants to establish real connections, he has to tell people who he was and what he did, along with who he is and what he does now.
At the halfway house, people keep telling him, “You’ve got to let it out.” Sometimes Bruce brings it up, but then stops himself. At other times, his listener, seemingly afraid of contamination, stops him.
“What is this?’ Bruce asks me, pointing at one of the dishes on the Mexican menu. To the waitress he says, “I just want a soda.” She doesn’t understand. Her English is limited. He loses his patience. “Just give me a Red Bull,” he snaps.
I order chalupas with steak. Suspicious of food he hasn’t tried before, he says to me, “Give me the one with steak,” and I order for him.
“So no one ever talks about the crime?” I ask. “Nah.”
“Nowhere? Not inside, not outside?”
“Do you feel like you want to talk about it?”
“I would say, yeah, but you just got to be selective, very selective when you talk about it.”
Bruce doesn’t even talk to his halfway house friends about it.
“If you got 20-to-life, then they know you had to have a homicide,” he says. “You don’t even have to talk about it. Once they find out how much time you got, people know. Dudes, they don’t talk about their crime.”
When he first came out, Bruce was very upfront. There really is no way to make up a story to fill a hole of 24 years. But most conversations were over once Bruce started.
“You don’t have to tell people,” his sister told him. “Go ahead, man. Live your life.”
But how can you live your life without talking about its most defining aspect?
At the Mexican restaurant, Bruce tells me about a social gathering at his sister’s house. There, he ran into someone who used to work as a counselor at Rikers Island.
“I know you from somewhere,” the man said to Bruce.
“He just got out,” his sister’s boyfriend said. “He did 25 years.”
The man shook Bruce’s hand. “You did 25 years, you know. You got my blessing. Good luck.” And that was the end of that.
“Most people, they don’t want to talk about it. Once they find out you killed someone, you know, they leave that alone,” Bruce tells me.
He picks half-heartedly at his chalupas. I order a second beer, and Bruce gets another Red Bull. According to his parole stipulations, he isn’t allowed to drink alcohol, and he sticks to the rules.
“Do you sense people’s fear when you talk to them?” I ask. (If he snapped once, what guarantee is there that he won’t snap again?)
“A level of caution goes up,” Bruce says, adding that he doesn’t blame people for that.
The truth is, sometimes Bruce is afraid of himself. He doesn’t know what he would do if he suddenly found himself in a threatening situation. In prison, if someone offended you, you set an example by teaching him a lesson. “Prison is a place where they prey on the weak, and if they think you’re weak, they try it,” he told me. “It’s gotta be known that Bruce will fight.”
Bruce knows that many prison rules don’t apply on the outside. He proudly shared an incident with me that illustrated his new rules. While he was waiting in line at the Housing Authority, some guy cut in front of him. The receptionist was angry, but Bruce said it wasn’t important. After all, 24 years ago, he said, he killed a stranger over a silly insult. “Sometimes you gotta think for other people.”
According to Bruce, the receptionist was impressed. “I wanna shake your hand,” he said. “Now that you told me your story, I realize that some things aren’t that important.”
Even though Bruce is committed to changing his way of thinking, he still has problems imagining himself a free man who has paid his debt, who is a law-abiding citizen in control of himself. He still can’t fully trust himself.
“Do you think it’s likely that you’ll be put in a situation where you feel threatened?” I ask him.
“Living in an area like this, yeah,” he says about Harlem. “You never know. You might bump into somebody and it might lead to something else.”
“But I don’t feel that way,” I say.
“I mean, if somebody approached you to rob you—”
“If somebody was to rob me,” I interrupt him, “I would give him everything I have. I wouldn’t fight back.”
“With my low life savings, I might have to fight for mine,” Bruce says, chuckling.
I spoon some salsa on my dish. Bruce doesn’t like spicy food, but he gets curious after watching me put yet another generous spoonful on my tortilla.
“What is this stuff?”
“It’s salsa with cilantro and avocado. You want to try it?”
“Nah, I’m good.”
It is ten minutes to nine in the evening, close to Bruce’s curfew. As we leave the restaurant, he begins to question my authority as a writer. He wonders whether a person like me— with nothing but “book knowledge,” as he puts it—can really understand where he comes from. “You are on the outside looking in, and I’m on the inside looking out,” he says.
I understand his concern. I will never be able to understand his culture in the same way he does. To pretend I can would be outrageous. I point to a group of young men standing in front of one of the corner bodegas.
“I’m sure there is a big difference between hanging out with these guys and observing them as part of a satellite image,” I say. I regret my analogy. To view the guys at the corner from the far distance of a communications satellite, from another universe really, seems so superficial compared to the insight Bruce—or I—have to offer.
As if to put my trustworthiness to the test one final time, Bruce asks, “Do you know what these guys are doing?” He points at one of the populated corners on Broadway. I hesitate. “Selling drugs,” Bruce says, matter-of-factly. “On every single corner.”
We have reached the subway where he is to drop me off before heading back to the halfway house. His brow furrows with concern. He bends down to give me a hug.
“You a’right?” he asks. I say I am.
“You sure?” he asks. I nod.
“Be good, a’right? Be safe.”
These days, Bruce works in the halfway house kitchen. For seven hours a day he cleans appliances, serves hot food, and prepares sandwiches for the residents.
One day, I pick him up and we head off to eat at the Dino- saur Bar-B-Que on Riverside Drive. It serves “some excellent honky-tonk food,” Bruce says. We choose the “Sweetheart Deal for Two.” The food arrives and we dig in.
We have known each other for almost two years now and had numerous conversations, but there has always been a hole. What leads a man to shoot a stranger for a relatively minor offense? I have a feeling that tonight, over pork ribs and mac ’n cheese, I will find the missing piece of the puzzle. Bruce wipes the grease off his hands and talks.
Thinking back to that fateful day, he describes how he and Tyrone began to fight on the sidewalk. Tyrone’s friend Joseph, watching the fight nearby, stuck his hand in his coat pocket as if he were about to pull a gun. Bruce pulled out a gun. It was then that he realized that neither Tyrone nor Joseph really had a gun. Tyrone ran away in fear.
Bruce chased Tyrone down. He intended to shoot him in the shoulder or arm, but shot him in the chest. Tyrone died instantly.
The fact that Tyrone and Joseph had bluffed and that Tyrone had run away like a coward was more infuriating to Bruce than that Tyrone had insulted his friend.
“Then I was living by a street code,” Bruce explains to me. “If you don’t have a gun, you don’t play like you have a gun. And if you got a gun, you don’t pull it if you are not gonna use it. You pull a gun, you use it.”
Tyrone didn’t play by the rules, but Bruce did. Since he had pulled a gun, he had to use it. His internal sense of propriety was not the only thing at stake; his whole neighborhood was watching.
Bruce used to follow rules that are unfamiliar to me. His rules were fueled by a street code of honor and backed by a sense of threat. “It’s gotta be known that Bruce will fight,” I remember him saying. If he had shown weakness in this situa- tion—in a gang driven, drug-infested neighborhood in the Bronx in 1984—he might have placed himself in danger. He might have been dishonored or killed.
It is dark when we leave the restaurant. As always, Bruce insists on walking me to the subway before heading back to the halfway house. His brow furrows with concern. He bends down to give me a hug.
“You a’right?” he asks. I say I am. “You sure?” he asks. I nod.
“Be good, a’right? Be safe.”
Bruce now works two jobs. On weekdays he continues to help in the halfway house kitchen, and on weekends he guards a con- struction site. As I approach him half an hour before midnight, I see small groups of men hanging out on the corner of 140th Street. Women sit on stoops rocking infants in strollers. Young children throw firecrackers in anticipation of the Fourth of July.
Although he says a bad day outside tops a good day in prison, Bruce complains that the construction company didn’t provide him with a trailer. When it is raining, he has to sit inside the ghostly, unfinished building.
I have brought some homemade cake.
“What that?” Bruce asks, unwrapping his piece.
“I’m not sure if it’s a fruit or a vegetable. It’s tart.”
He takes a bite. “It needs more sugar. It’s not sweet.” He chews. “Nah,” he shakes his head. He flings his piece of cake onto the street and laughs.
“How come your husband lets you go out this late to do an interview?”
“It’s part of my job.”
“It surprises me he doesn’t make you change your job. I mean, you have no fear being out this time a night with a uh… uh… an ex-felon?”
“I could name a couple of ex-felons from the halfway house that I wouldn’t visit at a construction site late at night.”
He cracks up. His whole body quivers. “I didn’t know there’s someone at the halfway house that make you feel like that. Shady characters, huh?”
“Do you think it’s weird that I would be sitting here with you?” I ask.
“I mean, knowing my crime, you know, I thought that would create a barrier where you would keep it in certain areas where we could be monitored.”
“But judging from your crime I would imagine that you wouldn’t harm a woman.”
“No, I wouldn’t.” He frowns. “I just find it strange that you would trust me like this. Most people, once they find out my crime, they put up a barrier.”
“Most people don’t differentiate between murder and murder?” I ask.
“Yeah, murder is murder. I had a lady telling me one time, she don’t care. ‘If you killed somebody, it shows a mindset.’ I don’t agree with that. You can get into certain situations, you get into an altercation. That don’t show that this person has the ability to kill. I believe there is different levels of everything.”
I agree. Bruce and I go through a couple of examples. Is it worse to kill your own children by driving drunk? Or is it worse to kill after getting into a fight with an adult who had a chance to back off, but continued provoking?
It’s time for Bruce’s security walk along the plywood wall from the trailer to the porta-potty and back. Bruce yawns as he gets up from his chair to stretch his long, boney legs. He still has another five hours ahead of him. Someone has scribbled “Remember Jesus” on the last plywood panel. “Remember Jesus,” Bruce slowly reads. He shakes his head and makes his way back to his plastic chair.