By James Maher
Name: Jose Ilarraza
Occupation: Military, Construction.
Location: 3rd Street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A
Time: 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 2
I’m from Puerto Rico. I was raised here since I was 11. It was your typical 1970s. I’ve lived on East 2nd Street since I was 11. Back then you had Chinese, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans. But back then, if you wasn’t doing something right, you were going to do something wrong.
I remember graduating from PS 22, going to Seward Park High School and then I told my friends, "Listen I’m leaving." We had a little group. We had colors back then. Back then the gangs wore colors. We had a little group that we put together called PHA. What it means was Potheads of America. That’s it. "What are you doing flashing colors," they’d say. "Listen, read the back, Potheads of America." "Oh, you guys are alright." It was about 50 of us and we never snatched chains, mugged anybody, never. That was not our thing. Our group looked out for each other. If the group could help you, if you had a problem or something, they’d take care of you.
Did you ever go to cadets when you were young? It was fun. I turned my time into Boy Scouts. I was an Eagle Scout. I was a Scoutmaster. It was something that I followed since I was a little kid. I loved adventure and just the outdoors. I have a story for you. When I was 5, I was watching Hawaii Five-O. I told my mom, "Ma, let’s go to Hawaii." She says, "Let’s go." So I went into the bedroom, took my book bag and put some clothing inside, t-shirt, toothbrush and sandals. I come out running, and I said, "Let’s go!" She goes, "The cab just left."
And I pulled a fit. I started crying and all of a sudden I stopped, and said, "What is wrong with you? That’s not normal." I told her, "When I grow up, I’m going to go to Hawaii. I’m going to go in the Army. I’m going to go to Hawaii and I’m going to marry a Hawaiian girl, and I’m going to have a baby boy." And that’s what I did.
Myself, I can’t complain. I accomplished everything. I was a squad leader. I was E5. I served seven years with the Infantry. I was with the 25th Division. In Hawaii, you have time for everything. It’s a long day, but it’s an enjoyable day. I enjoyed Hawaii immensely. Everything slows down. I got married in Hawaii. I got married to a Wahini. In Hawaii they call girls Wahini. My dream was to marry one of them. And I got married, had a son. It hurt to leave them in Hawaii, but I knew I was doing the best thing, because if I had brought them here I would have lost them to the street. I got divorced, you know, and things were hard, so I decided to come back home.
[When I left for the Army] it started getting worse here. Then I came home in 1985 from the military. I had a year to go, but I saw that my mom needed me more. When I came home, I was shocked how fast and how quickly you had to learn your street smarts. There was a [police operation] called Pressure Point. I [returned] April 19 at seven in the evening from Honolulu to New York. I had a small amount of weed that I brought with me from Hawaii. Back then it wasn’t so strict. At 7:30, I got arrested. I was smoking weed with a friend of mine and the smell was so amazing that the two cops had to go and come right back. I said, "Listen, I don’t have anything. This is all I have. I just landed from Hawaii, from the service."
This place looked like someone threw a bomb. A lot of times someone would set a fire and the building would collapse. A lot of drugs. It felt like, "Wow, man, what happened here?" I would walk around my neighborhood and I would go, "What the fuck happened?" When I got back, I started looking for my friends and a lot of them were dead. A lot of them OD’d or they moved somewhere else. I found a few. There were only a few. And we’re still friends, you know?
After I got out, I was working construction. I was working in a building on Avenue C and 2nd Street. We gutted that whole building and with that I would send my son money. But three months after, I lost [track of] my family. I lost my son. I ended up being the super for like five years. Then I worked in the Garment District. I was the assistant manager of this clothing company, and then after that I went to work for the VA. I worked in the building maintenance. I was also my friend’s personal nurse.
For 24 years, I was looking for my son, and I didn’t give up. And I found him. He was in Las Vegas. I went to see him and found out the reason why I couldn’t find him was because they had moved from Honolulu to Maui. But I did find him.
When I met him, he tells me, "Pops, I was looking for you three weeks ago and it came out that you were deceased." This kid is my mother’s only grandson. I made it my business to find him for my mom. We just spoke about two days ago. He’s dating a Japanese girl, with two little girls. She’s in the Navy; she’s a Master Sargent. My son is a Sargent in the Army. He’s a geospacial engineer. I’m very proud of him. He’s in Fort Hood, Texas, right now. This is his second tour. Twenty-four years I was looking for him. I’ll be honest with you, I thank God for my son. He gives me a reason for living.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.