This story was written by Lo-Down contributor Laurie Gwen Shapiro:
That $50 million diamond heist in Belgium on February 19th rightfully grabbed worldwide headlines, but last October, just before Hurricane Sandy, there was an almost-as-brazen theft right here on the Lower East Side in the Fine Fare at 545 Grand Street. Over 150 motley but deeply-loved plastic toys, that for more than a dozen years tenanted the shelf directly over the meat slicers, vanished overnight.
The toys, that many regular customers knew as the Homies, had a formal name in their owner’s head: Homeboys for All Worlds. “How could I have gone public about the Homies earlier when there was hurricane destruction hitting the community?” says Carlos Leal, store manager for both locations of Fine Fare on the Lower East Side. “You’ve got to keep things in perspective, no matter how unhappy you are.” But yes he is still upset about the crime, and ready to spare fifteen minutes of his lunch break to recount the details.
“Approximately 12 years ago,” Leal begins, leaning against the front of the glass deli counters, “I was handed a small plastic Mexican-looking man from the quarter machines near at the exit by one of the cashiers, and I quickly found a spot of honor for the gift in the deli section.” The next day one of the customers brought in a small dog to join the little man, and then Leal brought in a karate figurine from a collector’s store. The collection grew organically, sometimes by twos and threes.
“Everyone loved Spidey, especially the boys waiting by the counter with their mothers. There was Spawn. And the DJ. A couple of clowns. The Spanish dancer with the castanets. The sports section had the skateboarder, the basketball guy. I’m not forgetting the dogs, eight of them, and I loved each of them equally. There were three pit bulls, a rottweiler, a Doberman. If we both had the time I could tell you every one of the toys missing.”
“That morning in October I turned the lights on in the store and—and what can I say? I’m not a yeller. But my heart sank. The Homies? Where were the Homies? It had to have happened overnight, after 7 p.m. when I closed the registers; I would have seen them gone. I open the store at 7 a.m. Crushing.”
Leal had a shimmer of hope when one of the staff members remembered there was a surveillance camera in the deli section. Shortly thereafter, Leal spent hours in the managerial room watching footage from the night of the crime. But the deli camera is used mainly to make sure the section is always manned, and it is trained on the scale – with a partial view of the hot-dog cooker, with no view of the shelf over the slicers. Whoever took the toys cleverly managed to stay out of camera shot.
“No one really expects a theft behind the deli counter,” Leal sighs. “One of my men left $47 near the rotisserie during lunch. Nobody swiped it. Another one of our workers accidentally left his $5000 Rolex in plain view by the refrigerator cases, and it was there in the morning.”
Out of desperation, Leal called a childhood buddy–someone he’d rather not name–who is now an officer at the 7th Precinct station on Pitt Street. After laughing hard at perhaps the dottiest Lower East Side theft of all time, his off-duty pal advised against filing a report if only to ward off humiliation. “Whaddya want me to buy you some new toys?” he asked. Leal breaks into an endearing smile at this detail, then adds with rising indignation, “I’ll be 50 in March and I was calling my cop buddy about my toys gone. It is funny, but it’s upsetting. Each one of those toys had a big story behind it. Kids would give me their toys to have them on shelf, I brought so many in from home. I would always buy one for my son who’s 19 now, and a second one for my customers.” He concedes that by not reporting the toy larceny there is now a cold trail, and that getting the Homies back at this point is as likely as a supermodel dating a supermarket packer.
Was Leal a marked man? Was this cruel revenge for some forgotten slight? “I’m not sure. But there was a wooden car from Cuba, where I was born, my mother gave it to me, it was on the same shelf with the other toys, and there’s a driver I put in the car that looks like me,” he muses. “The car is the only toy that remained.” Leal brings it over to me. “I would have gone ballistic on anyone if they took that car. Did I say it’s from my mother? Whoever the robber was he didn’t miss it, because there was one of the dogs inside the car. The man who looks like me was still there, but the dog’s gone. That’s damn suspicious.” He opens a secret bottom mechanism of the car and hands me the man, who I have to admit does look just like Carlos Leal in miniature.
Even four months later, he has a hard time talking about the thievery without getting emotional. “Maybe someone cleared it up, thought it was a mess, and is afraid to admit it when they saw how upset I was?” he wonders.
One of Fine Fare’s employees under Leal’s charge, Manny Colon, 27, puts down the underside of a roast beef to pipe in, “I think I may have a photo for this article.” (Most of us born-and-bred on the Lower East Side are chronic eavesdroppers, but it is admittedly hard to miss anything discussed in this half-yelled public interview.) “I’ve got a drawer at home full of photos, and I think there may be one of the Homies. I grew up with them, I remember standing with my mother and admiring them.”
Leal brightens. “That’s would be awesome, Tolete. The Homies could live on.” He lowers his voice as Manny gets a customer: “The most famous bullfighter in Spain was called Manolete. So my cousin drops by the store one day and hears me say Manny and plays off that, and over time it evolves into this other nickname, Tolete, which roughly means ‘hell of a boy.’ I know he loves being called that.”
Leal tells me he has been employed by Fine Fare since 1994, hearing about the opening from a friend who oversaw a Coca Cola route. I see Leal kibitzing with people in local streets so often that I assume he also grew up and still lives nearby. No, after Cuba he spent his childhood in Union City, NJ, and most recently lived in the Bronx. Now he travels here each day from his property in Albrightsville, Pennsylvania, 140 minutes each way via the Martz Bus service and a short subway ride from and to the Port Authority. “I bought a house there five years ago because I want to get away from people some of the time. The size of my property is bigger than this supermarket. I was going to give that kind of space to my kid in the city? I held onto my job, it’s hard to get a decent-paying job you love in Pennsylvania. Who do I know in the mountains? The deer? Get a job selling corn to the deer?”
While we are talking, one of Leal’s favorite locals, Rosemarie Ruby, stops by for ½ pound of hard salami. Leal’s mood perks up more, taking him further from his gloomy reminiscences of the Homies theft. (She’s my “past-55” friend too, it’s hard to live in the Lower East Side Grand Street co-ops and not have met and fallen in love with Ruby.) “Doesn’t he smell wonderful?” Ruby asks me, after sniffing him.
“You smell nice too, Rose,” Leal says. “You are wearing Tova by Tova.”
“I never heard of it,” I confess.
“That was Ernest Borgnine’s fifth wife,” Leal says, “Tova Borgnine. You’ve never heard of Tova Borgnine?”
“Most people get Tova from the QVC,” Ruby reads her words on my notepad. “Carlos, you getting written about? For who? When? Kiddo, make sure you put in that if you complain about something Monday, it is here by Tuesday night. Carlos knows what he’s doing. He’s the only manager I even bother with. Carlos! I’ll bring you a new toy if you want me to.” Leal waves goodbye as Rosemarie Ruby heads down the fruit-and-vegetable aisle with her cart and signature scent.
So is he open to having our distinctive community help him rebuild the band of Homies?
He pauses in thought. “Yes,” he decides after a good 30 seconds. “Okay, why not? If the customers want to donate a toy, I’ll put it on the shelf.” He even looks happy about his decision.
By the way, does Leal have a Lower East Side opinion on what actually happened in the Brussels diamond heist? He hesitates again, considering the question seriously. “It’s too perfect, the way I look at it,” he says. “It’s got to be an inside job.”
Laurie Gwen Shapiro is a documentary director and writer. Follow her on Twitter @LaurieStories.