Newall: Easy money in Fairhill — at a working man's expense

The scene of the Fairhill laundromat where bystanders quickly snatched $2,000 that had fallen to the ground while the owner pursued and shot the fleeing robber.

The television cameras had gone. Outside, rain fell in sheets on North Fifth Street. Inside the laundromat, CNN played, but all anybody could talk about was the local news. The shooting and the money.

You may have seen the video. It made the news, as these things do. It happened fast.   

In the surveillance footage, a robber tears out of the Launder Center, showering bills in his wake. The owner follows, emptying a revolver. The robber lay shot. A bystander cradles a hand bloodied from bullets. Police arrive in seconds. The laundromat owner is cuffed. In an instant, the crowd on North Fifth Street comes to a shared realization: There is a sea of cash on the sidewalk. Most jump for it. The laundromat owner’s money.

The money was gone before the police even hauled the wounded man away. In all, $2,000. Enough for the laundromat owner to go for his legally owned gun – and use it.

There are things to think about.

One is that North Fifth Street in Fairhill is a place in this city where when someone else’s money falls to the pavement, other people will run for it, even in a hail of bullets.

And it’s a place we turn to only when the news is chilling or curious or sad enough to grab our attention. Then we turn away again, as we do with so many places in this city that make us feel uncomfortable.

The people who live there are left to work it out – to consider the actions of the laundromat owner and of the people who grabbed his money.    

At the laundromat Tuesday, its owner was back at work behind the Lotto counter, the same place he was when the alleged robber, Marcus Quinones, who is 40, had walked behind the counter Sunday and pressed a knife to his back.

The laundromat owner asked that he and his wife’s names not be printed. Cops say he will not be charged. A family friend translated for the laundromat owner, who speaks Chinese: He said he didn’t know whether the robber had a knife or gun. That he was scared for his wife, who was sleeping in a room behind the counter. That he had been robbed before. That when the robber turned toward him, he didn’t know if the man was armed. That was what the cops say, too:  self-defense. (Recovering, Quinones has been charged with robbery, aggravated assault and other crimes.) 

“Would he do it again?” the laundry owner was asked.

He said he didn’t know.

His wife said they had moved from China to take over the business eight years ago. They live in South Philadelphia, but hope for the 'burbs. They work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. They have two children under 6, and want more for them than the laundromat. The kids are usually with them in the store, but weren’t on Sunday.

They said they weren’t too worried about the money that was stolen from them in the street. The wife said she did not recognize any of the faces that stole it. In the scramble, Jenny Yang, who is 32 and owns the East China restaurant, did manage to recover a few handfuls of cash for her neighbor.

Tuesday, other customers hugged the laundromat owner’s wife. They called her Mami.

Outside, a guy named Markis described the thieves as “regular people.”

“Drug addicts and homeless people,” he said.   

North Fifth Street sits in the Badlands. There have been recent bursts of renewal, such as the new, gleaming Taller Puertorriqueño cultural and community center a couple of blocks up. And the community development organization, Hace, has been working with the city to clean up the corridor, invest in jobs and small businesses, and demolish ruins. There’s a neighborhood plan. It’s called Goodlands. There are miles to go.

That was clear all along North Fifth, when you ask about what happened Sunday. Usually, there is no such thing as easy money on North Fifth Street, people said. And that was easy money.

“That’s not stealing money, that’s finding it,” said Jorge Malave, a retired gravedigger standing on the corner. He wouldn’t have done it, he said, but, hey, he can’t blame them.

Iriz Cartegena, the saleswoman at Jerry’s Ladies Fashions across the street, said she certainly would never have done it. But she wouldn’t judge either. Not in Fairhill. Some people are hungry, they’re poor, they’re desperate, she said. Others, well …

 “I think they saw their shot and took it,” she said. “That’s the way this neighborhood is.”