Saturday, December 09, 2006
Scene From New York
SCENE: Wednesday night, December 6, 2006. Somewhere on the Upper Upper East Side. Approximately 8:54 p.m.
I am sitting in the soft, pliant, leather-covered passenger seat of colleague E.B.'s very sweet, very comfortable, very smooth-riding, nearly-brand-spankin' new Lexus, at a Mobil gas station somewhere north of 100th Street, on the East Side. We are returning from a Shiva at the Westchester County home of a shareholder of our law firm, whose father recently passed away. E.B., who also lives in Brooklyn, was gracious enough to give me a door-to-door ride home, along with another colleague who lives on the Upper West Side, near Columbia University.
After dropping our co-worker off, we proceed east, across Central Park. E.B. realizes we are low on gas, so she directs the small, omniscient, Atari-esque GPS system implanted in the Lexus dashboard to find us the nearest gas station. It works like a charm. A few clicks and a short drive later, we find a Mobil station, and here I sit.
E.B. gets out of the car to fill up the tank. Three seconds later, I hear an inquiring voice from my right.
"Excuse me, but do you think you and your husband could spare a dollar so I can get some gas?"
I look up, outside the passenger window, and see a young African-American man with a stylish goattee, no older than 26, wearing the proverbial baggy jeans and dark winter coat. He looks like a younger version of the actor Don Cheadle. He walks a few steps towards the car, as I ponder the falsity of his question. I would be willing to bet the Lexus -- it isn't mine after all -- that the guy doesn't have a car at all. Even if he did, what is a dollar going to do for him when gas costs $2.69 a gallon? As he takes a few steps forward, I feel a shot of adrenaline come out of nowhere and course through my veins. It awakens me.
My second, ludicrous thought is, "I'm not her husband. Why do strangers always assume that I'm someone's husband when I'm with a woman? I'm single, damn it." The irony of this recurring assumption is palpable.
Then I hear the muffled sound of E.B. conveying some form of "No," to the gentleman from the other side of the car. I look and listen to find out whether our friend in need will take this for an answer. He does. As I hear him respond to E.B.'s rejection with polite acceptance, I wonder exactly what form of racist obscenity is running through his head as he departs. I also question why a young, decent looking, seemingly healthy man like himself isn't sufficiently employed to be able to provide himself with his own dollar. Then I think, "Wow, you are getting old if you're starting to think like that. College T. would have debated you on this question for an hour." Fuck College T. -- what the hell did he know, anyway?
Time-travel debates with two versions of myself are a favorite pastime.
E.B. gets back into the car and after a little jovial banter about the fact that we are in fact, not married, we proceed towards the FDR. Somewhere around 96th Street and Second or Third Avenue, we stop at a red light, the first of a short line of cars. As we are chit-chatting about living in Brooklyn v. living elsewhere, a white van flies by us on the right, as if shot out of a cannon, straight through the red light.
"That guy just ran a red light," I say, a little surprised.
"He sure did," responds E.B. matter of factly, clearly nonplussed by this egregious violation of New York City traffic laws. (E.B. grew up in Brooklyn. Enough said.)
We then hear three short, staccato beeps from one of cars behind us. "What's wrong with these people, the light is red," I say.
All of a sudden, a dark blue car appears out of nowhere, 45 degrees to our left. It is moving so fast that I think it's going to slam right into us. It stops on a dime though, about six feet from the left front bumper of the Lexus.
A white man about 5'8" with finger-length, salt-and-pepper hair and a cropped black and white beard jumps out of the blue car. He looks seriously pissed, his face a contorted scowl, mouth open. He's yelling something. I get a quick look at him just before he runs towards the car directly behind us. Looking through E.B.'s driver window, I notice in the blur of his movement that he is wearing a black t-shirt and dark jeans. Around his neck I see a silver-colored chain necklace swinging wildly from side to side as he runs. At the bottom of the chain, a silver, oval shaped thing, about the size of a large belt buckle, glimmers, reflecting the light from the streetlamps above.
From my vast movie and television-watching experience, I deduce that this angry middle-aged man just may be an undercover cop.
But things are moving very fast and these thoughts don't completely register before he runs to the back of our car, screaming at the driver of the car behind us, whom I cannot see. In fact, at first, I think this may be a road rage incident and that we are going to witness a fistfight or maybe an assault on a motor vehicle.
Instinctively, I turn around to look through the back window of the Lexus to see what is happening (or going to happen). That's when I see the gun. Salt-and-pepper man is standing about three feet away from the driver's window. He is yelling furiously, something I cannot hear. His right arm is extended and cocked downwards towards the window. Unbelievably, extending from his right hand, like a macabre, evil sixth finger, is a small, black pistol. For a second, I'm struck by the fact that it doesn't look like one of those ubiquitous, modern Glocks that most cops carry. Instead, it looks a lot like one of the toy pistols A. and I used to play Starsky and Hutch with as kids. It has a medium sized barrel, a small chamber, and a dark, black handle, around which are wrapped salt-and-pepper man's fingers. He shakes the gun towards the driver's window, threateningly.
"Holy shit, he's got a fucking gun," I exclaim to E.B. excitedly, as I turn back around. Reflexively, I slide down as low as possible in my comfy, plush, beige leather seat (the Lexus seats really were nice). As I crouch down, a morbid newspaper headline flashes through my mind: "Bystander Lawyers Returning From Shiva Gunned Down Accidentally In Undercover Sting Operation."
I still wasn't sure if salt-and-pepper man was a cop, and I had no idea how the unseen passenger in the driver's seat was going to react to having a gun pointed directly at his head. Or precisely why salt-and-pepper man had deemed it necessary to pull a gun out in the first place. The entire thing felt like something out of the movie Collateral, as if it could spin out of control any second, with unfortunate consequences. Anyone who has seen that movie -- particularly the scene with dance club shootout -- knows that innocent bystanders took their share of bullets. T. took no chances.
"Relax," E.B. said, as she turned to her right, looking out the back window to see for herself. I'm still not sure if she saw what I did, or whether the potential danger fully registered with her at the time, but as soon as the light turned green, she hit the gas hard, getting us the hell out of there. As cool as the other side of the pillow was E.B. Did I tell you she grew up in Brooklyn?
On the FDR on the way home to Brooklyn (where the shit we just experienced is a more regular occurrence), E.B. and I reconstructed the events with disbelief and speculated as to what the whole thing may have been about. Drug bust? Homicide? We surmised that the white van that ran the red light may have been involved and that the beeping we had heard was likely from the car behind us, since we were blocking its only potential means of escape.
"Damn, I have a new respect for what those cops do for a living, I'll tell you that," I said. "That is dangerous fucking work."
Just another night in the Big City.