I came home late one night last week and saw a small group of men on Fifth Avenue huddling around a silver van.
At first I thought they were all friends, but then I noticed the air was charged in a way that was anything but cordial.
Everyone was speaking Arabic, a sign of the neighborhood’s shifting demographics, and the tones were getting increasingly unfriendly.
I know--I should have kept walking. You never know what can happen in these situations. Someone might not appreciate being eyeballed and decide to punch your teeth out. If things get really hostile and people start shooting, a bullet isn’t going to say “please” before it tears through your skull.
But I wanted to know what was going on. I’m a journalist and I’ve been hanging on the edge of mayhem for years, waiting for the cops or fire fighters to give me the official story. I’m also nosy and this scene was like reality TV without the commercials.
I moved through the crowd that had gathered to watch this incident, but I wouldn’t allow myself to be a part of it. A crowd is always somebody else. These people around me were gawkers; I was an observer.
I heard some shouting and saw an older man in a white polo shirt aggressively push his way out from behind the wheel of the van and yell at the men around him.
Half the people in the group were talking into cell phones and at least one of them must have called 911 because a police car soon came rolling down the avenue.
It must be tough wading into the middle of these fiascos. Throw in the language and cultural hurdles and I was very glad to be on the sidelines.
The cops separated the crowd into two groups and pulled the old guy over to my side of the street to get his story.
"He cursed me," the old man declared in heavily accented English, "he cursed my father, he cursed my mother, he cursed my whole family!"
The old man got so excited that some of his companions began patting his shoulders to calm him down.
He wanted somebody arrested, but one of the cops explained that the other man would probably want to press charges, too, and everybody would wind up in the police station.
"I don't think anybody wants that," the cop said.
I looked at the faces in the crowd, watching them as they viewed the confrontation. I almost envied these people’s ability to just stand there and stare at the goings-on, like they were in zoning out in front of their widescreens at home instead of looking at real human beings.
One man looked at me with a kind of casual comraderie that often sprouts up at these situations. He smirked and rolled his eyes, as if saying what idiots these people were. But it’s easy to be superior when the bad news isn’t happening to you. When you're in the middle of it all, it's a different story. Then you're the injured party.
Nothing to See Here
I asked a heavyset woman in a warm-up suit what had happened and she told me the two men were fighting over a parking spot--a New York classic. She said that another guy had started all the trouble.
"He was calling this man an old fart," she said and then paused for a moment before speaking again.
"That's why I don't have friends in this neighborhood," she said.
I broke free of the crowd a few minutes later after things seemed to be calming down.
I know what it's like to be the main attraction. When my mother’s health was failing, ambulances often came to our house and they attracted a lot attention. I remember calling for help one particular morning when she was having great difficulty breathing.
As I watched the EMTs carry her out to the ambulance on a stretcher, some loser, some bum, who was crossing the street poked his head into the back of the vehicle to stare at my mother like she was an animal in the zoo.
He was not in the least bit subtle about it and I'm wishing now that I had hit him a brick.
The next night I was running down the steps of the City Hall subway station in a losing bid to catch an uptown R train when I heard somebody yelling.
I was on the platform and I turned to see a guy in a hoodie with his hands cuffed behind his back standing near the token booth. Three cops hovered around him and he was getting more and more agitated.
“I didn’t do nothing!” he shouted.
“Take it easy,” one cop said, “take it easy.”
I watched this drama through the metal bars that divided the station. I had missed my train so there wasn't much else to do. I was low key, though. I didn’t just stare blindly at the guy like the elderly woman next to me, who kept sliding almonds into her mouth.
“I didn’t do nothing,” the guy said yet again and actually started to walk away.
One of the cops didn’t appreciate this and grabbed the guy's hood, yanking him back like a fish on a hook.
Dude, I thought you’re handcuffed. Even if you got away, then what? I pictured the guy opening his apartment door, making his dinner, and wielding the remote all with his hands cuffed behind his back.
I saw a young woman speaking to one of the cops. The train noise drowned out her words, but I believe she was the victim of whatever this guy had done and she was now telling her story.
I watched for a little while longer and then my train pulled into the station and the show--at least for me--was over.