Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Shish Kebab Affair

This all started with a craving for shish kebab.

It was Wednesday night, I was coming home from work and I wanted to have something different for dinner.

A local grocery store makes a nice shish kebab and I usually buy two of them, cooking one and saving the one for another day.

It was a block out of my way, but my taste buds had made their decision and there would be no arguing.

So I walked into the store and this heavyset fellow in a baseball cap brushes by me on his way to the back of the store.

I picked up my shish kebab and make a loop around the store to see if there was anything else I needed or wanted. And that's when I observed the individual in the baseball cap.

He was stuffing a box of bacon under his shirt--a shoplifter.

I looked at him, he looked at me, and I looked away. He was much bigger and younger than I, so I wasn't about to grab him by the scruff of the neck, shake the bacon to the floor, and give him a stern lecture on civics. No, I was going to handle this intelligently.

I turned my back and walked away.

Coney Island Baby

It had been a long day. I had spent most of it at Coney Island, yes, the amusement area, for a video shoot. I was doing a story about personal tour guides and I found a woman online who takes people around to New York sites, including Coney Island.

The editors encourage us to think of video companion pieces to go with our stories, so I thought this would be a nice fit. I got the go-ahead and set up the meeting.

Linda, the guide, told me there was one potential problem: her mother was literally at death's door and could go at any minute. This news took me on an emotional tour I could have done without, as I remembered my mother's last days.

I told her not to worry, that we'd reschedule if necessary, but she assured me that she would be there.

"I need to stay occupied," she said.

I understand that perfectly. If you focus on the inevitable constantly you'll go insane. And also--I hate to be crass--this video will be good for her business.

Does she let this opportunity go so she can watch her mother give up her last breath? Or does she focus on the here and now? It's never an easy choice.

The cameraman and I met Linda outside of Nathan's at noon. I was wearing a suit and tie and I told Linda to pretend I was one of her clients.

"If you were a client," she said, "the first thing I'd tell you would be not to wear a suit."

She was so right. I was the only guy for miles around wearing a tie, while everyone else was in shorts and t-shirts. But I wanted to look professional.

I had spent the last few days worrying about this shoot, convinced "something would go wrong" so now that it was actually happening, I was willing to sweat for the cause.

I had another flashback here. My father had suffered a stroke last fall and had gone to Saints Joachim and Anne Residences in Coney Island for rehab. It was just a few blocks away and right on the ocean.

After visiting him, I'd walk down the boardwalk to the train station, passing that sign at Nathan's that counts down to the July Fourth hotdog eating contest.

But that was almost a year ago. Today I was here for business, so Linda took us around to various points of interest and gave us a brief history of each spot. People looked at us, but no one seemed terribly excited. This was Brooklyn, after all.

I thought I was prepared, but I did not bring suntan oil--who brings that crap to work? People who don't want to get a sunburn, I guess. So as the day wore on, my head got redder and redder.

After Linda left, Dee, the cameraman, went around to get more shots to go with the story. As I watched his equipment, this grizzled old man, who was little more than tattoos and bone, came hobbling down the boardwalk with his cane. He looked like a Coney Island lifer.

As he got close to me, he peered into a trash bin.

"I'm going to put someone's head in there tonight," he growled.

I made some kind of sound to indicate I had heard him and he muttered, "not yours," as he went by. He stopped for a moment and looked back and I thought, oh, boy, this could get interesting. But then he kept going.

Dee got some nice footage of the Wonder Wheel, the Parachute Jump, and the Cyclone, which I had thought riding as part of the story. I am so glad that didn't happen because even from the ground that first drop looks terrifying.

Some 20-odd years ago I tried my hand at the private eye genre with some short stories about a character I called Nick Morocco.

In his debut, "The Big Drop," which was never published, of course, Nick gets lost on the subway and winds up in Coney Island in the dead of night in the dead of winter.

He helps a crazy old man, who turns out to be powerful crime boss in another life, and then runs afoul of some local punks. I know if I read the story now I'd fall to the floor cringing, but you have to start someplace.

As Dee was getting some more footage around Nathan's, this middle-aged man parked his car at the corner, got out, and helped an elderly man out of the passenger side.

Then he opened the rear door and assisted an old lady and I figured these were his parents. He spoke with them briefly and then drove off to find a parking spot. His folks wanted hot dogs at Nathan's, but the line was incredibly long.

This man seemed a little impatient, but I recognized the stress you feel when taking care of your aging parents. You're frightened, you can't believe they're this old and helpless.

You can't believe you're not a child anymore, and in some cases, you're resentful because you're not getting the help you need. It can be very tough on the nerves.

I was thinking of striking up a conversation with these people before their son came back, but Dee showed up and said he had gotten all the footage he needed. Dee wanted a Nathan's hotdog, too, but scrapped those plans after seeing the line.

"You have to do it right," he said on the train ride home. "You have to take your time."

As we got on the N train at Stillwell Avenue--it was much more sinister in Nick Morocco's day--and an elderly lady with a Bible in her hand started talking to me, but I couldn't make out a word she said.

She eventually glommed on to a young man who made the mistake of sitting next to her. He looked at her spare Bible--she pakced two of them--for a short time before returning it to her and cracking open The Post.

We got back to the office at around 3:30 p.m. and I worked on the print version of my story. I left at around 5 p.m. and as I rode home on the subway, I got this desire for shish kebab...

Freeze, Bacon Boy!

I watched the shoplifter walk down the aisle toward the door, hating myself. I didn't have the guts to face him down--which is probably while I'm not in the hospital right now.

But it bothered me; this clown decided he could intimidate me into silence...and it was working. Would Nick Morocco just stand there like a dummy? I wished I had some backup, like my head-chopping buddy from the boardwalk.

And this thief was so bad at his job, just stuffing the package under his shirt. It looked like some training film from the Fifties. The suspect makes his move when no one is looking...

Screw it, I thought, this is life in the big city. You keep your mouth shut, you mind your own business and nobody gets hurt.

Only somebody was getting hurt. This bum looked neither impoverished nor starving. In fact, he could miss a few meals without any fear of being malnourished. And don't give me that sticking-it-to-the-man crap.

We weren't in Wal-Mart's--which wouldn't have justified theft anyway--we were in a small neighborhood business.

I got to the cash register and I approached the store manager, who was sitting in a high booth.

"That guy who just left stole something," I said.

"Who?" The man said, pointing down the block. "The guy in the cap?"


Off he went in hot pursuit. The woman behind the cash register shook her head and said people are always stealing from them.

I smiled nervously and asked her to ring up the shish kebab. I didn't want Bacon Boy to come back and slice me up like a prize ham.

The store manager brought home the bacon and thanked me. I got the hell out of there and walked home looking over my shoulder.

Yes, I was being a good citizen and reporting a crime, but I was also a stoolie, a squealer, a rat, a cheese-eater. I had put my nose in where it didn't belong and spoiled Bacon Boy's day at the office. What was I--some kind of hero?

My father used to tell us about this guy named Arnold Schuster, who achived some degree of fame back in 1952 when he spotted the infamous bank robber Willie Sutton in downtown Brooklyn and called the cops.

Albert Anastasia, a New York crime boss at the time, reportedly saw Schuster on TV talking about his good deed and got so angry that he ordered the guy killed even though the mobster had no connection to Sutton.

"I can't stand squealers," Anastasia supposedly declared.

I don't think I'm dealing with that caliber--ouch!--of criminal. But I won't be going back to the store for a while and when I do, I won't be wearing a suit.

And the hell of it is, I could have easily picked up some chicken breasts closer to home, made my own damn shish kebab, and avoided all this nonsense. But maybe it was fate.

I enjoyed my dinner that night. Not only did I have a delicious shish kebab, I also took a bite out of crime.

Case closed.


Calamity Jen said...

I'm glad that you ratted that thief out and that you didn't risk your safety by confronting him directly. It was both moral and wise.

Ages ago I worked part-time at a lottery counter located close to a subway station. A quick-change artist got the better of me but I wasn't confident enough in my suspicion to say anything. After he left the store, an older man who had been in line behind him calmly told me that I had been cheated out of $100. Abandoning my post, I shot out of the store and into the subway station, where the thief had just passed through the turnstile. I don't remember what I shouted at him, but I was astonished when he turned around and handed me the money. Occasionally righteous indignation can be powerful.

Rob K said...

Hey, Jen, way to go! You've got more guts than I do. I may look like Kojak but I'm not running down any perps!