At about 8pm yesterday, as I lay in bed wondering if my mattress might have bed bugs,* I heard seven distinct, very loud noises that sounded just about exactly like gunshots (and just about exactly outside my window). They came in two bursts, with a brief pause in between. I sat up, and waited for what movies and tv trained me to recognize as the aftermath of urban shootings: screaming women, crying babies, shouting men, and general public commotion followed by immediate sirens. When none of these reactions transpired, I reasoned that it must have been fireworks or a cap gun, and collapsed on my pillow.
But then the pitter-patter of running feet began, in my apartment and outside. It still wasn't anything overt or conclusive, but I picked up enough extrasensory disturbance to justify getting out of bed and wandering downstairs.
On the corner, a small group had gathered. Strobe police lights, their source invisible up the street, swept across every face. A young couple pushing a baby in a stroller stood in front, flanked by two horrified Asian women, a smattering of kids, and a small woman with short hair, a nose ring, and a solid, curveless physique who I (immediately) chastised myself for thinking might be a lesbian. When I asked what happened, she was the one who spoke. Her name was Laurie, and she had witnessed firsthand what I'll call 'the altercation.' After just a touch of encouragement, she recounted the tale with that particular type of reserved eagerness people summon when they don't want to seem over-excited, because that wouldn't be cool or worldly, but holy fucking shit there was a shooting right outside our fucking building!
I found out later that Laurie had actually been the one to call the police, and here's what she told me:
1) A young, Hispanic male had sprinted madly down our street (Laurie and I lived across from each other) and fired a handgun seven times at a cluster of two males standing on the sidewalk. Every shot missed. Laurie, who had been watering her plants on the balcony, estimated the distance between shooter and targets as "20-30 feet," which seems absurdly close and probably wrong. But anyway.
2) The shooter sprinted away after firing, and hot on the heels of his departure, two other young Hispanic males jumped in a van that was pulling away. Laurie, who I need to point out acted like a very good citizen, actually memorized the license plate on the van and called the police. A block away, that same van was now stopped in the middle of the road, surrounded by four police cars.
I made my way to this scene, and here I found a group of my Hispanic apartment-mates and their friends standing on the sidewalk behind a cop car, watching the proceedings. They didn't seem extremely happy at my presence, so I approached on the right side of the nicest one, a kid who's maybe 16 with a really thin neck and a gentle disposition. I can't remember his name, so I'll call him David, because why not? I asked him what happened, and he looked at the cops and said "they got the wrong guys."
Indeed, the discourse between the police (about seven of them) and the five Hispanic men lined up outside the van (all wearing plain white t-shirts, very bright, which my 100% untrained mind couldn't help but think looked choreographed in a vaguely gang-related way) seemed pretty laid back, as if initial suspicions had worn off and certain necessary acts were being carried out for unfortunate policy purposes.
I gently pressed David for information, and it turned out he'd been on the stoop when it happened. "You must have been scared shitless," I said. "No," he said, followed quickly by "yeah, I was pretty scared. I tried to run inside, but the door was locked." I laughed at this, because a really annoying thing about my apartment is that the outside door never locks. Except, apparently, if there's gunfire and you really, really need to get the fuck inside. David laughed too, but wasn't forthcoming with much more information. When I asked if he'd known the shooter, he looked away and said "nah" in a voice almost too quiet to hear. I moved off to the side, and stood leaning against an outdoor ATM. The cops let the detained men smoke, and they scoured the van's interior with flashlights. A good percentage of these cops and the ones I'd see later were bullish men, with big chests and protruding guts that looked more powerful than fat.
While I watched, Laurie came back. She admitted that she'd been the one to call the police, but then it occurred to me that the van had been stopped only one block away, and it was pretty impossible for the police to respond to a phone call, dispatch officers, and find the van in the time it took for the driver to advance about forty feet. Laurie recognized this too, and admitted that the police must have been close by and picked them up independent of her call. You could tell this realization came as a blow; cutting out the middle man, as it were. And it didn't help when I gently informed her that the people in the van were not, in all likelihood, involved in the shooting. She crossed her arms and took comfort in the one spectatorial involvement nobody could take away: "I saw actual fire coming from the gun. (dramatic pause) It's not something I ever want to see again."
A quick note about Laurie's abode: it's a 'luxury' condo, probably twenty stories high, put up a year and a half ago, that blots out a good portion of the southern view for people in the vicinity of my building. It is not the street's most popular building, and is the only one rising higher than the typical three floors.
The tone around the scene now was somewhat hushed, especially because the policy had tried to shoo us away at one point (not happening), but Laurie only knew one volume. And she started talking about the condo-neighborhood dynamic in a loudish voice, which, all due respect, didn't seem germane to the shooting. "It was never a big deal. We know they didn't like when it went up. They didn't like that there were...people with money around. Okay, I get it."
I direct your attention to the ellipsis in the previous sentence, and posit that Laurie came dangerously close to saying "white people" instead of "people with money." My hispanic apartment-mates could hear the conversation, and this was the first of four times when I became acutely conscious of my whiteness. Laurie went on to say "they used to break in and steal some stuff, fine, it was never a huge problem. But this is crazy." And again, this had nothing to do with the damn condo, and even though there may have been grains of truth to whatever she was saying, I felt the eyes of the non-white people in the gathering (almost everyone else) burning holes in me, and I wished Laurie would leave. And then she did.
The second time I felt highly aware of my race came when an old white man drove by the scene. He went really slowly, craning and gaping out the driver-side window (exactly what I would have done), and nearly came to a complete stop. Behind him, a horn sounded. The man, startled, drove on, and behind him a black woman leaned out of her window and shouted "stop being so goddamn nosy!" Everyone laughed, a little too intently, and I think some even looked pointedly in my direction.
When the rubbernecker drove away, the nosy outsider designation fell squarely on me, and the socially petrified remnants of my inner child insisted that I leave the scene in a hurry. But a far greater part of my being, the unrepentant gawker (I'm convinced I'll one day get my ass kicked by a crazy guy for staring at a beautiful woman too long, and it won't be my fault because I stare at everyone, though I admit I probably stare at beautiful women for longer than my overall average), told that guy to bugger off home, and I stayed.
When some of my neighbors wandered closer to me, I had the overwhelming desire to insinuate myself into the group, to distinguish myself from the outsiders. "Bad news, guys," I said. "Fireworks are canceled for tonight." A few laughs, but entirely too tepid for my taste. "It's just not the right time." The follow-up didn't even get a smile.
I stayed with the van until it became obvious that the white t-shirt crew had nothing to do with the shooting and would soon be released, and then I went back around the corner to my building. I sat on the neighbor's stoop and watched the police work as it grew almost totally dark. There were seven cops here too, and one of them had a bullet-proof vest. I watched a local woman approach holding a stack of transparent plastic cups. "Here you go," she said, and the cops took the cups and placed one over every spent cartridge (they called them "burnts") in the street. This struck me as highly unsophisticated.
The apartment door opened behind me, and I met my neighbor Jodie, a heavyset white woman, and her friend Claire, a pretty blond whose boyfriend was milling around inside. They had heard the shots too, and I told them what I'd learned. A plain-clothes cop came up to us and asked if we'd seen the shooting. We hadn't. Then he asked if we'd looked out our back window afterward, and seemed annoyed when we answered in the negative. An armored-type police truck drove up to the scene, and its row of stadium-power bulbs above the cab illuminated the street. The cops opened the the cars parked nearby, using an orange wedge-object to create space at the top of the door while a partner maneuvered what looked like a very long, high-tech coat hanger to unlock the car from inside.
In a few minutes the detectives came, looking very sharp in coat-and-tie ensembles, working in a pair just like on tv. They carried themselves in a self-consciously grim manner that made me think they really enjoyed the status of being a detective. They crouched over the 'burnts,' talked with some of the other cops, and left. I was disappointed when they didn't question me.
My Hispanic apartment-mates had congregated on my stoop, and down the street a small white person with a neat mustache emerged from his door. He began half-shouting in their direction. "Once a week is one thing, but this is ridiculous. This is how you choose to live your life?" This seemed to be an act of unfair, lumping racism, and also weirdly courageous in a misguided way. But then I realized he wasn't yelling loud enough to be heard by anyone except us, so actually the bravery was more like angry cowardice. But then I saw that things had become segregated again, which is the third time I was highly aware of my race, so I decided to go back to my stoop.
There, it became clear that one of the cars the cops had opened belonged to the kids who hang around the apartment. One, wearing a Royals hat and who I'll call Eric (because why not?), kept asking the cop if he could get a pack of cigarettes out of the car. Eric's tone was urgent to an almost-panicked extent, and the cops realized just as I did that the inside of the car probably held something far more incriminating than cigarettes. One overzealous cop told him in barked tones to stay behind the police line roping off the stoop (all but meaningless, since people kept walking underneath it) or he'd go to jail. Three other cops searched the inside, but found nothing. Eric surveyed the scene anxiously.
He and his friend told me they'd just bought the car for $1,300, and because it didn't have license plates yet, the cops were going to tow it. This would cost them an additional $250, but they said they might just leave it in the impound lot. When I asked Eric if he was on the stoop for the shooting, he clammed up and acted a little bit surly. David, also with us, didn't want to say anymore either.
I tried to space out my questions, and throw in some vaguely negative comments about the stringent cops in the intervals, but this only succeeded in transforming their responses from "borderline hostile" to "dismissive." Combined, this was the fourth and final instance of acute racial consciousness. I only gleaned two more bits of information, the first probably false, and the second a personal epiphany that arrived gradually over the evening:
1) The shooter may have been "just trying to scare" the target. A third friend told me this, but I think it may have been a strategy to try to get me to stop asking questions and leave. "Did he shoot in the air?" I asked. "Yeah, yeah," came the response. I should mention that none of them made eye contact with me the entire time. I should also mention that normally they're polite and even nice, and helped me move in a couple months ago. My best guess is that something about the crime triggered a tightening of ranks, an instinctual circling of the wagons, which act by definition excluded me. But despite their taciturn bearings, it was obvious that,
2) They knew exactly what happened, including the shooter's identity and his motive.
On the street, the cops scooped up the bullet casings and placed them in a single cup. Without gloves, mind you. Unimpressive to the max. The armored truck with its stadium lights drove away. A single cop car, manned by two officers, stayed across the street. (Fun detail: the Hispanic kids called the cops the 'blue-and-whites,' as in "let the blue-and-whites pay the two-fifty.") A tow truck came for the car. I said goodbye to the stoop crowd, just hoping not to be ignored, and was happy to receive the warmest response of the night. A part of me realized that after two hours of my persistent shadowing, they were just glad to see me go. Still, you take what you can get.
And with that, I segue into the sporting section of the post. Because now, more than ever, this city needs the Yankees to win. After last night's extreme suffering (which, annoyingly, I can't find covered in any newspaper), we need to unite behind a single entity, a group of athletes who can redeem our image in the face of the country. And it certainly can't be the fucking Mets, because they're terrible and their fans are idiots.
Let's go Yanks, sweep the Sawx! Bury them! Anyone who doesn't side with us is a heartless asshole who supports gunplay among teens! Come on, Jeter, CC, AJ, Jorge, Robbie! Justify the terrible violence of this godforsaken urban wasteland!
*I don't think I have bed bugs.**
**Reminder: no blog next week, I'm on vacation.