It Happened One Night: Tower Records Mix-Up Put Me Behind Bars

I was on the town again on a Saturday night, but it was a part of town you’ve never seen before and I never want to see again. This not-so-very-excellent-but-far-from-boring adventure began innocently enough and ended as raw porterhouse in the jaws of a shark-frenzied press, and mine was the only byline missing. Have you got a minute? I’d like to tell you a story about a boy, a police station and an arrest for petty larceny over a Peggy Lee record.

This humiliating saga began about 4 P.M. on Feb. 12, when I arrived at the Tower Records store at Broadway and 66th Street to exchange a CD I had purchased earlier in the day. The cashier told me I had to ride the escalator to the second floor, select the merchandise for exchange, and return to her. I browsed for half an hour, selecting and discarding items I already owned, settling on a Peggy Lee reissue of songs from the soundtrack of the 1951 film Pete Kelly’s Blues . I removed the plastic wrapper to read the liner notes and check the song list and shoved it into a wide pocket of my Ralph Lauren suede jacket. A no-no, I later discovered, but what the hell? I was going to buy it, anyway.

I browsed some more, grabbed a Mel Tormé reissue of California Suite and a Japanese reissue of an early Carmen McRae album on Decca. This continued until I had five CD’s in addition to the one already purchased CD for exchange. I shoved them all into the two pockets of the jacket and headed downstairs to the cashier. The original girl had 25 people in line for exchanges, so an even younger male cashier beckoned to me. I honestly thought I turned over to him all six CD’s. He returned a sheaf of credit slips, the original purchase receipt, and the balance for the difference. Without glancing at them, I stuffed everything into my pockets again and prepared to leave.

At the door, I was stopped by two security guards who looked like Beavis and Butt-head (almost everyone working in this store appears to be too young to own a driver’s license), demanding to see what I had in my pockets. I emptied them. The receipts showed an exchange for one CD, a charge for two CD’s, but no charge for the three others. Was it the store’s fault or mine? At 61, I am no stranger to senior moments. I often ask someone to pass the “thingamajig” and they say, “Do you mean, ‘fork’?” Maybe in the confusion at the cash register I forgot to present the three CD’s in my left pocket when I turned in the three CD’s in my right pocket. Whatever, my offer to resolve the matter and make things right by credit card or the $500 in cash I had in my wallet was accepted by the first guard, then rejected by the second because the value exceeded $50.

I am a person who owns thousands of CD’s. Every record company ships me new releases every day. Why would I want to steal three more? Too late for logic, and nobody to process it intelligently, anyway. In a state of shock that raised my blood pressure to the fever level of the Hong Kong flu, I suddenly found myself handcuffed and unwillingly escorted to a prowl car by two cops, driven to the 20th Precinct police headquarters on West 82nd Street and booked for petty larceny. It’s just a misdemeanor, like stealing a doorknob from Gracie Mansion, but this is not a rerun of Police Story on Channel 85.

Instead of material for a screenplay, I found life inside a precinct station remarkably dull. No Kirk Douglas in Detective Story grilling killers. No Martin Scorsese gangs from Mean Streets . “This is your lucky night,” said the detective on duty, “the place is empty.” I was the only prisoner, arrested in a record store with Peggy, Mel and Carmen in my jacket, yet instead of a cell with a cot I was led to a white tile-walled box with a broken light in the ceiling, walls and floor smeared with the blood, excrement and cigarette butts of a hundred previous guests.

“I have only one physical ailment,” I told the cops. “My dislocated disk will not hold out unless I can have a chair to sit on.”

It was explained that under the Giuliani administration no prisoner is allowed the luxury of a chair. I asked to go to the bathroom and was told I would have to be handcuffed. I politely passed.

“There’s nobody here, so can’t I at least come out, sit on a bench and talk to you guys?” I asked.

I was told that if I did that I would have to be handcuffed to the walls. I passed. Since only Stephen King could describe the filth, I refused to walk or sit on the floor in white socks, and since they had removed the shoelaces from my Nikes I couldn’t walk. When I asked for my shoelaces, I was told I was on suicide watch. I reminded them that if I wanted to kill myself I could have done so with the sharp edges of my credit cards. They thought that was amusing. So I just stood there for the next three hours, trying not to touch any of the cultures on the wall no science lab could identify, while they checked my previous arrest record. “We found something,” a cop told me. What had I done now? “Three years ago, you turned the wrong way into a one-way street.”

It was almost 9 P.M. when the precinct sergeant returned from dinner, inspected my rap sheet, recognized my name, and things softened. No longer Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit , I had become Henry Fonda in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man . A hard-backed chair was delivered. I was offered a candy bar. At almost midnight, paralyzed from pain, I was finally allowed a visit to the john after promising to hold my hands behind my back to pretend I was handcuffed. “Since there’s no one in the room, what difference does it make?” I asked. Same answer: “Regulations.” After seven hours of being Public Enemy No. 1, I was told they could find no record of previous arrest, my shoelaces were returned, and I was released. “We got no more reason to hold you, so you’re a free man.”

In the interim, they found time to notify the press, and I learned the place was crawling with cameras. My lawyer, Jay Harris, whom I was too embarrassed to call at the beginning of this ordeal, arrived 10 minutes after I phoned him, sneaked me through a back door into an alley, and we walked to Columbus Avenue and hailed a cab. A black-and-white nightmare lap-dissolved into the neon and noise of the Technicolor New York I knew. I have never been happier to see a parking meter.

The phones rang for the next 48 hours while the press forgot about oil spills, aviation disasters and exploding water mains, and one person made headlines for allegedly pilfering a Peggy Lee record. By Valentine’s Day, I was finally able to swallow a stray Godiva, but getting on with what I know to be a normal life on this planet is not the same. What happened to me over a Peggy Lee record should not have happened to any living human being. I don’t consider myself guilty of anything but careless stupidity. But while I am prevented from discussing legal issues that are presently being handled by professionals, I have learned how a person who has always lived a sane, ordered, privileged, safe and cautious life can make a small mistake, fall through a crack in the system and get fucked over fast. In an instant, you can discover you no longer have control over your own life and you’re in dragon country.

While waiting for the resolution, I have one final anecdote to share. By the close of Valentine’s Day, I got a call from Peggy Lee’s press agent, who told me she was so thrilled I wanted one of her CD’s enough to put myself through so much hell that she was sending me an entire collection. I hope none of the songs is “My Funny Valentine.”