There’s a time and a place for everything and 5:30 p.m. outside H. and M. on 34th and Broadway the day before Thanksgiving is neither the right time nor place for a fistfight.
Or so the four plainclothes NYPD officers would have me believe as they cuff me and stuff me into a cruiser.
I’m delivered to the Midtown South precinct house, a two-minute ride, and God I feel like a sap. All I wanted to do was to be the good boyfriend and pick up the ingredients for the vegan spinach dip my girlfriend requested. Instead, I was the schmuck who got taunted into a public dustup on a jam-packed sidewalk, moving from the dutiful-boyfriend zone to the please-remove-your-belt-and-shoelaces zone.
The day began as many others do: rise, dress, take the F train to my job, squirt hand sanitizer onto my hands, sit down at my desk. After work, I headed off to track down the vegan cream cheese and vegan sour cream.
Walking west on 34th, lost in a fog of cluelessness regarding the vegan treasure hunt, I collided with a young man heading east. My right shoulder smacked his left shoulder, and if I were a pro wrestler, I would have hit the deck hard. Instead, I looked over my left shoulder to take down the kid’s plate number. The Little Linebacker, about 5-foot-7, 160 pounds and of some Hispanic descent, flanked on either side by young ladies, already had mine.
“Why the fuck didja bump into me, man?” he screamed.
A circle formed around us instantaneously. We strode five feet forward each and began to discuss the chance encounter. It was immediately clear that the Little Linebacker would be quite willing to escalate.
This kid had a hefty chip on his shoulder, as he jutted out his meager pecs and raised his body to the fullest possible extent. His mouth curled into an Elvis sneer gone bad. Maybe the gals had just spurned his offer of the hottest three-way/Applebee’s after-party they’d ever had, because Bumper was fixin’ for a feud. Never mind that I had 60 pounds and four inches on him.
“It was mistake, dude,” I said. “I didn’t bump into you on purpose.”
At this point-and the spy-cam videotapes that are trained on the area would bear me out if they were equipped with audio capability-the plainclothes cops who were 30 feet away didn’t see me as a peacemaker. They had me pegged, they told me later, as the aggressor. They saw me with my hands up, ready in case Mr. Spurned Three-Way tossed a fist bomb my way. To me, it was a defensive posture. To the NYPD, it looked like I was chomping at the bit, a hyper-aggressive jerk who probably just crawled out of a happy hour and wanted to flex his tequila muscles.
“Why are you trying to pick a fight with someone so much bigger than you anyway?” I asked.
In retrospect, this wasn’t the right move. That Napoleonic ninny postured for the ladies, who stood on either side of him, silent (but for all I knew, packing razor-sharp combs).
“I don’t care how big you are-you don’t scare me,” the 5-foot-7 psycho said.
Damn. The crowd around us had grown, to about 60 people. Welcome to N.Y.C., travelers from Ohio, Sweden and China: This is the cuddly locale you’ve heard so much about!
I was now exasperated, and every lesson learned on Dr. Phil about maturity popped into my head.
“Dude, let’s shake hands and walk away, call it a day,” I said, extending my right hand. Phil would’ve been proud. But Bumper wanted no part of the olive branch.
“Fuck that-you be the bigger man and walk away,” he said, up on his tippy-toes, his face now a foot away from mine.
I didn’t care for his breath, so I lightly pushed him back. I am the bigger man, I thought, Dr. Phil no longer providing pro bono advice, and I’m not walking away.
I can only theorize, but I think the cops were enjoying the show, or maybe a pirated DVD street dealer had caught their eye. Things were coming to a head, but NYPD’s finest were not present.
We moved closer. The kid seriously needed an Altoid. I ever-so-lightly redirected him backwards, with my left hand. Bumper drew his right fist back and tossed a quick overhand right that I mostly slipped, but that still caught me partially over the left eye. I drew back my own right hand and my offering connected solidly, right on the Tiny Terror’s noggin. Bumper stumbled back four feet. The solidity of the connection can’t be denied; the equation of force, timing and T.T.’s schnozz coincided so perfectly that not even a hint of a tremor traveled up my arm on impact. I sprang on Tiny, looking to land a follow-up, as his ladies scattered. Maybe they were now rooting for me, comprehending the indignity of the ménage offer.
Mini Man kicked at me as I pursued, spewing curses as I chided him for fighting like a chick. Before I could corral the squirmy little hothead, an arm curled around my neck.
“Stop fighting! Police!”
I desisted immediately, having watched enough Cops to know that the pepper spray would appear right quick if I kept it up. As things de-escalated, two cops pulled me aside, and the first one said that they’d all “seen the whole thing.” While two of the cops tried to piece together the whole affair with me, two others stood with Horndog and his accomplices.
Cop No. 1 said that it looked to them like I’d started the whole thing. I protested (in a cool-headed fashion) and informed the pigs-I mean the law-enforcement officers-that the littler man had begun to berate me after we collided and, in effect, goaded me into a fracas.
“I even offered to shake hands and move on,” I told them. “Ask him.”
Cop No. 2 did ask him, and returned with word that the 160-pound ball of fury admitted that I’d tried to defuse the situation, but that he’d spurned the peace offer.
“Turn around, please, and put your hands behind your back, Mr. Woods,” said Cop No. 1 with an exaggerated, inappropriate level of courtesy.
“But he punched me first,” I protested as I turned around and assumed the position. “Why isn’t he being taken in, too?”
It wasn’t the first time I’d danced with Miranda, but this time I was stone-cold sober. And this time I noticed how tight those handcuffs are. Personally, I think the excessively constrictive cuffs are part and parcel of the anti-Pavlovian measures used to ensure that the whole experience will be positively dreadful and sufficiently horrific that no one in their right mind would choose to repeat the episode.
In the cruiser, it was just the two detectives and me. The instigator was presumably giggling as I was driven away to a cell, plotting his victory party.
The cops engaged me in small talk on the way to the station.
“So were you coming from a bar?” one asked.
“No. Work.” I told them where I work, and they were semi-impressed-but not enough to call off the whole wretched exercise.
“So why wasn’t the other guy arrested, too?”
“Because we saw the whole thing, and you started it,” the cop in the passenger seat said. “And you broke his nose.”
At first pleased, I then realized that there would be no spoils in this war. And then it occurred to me that if they’d seen the whole thing and watched it escalate, wouldn’t it have made sense for them to intervene before a climax? Isn’t that part of “protect and serve”?
My own eye throbbed a bit, so I shared that with the boys. They weren’t moved.
“You outweighed that guy by like 70 pounds,” the driver said with a tiny smirk. The other guy grinned.
At the station, I was uncuffed and escorted by Cop No. 1 to a holding cell.
“Laces and belt,” he said.
I had my cell phone, and he said I could make a call if I wanted to. I dialed my girlfriend at work.
“Hi, honey, it’s me. I’m O.K. But there was … an altercation. I’m O.K.-but I’m in jail.” She held it together well, asking if I was injured. To my relief, she didn’t break my balls at all.
The cell measured about seven by five and a half feet. There was a stainless steel toilet and toilet paper, but the paper was in a sodden lump on the floor. A ton of written and scratched graffiti covered the yellow walls, but since it was mostly gibberish and name tags, there was nothing to read to pass the time.
“I’ll try to get you out in a couple hours, provided you don’t have any outstanding warrants,” the cop said. “You’re lucky it’s the day before Thanksgiving-they try to move everyone through.”
He left and, after half an hour, another baddie was brought in.
Black dude, about 45, in an expensive leather jacket.
“What are you in for?” I asked after 20 minutes of thumb-twiddling.
“Shoplifting,” he said.
He told me his name was Eddie and then unspooled his life story and provided me with shoplifting tips that I have not and will not put into use.
Eddie and his old lady usually went on sticky-finger binges together, but this time she begged off. That should have been a sign, Eddie said, but he went anyway and got nabbed at Conway. It was his fourth pinch. He predicted he wouldn’t get any time.
I told him my tale of woe, and I lobbied Eddie to give up the thievery. After Eddie told me more about his old lady, and the chick he was banging on the side, and how his old lady is 47 and pregnant and has diabetes, I lapsed into silence.
Sleep, with no pillow or blanket, wasn’t an option.
Soon it was time for fingerprinting and a mug shot. Cop No. 1 and I chatted like pals. I said I worked as a reporter for a spell and covered a lot of crime, so I was a friend of the Finest. He asked me if I knew a certain reporter for one of the big dailies, and it turned out that I had been at a wedding with the fellow just a week before.
“Shit, if I’d ‘a known you knew Tom, I’d have bounced you,” he said. “But unfortunately, you’re already in the system.”
Dinnertime. Cop No. 1 handed me a grade-C hamburger, looking like what you used to get in grade school, and an eight-ounce cup of powdered lemonade drink.
After three and a half hours total, Cop No. 1 came to the cell and unlocked it.
“You’re good to go,” he said.
At the desk, I collected my belongings and got a desk-appearance ticket that informed me I was being charged with misdemeanor assault.
“You’ll probably have to watch a film and pay a fine,” the cop told me reassuringly.
Out the door I went, my shoes still unlaced.
The next day, at Thanksgiving, it turned out that my girlfriend’s aunt had already made vegan spinach dip.
I resolved to learn from my fracas. A co-worker handed me a clip from the Post on Monday. It was a short article about a man who squared off with another man in a street fight much like mine, but the second guy pulled out a gun and shot the first man dead.
Me, I’ve learned my lesson; the trips to court and the trash-picking duty that was part of my community service saw to that. Now when I walk the streets, if anyone so much as grazes me with an eyelash, I apologize profusely.
-Michael J. Woods