Originally published in Frontier Psychiatrist
copyright (c) 2010 by Anjoli Roy
That’s me on the left
Dave likes to point out how clueless I am about living in the city. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been generally unscathed since I moved from California nearly a decade ago; that I’ve braved countless middle-of-the-night walks home alone to our apartment. To prove his point, he’ll steal from my bag when we’re swinging on subway handrails during the evening commute. When I’m left fumbling for my keys or wallet, he laughs, produces the stolen item from his pocket, and offers a stern lecture on how I should pay better attention to my surroundings.
Dave’s lessons haven’t been unwarranted. I have had my wallet stolen on the subway, and not by him. But since that singular theft, I succeeded in keeping my purse and all its myriad belongings tucked under my arm, maintaining a vigilant self-awareness as I entered a subway car/room/street/park. Yet after only two years of living in Pauoa Valley, O‘ahu in a neighborhood filled with elderly couples, I decided I was being paranoid. The wallet snatching was a fluke; people didn’t want to steal my things. In Honolulu, I let my bag sag on my shoulder as dared to nap on the bus.
I found Manhattan a strange beast when I returned this summer. But I was determined to maintain my faith in people. I averted my eyes if someone’s look lingered on the new leather purse my sister Maya had given me for my birthday. I carried my computer brazenly on my arm as I headed to a coffee shop during regular work hours. I plucked out my flashy new iPhone—a graduation present from my dad—to listen to music or check my email or, in the instance that set off this next episode, take a picture.
It was one o’clock on a gorgeous, sun-dappled Friday in July when, after loading two weeks’ worth of laundry into the dryer at the Laundromat, I paused on the canopied block of West 139th Street between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass boulevards. I was taking a picture of a snapdragon, marbled purple and red, growing from a crack in the sidewalk. My oldest sister, Joya, loved snapdragons and always stopped to pinch the flower’s tiny jaws and “rawr” to make her kids laugh. I was missing her and my family, whom I’d left weeks before in California after my graduation from the University of Hawai‘i.
I turned up the volume on Maxwell’s “Pretty Wings,” hummed along unselfconsciously, and started to send the file, rich with color, when two hands seized the phone. I laughed, wrestled with Dave, whom I’d assumed was the owner of those hands. What a nice guy, I thought, coming home to help me with the laundry. Only, those were not Dave’s hands, but those of a scrawny teenager who snatched the phone and booked down the street. I took a moment to recognize what had happened, the headphones dangling from my neck like a flimsy toy stethoscope, but I finally ran after him, yelling repeatedly, “He stole my phone! He stole my phone! Please help me!” Before I could get anywhere near him, the kid’s white shirt, black hat, and jeans disappeared around the corner.
Clumps of pedestrians mobilized, albeit too late to have tripped the kid. Even though this had all happened in seconds, I was sure that there was nothing anyone could do. One of the guys on the street came over to me and said I should call the cops.
“How?” I sputtered between spastic sobs. “He stole my phone.”
The guy loaned me his phone. I reported the incident, confirmed that I wasn’t hurt or in need of an ambulance. When an impossibly thin old man on a ten-speed turned the block in hot pursuit of the thief, the situation seemed out of control. I considered using the anti-theft alarm that I’d downloaded on the phone, but what was the point? I lived a block away and, like other yuppies riding the swell of gentrification, hadn’t folded into the neighborhood. Was this how I wanted to connect with my neighbors?
As the small crowd waited for the cops, I kept crying and apologizing for crying, trying to look tough as I wiped my nose on my arm. It was just a phone, I repeated between sobs.
Two white people from Parks and Recreation regaled me with stories of when “kids like these” had done “similar things” to them. It wasn’t my fault, the woman said as she hugged me. At the sign of this, the man who had called the police edged away. Before I could do the same, two cops arrived in an unmarked SUV. The female cop approached my still-sobbing face and made as if she wanted to hug me. Instead, she asked me what I wanted to do.
“Go get him!” The guy with the phone called from the curb.
Google’s street-view rendition of the scene of the crime
I slumped in the SUV, though the cops assured me that no one could see through the tinted windows. We set off just as the old man rolled up on his bike. Panting, he jabbed his finger toward St. Nicholas Park and said the kid was heading to City College. We thanked him and peeled out.
The cops reported on the radio that they had “the victim” in the car; at that, to my horror, I let out an involuntary whimper. Sharking through the streets, the cops slowed here and there, pointing at one guy or another, and asking me if that was the guy.
I said no again and again, recognizing how silly and scary this was. It was a summer day. Everyone was wearing a white shirt and a hat and there were 15 skinny teenagers on the last block we passed. Anybody could get blamed.
The cop’s radio crackled, and the female cop muttered to her partner that somebody’s purse had just been snatched and that she bet it was the same kid. The radio said again that a “perp” was being held at St. Nicholas Park, shirtless and looking “suspicious.”
I sank further into my seat then leaned forward to ask if they could forget the whole thing just as the force of the SUV’s bounding down an alley threw me back in my seat and shut my mouth. We raced up St. Nicholas Avenue to 135th Street.
The block was lit with the flashing lights of a carnival. As the cops told me, I lived on the border of two precincts; one was responding to my case and the other, the purse snatching. As a result, a half-dozen cop cars from both precincts—and an ambulance—had surrounded one skinny kid who was handcuffed and moping, his head hanging low. Not unlike a nauseating amusement-park ride, the car idled to a stop, its nose a few inches from the kid. The cops standing around the suspect parted as if on cue to give us a better view.
“Is that him?” the female cop asked. “Take a look and be sure.”
“I can’t be sure,” I said, sobered by the sight of the kid. “I only saw his clothes, and this guy doesn’t have the shirt or the hat.” I imagined that this kid had been jogging up the stairs in the park for exercise or to catch up with his buddies. The cold clink of the handcuffs probably circled his wrists before he knew what was happening. If the kid didn’t have the phone or the purse, why had the cops restrained him? I felt a knot in my stomach.
“He probably ditched his clothes,” the male cop suggested.
“I really can’t tell,” I insisted. “It happened too fast and I never saw the guy’s face.”
The female cop radioed that I’d said it wasn’t him. The male cop said there was a “witness” who could be the thief. They pulled the car beside the taxi where the alleged witness was sitting so I could see him. The cops assured me, again, that no one could see into the car.
We were idling so close I was sure the cab’s yellow paint would rub off on the SUV when the cops asked me again if this was the guy. I looked at the man, who no doubt thought he was doing the right thing, being a witness, with no idea that one pointed finger could decide his fate. Despite the tinted windows, the witness and I made eye contact through the glass. I snapped my eyes to the back of the cops’ headrests.
“No,” I said. “Definitely not. That guy is heavier than the kid who took my phone.”
The cops sighed, seemingly annoyed. The male cop said he’d take me for one last look at the skinny, handcuffed kid. I sank deeper into my seat.
Sun reflected off the chains hanging from the kid’s neck, and I was about to say that I didn’t remember the thief having necklaces when a powerful-looking man approached the car and rapped on the window.
“Hey, Sarge,” the male cop said, dipping his head in respect.
The man wore a fitted black shirt and jeans; his badge hung on a silver chain around his neck—the perfect TV cop costume. He furrowed his eyebrows over his glasses and nosed his way into the car to ask me what I had lost.
“My—my phone,” I stammered, then lowered my voice. “My iPhone.”
“This kid has one of those,” the sarge said, jerking his thumb at the teen now in the cop car.
“It has a password,” I said. “I can check if it’s mine.”
With that, he tossed the mute rectangular device into the backseat. I punched in my code. Like an answer from a Magic 8 ball, there surfaced the picture of the snapdragon, which I’d been trying to send some 20 minutes before.
While I waited to give my statement, the male cop chided me, not unlike Dave, to be more aware of my surroundings. I sputtered that I’d lived in New York for the better part of a decade, that I’d just spent two years away in a relatively safe area and was just adjusting to being back in the city.
All façade of the cop’s toughness dropped when I said I’d been living in Hawai‘i. He told me what most everyone who has visited those islands says—that he’d been, that it was beautiful, that he’d never wanted to leave.
“Why’d you leave?” he asked.
“Love,” I said, shrugging. “My boyfriend is here. I know, it’s gross.”
After I gave my statement, I went home, changed the shirt that I’d sweat through, and called Dave, which brought back those pathetic whimpering-heaving tears. I made it back to the Laundromat right as the swirl of our clothes slowed to a stop. Dave, who had left work early, got home just after me. It was three o’clock.
“I told you I was okay,” I said. “You didn’t need to come home.”
He pulled me up from the bed, where I’d collapsed amid some sloppy piles of folded shirts, and hugged me. “I’m not here for you,” he said. “I’m here for me.”
He laughed a bit at that, and I showed him the slip of paper the cops had given me about the court date. I wondered if there needed to be one at all. I hoped that the kid had gotten shaken up as much as I had; neither of us needed more than what had already happened.
I took in the cluttered space of our one-room, albeit-renovated apartment, then considered the sharp contrast of the doorman building, just around the corner, whose sculpted plants created a visual barrier from the condemned building where a handful of homeless people lived. I considered the McDonald’s that squatted beside my building, only an avenue between it and the canopied block where my phone had been snatched. I felt guilty—for having what I did, for waving around what I had, for reacting so pathetically at losing something so unnecessary. Yet the neighbors who’d huddled around me didn’t seem to judge me for my near hysterics after this petty crime.
Dave got out the sandwiches he’d picked up on the way home and we ate in silence, his I-told-you-so hovering above us like a caption. I edged away from him, waiting for him to say it and getting a little angry ahead of time. Instead, he wiped his mouth on his sleeve, hugged me, kissed me hard on my temple, and didn’t say a word.
Thank you to Keith Meatto for his editorial Jenga touch: this guy knows what to get rid of without making the whole tower fall down!