If you missed it, here is Part One.
In the dead calm of night, in the dark side of New York City, only our laughs revealed anyone was about or how comical our BB Gun competition was. We both stank. I did manage to knock my bottle over. My friend’s bottle fell over in a gust of wind – at least that’s how I saw it. Turns out BB guns require a little practice, but we were having a good time comparing each other’s incompetence to infamous sports teams, and were bothering no one on this dead end street with its complete lack of cars or people. The day had cooled down nicely, we had all the time in the world, and this was as safe a place for our childhood competition as we could ever find. There was no one to endanger. We were shooting toward the water.
For Round 3 (or 4 or 5), I held the gun as my friend climbed up on the rocks to reset the bottles. Hearing something, I wheeled around and suddenly saw, appearing out of nowhere, the shadow of a car, its high beams in my eyes, hurtling down the street toward us. An unidentified car speeding toward you down a dead end street in a totally uninhabited part of town does not instill a feeling of security so I instinctively moved behind my friend's pickup truck. This was my first mistake. At one point I remember I actually hoped it was the police but as there was no siren or police lights, I realized that these were some serious bad asses that knew they had us cornered.
That shadow of a car was getting huge in just fractions of a second, and I didn’t have to think to put the pickup between them and me, I just did it, preparing for what would happen next. Just as I made my move, the car braked to a sudden halt, the overhead police lights began flashing and two dark shapes jumped out like silhouettes of police officers with guns trained on us and began yelling to "freeze, put your hands up, drop the guns!
Then came my second mistake. Having never had a life or death police confrontation and coming from a relatively safe neighborhood on the upper west side, I had apparently become immune to years of the media drumming up graphic, everyday NYC criminal atrocities, not to mention the realities of a besieged and understandably paranoid police force. Because as I put my hands up, I still held the top of the barrel of the BB gun (a non threatening posture, I thought) and pointed to it with my other hand while I attempted to explain over the roar that it was only a BB gun.
There is no decibel meter that can measure the volume and intensity of trained police officers yelling full tilt to "put your gun down or I'll shoot!" Add to this the two other police cars that just sped down the block, their doors flung open and the four other guns that were probably trained on us and I quickly abandoned my attempt at reasoning and dropped the gun. For a moment everything went quiet as you could hear the BB gun clatter on the street. After that I did as ordered. When I came out from behind the pickup, I instinctively came out on the side of the cop that seemed to be yelling a little less loudly. I placed my hands on the hood of the truck. I kneeled down. I put my face down on the black pavement and put my hands behind my back.
There were police everywhere, guns drawn, and shouting mad, but as soon as those handcuffs snapped shut, the first jolt of that death terror went to ground, liquefied into the still, hot tar of the street. My friend and I were finally handcuffed. We were no longer a threat. Then somebody picked up and identified the BB gun and a new escalation of anger and shouting began. "Where was the other gun?!”
“Why didn't I drop the gun immediately?!" I tried to answer as the less loud, but still adrenaline angry officer searched me, spilled out the contents of my pockets on the street, turned me over and searched some more. I kept repeating that there was no other gun, but he just kept yelling and demanding I give it up.
None of them believed my friend’s claim that there was no other gun either. I heard him on the other side of the truck saying it over and over the same time I was and one time I heard him cry it out in the kind of pain I had never heard from him before or since. His cop yelled with a ferocity above all the others, "Where's the other gun?! I saw you throw it! Where is it?"
His pained cries that there was no other gun and the violence of confusion all around us provoked even more desperate denials from me. Someone yelled at me again, "Why didn't you drop the gun?" I tried to explain that I didn't recognize [they were police] and one of the roving officers shouted in my face before I could finish that I was going to "fucking well understand what was going to happen to me now!"
Finally, the moment I had been waiting for arrived and one officer said that it was only a BB gun. His concession infuriated some of the officers and instantly two officers were exhorted to, "Search the truck!" They threw everything they could find out on the street for inspection. They took out the seat. In their frenzied search they found such incriminating items as my friend's son's miniature baseball mitt and his brother’s Gameboy. About the time the rubber Spiderman was uncovered, the officers became disgusted and called off the search. It was becoming unanimous, if unpopular; it was only a BB gun. One seasoned officer even shot the gun in the air and joked,"Duck everybody!"
Each officer cooled down at a different pace, but for the first time there was the calm of normal conversation. A captain said that five police cars called to the scene meant they had to write a report. Nobody was too interested, but finally the most ferocious officer volunteered to write me up. Since I was the one in possession of the gun, I was taken to the police station to be "summonsed.” In the car, the officer driving told me, “You are lucky we’re not nervous people!” He was finally a little amused at the whole thing. The ferocious officer next to him was quiet. When we entered the station, the driver incredulously told another at the desk that I had not dropped the BB gun when they told me to. His angry, unflinching response was, “Why didn't you shoot him?” This and the Desk Sergeant's yelling at me without knowing any of the story I took to be a genuine display of police comradery and their extreme vigilance of each other’s safety.
I waited handcuffed in a chair for an hour or so as they called around various prescints to find the code number for unlawful possession of an air rifle. The bureaucratic bouncing around these officers endured to find this one bit of information seemed comically all too commonplace given the importance of their work in our lives.
It was during this time, as I listened to the officers relate the incident to others in the station, that the events of the evening were put into perspective. It seemed that a night watchman in the area had seen us in a security video of the street. He called in to the station saying that two men in a pickup truck were firing a rifle across the river. The police had not happened upon us, or gone in as a routine check, but had arrived in force expecting real firearms. When I instinctively moved behind the truck as they bore down on me, they thought the one with the gun is taking cover. They were about to have a shoot out. Holding up the gun, even in a non threatening posture, was about all their trigger fingers could stand. I was lucky to be alive.
Later, I found out that while I had been lying face down in the paved warmth of the summer street getting a methodical gun search, my friend had been forced down on the road's edge, face first into the broken shards of concrete, discarded rubbish and cement, with an officer's knee pressed hard against the back of his neck. That knee excruciatingly drove his face into the dirt and the dirt into his mouth as the officer demanded at the top of his lungs to tell him where he had thrown the other gun. Other than that serious bit of extreme vigilance, this episode could be seen as a police response worthy of commendation. After all, we were alive.
But, I am white and fairly non threatening looking at that, and I can't help wondering what might have happened if I had looked more like a TV version of a criminal type. What if the pickup truck had been mistakenly related to a violent crime? What if I had been black or hispanic? On the other hand, what if my foolishly threatening yet innocent response causes one of the officers involved to pause or relax in a similar but actually dangerous situation? We rely on these officers who work every day on this brink where matters of life and death weigh on the interpretation of split second human responses. I want to thank them, especially the ones that are not nervous.