Last night, on dinner break at Trader Joe’s shortly before 9 p.m., I sat down on the sidewalk next to Justin, who regularly has a cigarette before heading back into the store. The Court Street location has an official unofficial designated employee smoking area adjacent to the main entrance against a fire exit door. Soon to join the crowd were Curtis, Bo and Jeff. The Monday for me was full with the sort of introspective woe that calls for heavy drinking, long running or cigarette smoking, and, having access to only one at the time, I bummed a Winston from Curtis and a light from Justin. We sat for a few minutes riffing on customers who complain about the anaconda of a line on Sundays without realizing they’re part of the problem, which morphed briefly into a discussion of alligators in residential communities in South Carolina.
A black two-door car pulled up in the street and stopped, and two cops walked out. People, I’ve found, are generally friendly to TJ’s staff. A bartender at the nearby pub practically hands over free drinks when he sees us come in; others gush to us about how much they love the store, a certain product or whatever. The cops came up to talk to us before going into the store. “Maybe there’s a shoplifter?” Bo posited.
“What are you guys doing?” one of the officers asked us.
Hey fellas, I said. How’s it goin?
“You guys work around here?” the other asked. Yes, we said.
“Where?” they inquired, a note of insistent severity creeping into the questioning that made me start to question whether this was the antecedent to a friendly shopping outing.
Uh, here, we said, pointing back to the massive concrete structure we were leaning against, me wondering if the cops assumed we had purchased TJ’s t-shirts on eBay and hung around the store just to be stunting the ur-cool speciality grocery scene.
“What are you doing?” they asked again, getting a bevy of different but accurate answers from us: “having a coffee,” “a cigarette,” “on lunch break.”
“You’re on coffee break?” one cop asked, now beating out questions with a staccato pace. “Cigarette break?”
Yes, all of the above, more or less.
“You don’t have a break room?” the other asked.
“Uh, not one we can smoke in,” Justin said, holding up his cigarette. (NOTE: smoking indoors has been illegal in New York City for six years).
“Oh,” said the cop. They turned around, got back in the unmarked car and drove off.
“Wait, that’s what they stopped for? Us?” I said. Just a couple of neighborhood toughs loitering outside a fine establishment, looking for trouble, apparently.
The composition of our group was: Curtis, white, leather jacket, long heavy metal hair, extremely mellow disposition; Justin, tall, slender and black with the presence of a jazz musician; Bo, black with a bristly black beard who once jokingly (uh, I hope) called me out for saying the white beans looked good but not commenting on the black ones; Jeff, white, formerly scruffy but freshly shaven and cut; and me, pasty white, shaggy uncombed hair, bearded and an all-around general image of trouble poised in a dangerous crouch.
Justin and Bo said that, sorry guys, but the black dudes were a little worried there. I agreed that I probably would have told the officers I had been forcibly detained by these ruffians, ripped from my bible-study class in the (indoor) break room and forced to inhale cigarette after cigarette on the street.
Bo joked about a hypothetical situation: “Sure officer, I work here, look, here’s my knife …ahhh!” he said, mocking being hit with a barrage of bullets.
41 shots later…, I said, and we laughed.
Later that night, Justin and I were stocking cans and discussing over zealous police encounters over the years. He told me about a few years ago when he was living with a girlfriend in an admittedly shady building in Bushwick (“It was a drug building, no doubt,” he said) when the police kicked in his door and surprised the two of them in bed. Justin said he had enough sense to tell them his ID was in his wallet and he was sure they had the wrong room.
“Shut up,” the cop told him, “we know you’re running drugs out of here.” He was handcuffed in his underwear for three hours before the police finally realized they weren’t the people they were looking for and let them go. One officer was apologetic; the other told them not to get too comfortable.
“We know this is the right place, and we’ll be back,” Justin recalled him saying.
That’s when I remembered this story, from the NYT last month, about how the stature of the NYPD has increased since 9/11 and been getting better
since those unfortunate excessive force incidents, but that claims of overly aggressive tactics still persist. It included this stat:
Police officers frisked more than 500,000 New Yorkers in 2008, more than 80 percent of them young black or Latino men. The police arrest only 4 percent of those whom they frisk.
During the first 11 months of 2008, the Police Department declined to pursue 35 percent of the cases in which the independent Civilian Complaint Review Board issued a finding of police misconduct.
I guess this is the life I have to look forward to as just another Brooklyn street ruffian, smoking cigarettes on sidewalks and always keeping an eye out for the blue lights.