A Rape and A Fire, Then Starbucks

by Thomas Beller

06/16/2002

E 87th St & Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10128

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

He rushed into the Starbucks on 87th Street and Lexington Avenue, camera in one hand, laptop in the other, holding them up high, like they were platters of food. He wore an FDNY baseball cap on backwards, and a light green, somewhat military looking vest over a blue shirt. He moved among the tables very quickly with the spry agility of a sailor on a mission to find a leak and fix it.

“You got an outlet here?” he said to me. He was already looking behind my chair, head darting this way and that, bristling with energy.

He put his stuff down on my table.

“Someone’s coming to meet me,” I said.

“Oh I’m sorry, sorry about that,” he picked his stuff up and kept talking. “All right, Ok, where’s the outlet, I think that’s the only one behind you… I forgot to charge up…”

On his vest there was an I Love the FDNY button, and also a silver medalion spelling out the words, “In memory of the FDNY,” and under his vest there was some kind of radio; he had a beat up laminate hanging from his neck.

“You can use the space until my friend comes,” I said.

“Oh great, thank you,” he said and didn’t stop moving. He was on his knees, plugging in, on the chair, laptop open, eager boyish face with a little gray at the temples.

“You a journalist?” I asked.

He held up the laminate at me. “Daily News.”

I asked what was going on.

“I gotta file these pictures from this fire and a rape,” he said.

I asked if they happened at the same time.

“Fire came first, then the rape.”

Same place?

“No no, the fire was up on Shomburg plaza, the rape right up the street at a baby furniture store.”

The computer was open now. “In the baby furniture store?” I said.

“Can you believe it?” he said, but he didn’t seem particularly shocked. He was focused on the laptop, trigger happy fingers moving over the keyboard.

“You can file from in here?” I said.

He explained that Starbucks has a wireless modem in every store, and if you subscribe you can just sit there with a super fast internet connection all day. “I used to subscribe to a wireless modem service called Ricochet but…”

“They went out of business,” I finished for him.

“Exactly. So stupid.”

He lives in Marina Park, Brooklyn, he told me, and grew up in Carnarsie.

I watched as he opened one photo file after another and selected the ones he was going to send in.

“These two lost their apartment,” he said. The photographs showed a heavy set Latino man hugging a woman, who was crying.

“Did they mind you taking their picture?” I asked.

“Oh yeah, that guy did. He yelled at me and I didn’t take any more pictures.”

Next up were pictures of a doorway, a bald headed man with a mustache standing there with his badge on his lapel. The fiddling with the computer continued for a while, selecting pictures and so forth and then, with a flourish, he reached into his vest and produced a set of pliers, with which he extracted something from the side of his compute. The laptop was an Acer.

“Broken,” he said, smiling.

He popped something into the space he had evacuated, and in no time he was on line, downloading his pictures to the Daily News.

I offered him some of my Oatmeal-rasin cookie.

“No thanks, I had enough of Starbucks today oh boy,” he said.

Apparently, ever since the demise of Ricochet, his work routine has involved racing to whatever crime or fire or news scene he has to cover, taking his pictures on the enormous Nikon, downloading to the lap-top, and then driving to the nearest Starbucks, where he gets online using their wireless connection – “29 bucks a month to subscribe” – and files.

“I drink so many more cups of coffee these days than I used to, oh boy,” he said. The way he said it, I got the impression that the greatest occupational hazard in his job was the temptation to consume too much coffee at these Starbucks. “Two bucks, every time,” he said, shaking his head.

Subsequently I found out he had performed acts of courage on 9/11, rescuing a co-worker.

He took out a cell phone and pressed a button.

“You just got eight pictures from me,” he said. “Yeah, the fire and the rape… what? you got nine? What? Oh that’s from ages ago! I sent that one to you this morning. Yeah. all right.”

He was off the phone, unplugged, zipped up, and ready to go with an expression of eagerness that suggested he was going to go out and play baseball. But I suspected he was off to another crime scene.

His name, was Todd Maisel, and I recalled reading about his pictures from 9/11.

“I think I read about you, your 9/11 pictures. Did you cover that?”

Maisel on 9/11

“Yeah and I’m lucky to be alive,” he said. He told me about an exhibit of photographers of his and other professional photographers at 420 East 9th Street. Before he left I asked him if his news desk assigned him the rape and the fire, and he said, “Just the rape, the fire I heard about first.”

“How?”

“I got a radio in here,” he said patting his vest.

“Ever hear of Weegie?” I said.

He gave me a look. ‘Are you kidding, I work for the Daily News. Weegie is my man!’ the look said.

After he left I finished my coffee and then stepped into the fading afternoon light. It had been such a bright blue sky, the confused blue of a December heat wave, but now, after five, the sky was dark, bruised, ominous, the rush hour rushers acclimating to navigating the sidewalk in the dark. The bright store lights. Car horns. The subway was to my right, but I went left, uptown towards the baby furniture store. It was right across from the YMHA. Two strands of orange tap stretched out from either side of the front door and were attached to a parking meter, creating a little triangle of forbidden space on the sidewalk. TV cameras from CBS and NY1 were there, and some other journalists gathered around. In the doorway was the bald headed cop with the mustache. On the window in nice script was written, “Cradle Will Rock.” Inside a man was dusting a crib for fingerprints. I walked across the street to a small crowd who was watching.

“They got a witness,” a man told to young high school age girls. “He’s gonna give the cops a description.”

“Did they get her out of there already?” a girl asked?

“Yeah, she’s gone already,” said the guy. We all stood and looked across the street and the brightly lit interior where the rape had occurred. Then a bus rolled up obstructing our view. On the side was an H&M ad, a nice looking blonde with large breasts lying on her side. The bra she was wearing costs fifteen dollars.

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