I arrived in New York during the summer of 2000 from somewhere else. It doesn’t matter where because nowhere else is like New York. Like most newcomers I was awed by the spectacle. I stole glances at the sky from the sidewalk while I tried to keep pace with other pedestrians. I walked the streets as a stranger. I thought I knew you aren’t supposed to look at the sky, the skyscrapers, or anything in particular. I practiced staring at an imaginary point in the distance. When passing others I concentrated on creating a vacuous expression. One look at me and people knew I didn’t know they existed.
It was hot that summer, though maybe not hotter than others to New Yorkers. The humidity at night choked the air and caused sheets to cling to my sweat soaked-limbs in bed. I learned to sleep with the window open as traffic’s cacophony played on Lexington Avenue only one story below. The hum from the oscillating fan hardly helped mitigate the heat or the din. But over time I became inured to the noise. Garbage trucks, cabs and cars passed and I slumbered. I merely stirred at the sound of sirens.
The subway was a different matter that summer. I never found comfort. Furnace blasts licked at my face as trains approached, forcing hot air from the tunnels. Hell’s Kitchen is on the West Side. The subway platform at Rockefeller Center that summer felt like Hell’s lower intestine. Most nights I clutched a magazine in my sweaty hand and waited for the F train. The F offered the only direct route to a stop at Lexington and 63rd and I hadn’t figured out the subway system yet. Green, yellow, orange and red lines ran across a map of Manhattan like varicose veins on a bloated calf. Sweat formed and stuck to my face, legs and flanks while I tried to wait casually for the F. E’s, Q’s and another F bound for The Bronx rumbled through the station. My F came less often nights when I worked late.
Mind-numbing boredom while waiting and torrents of sweat pushed me to the revelation that it would be more comfortable to walk the mile-and-a-half home from Midtown. The mood at night made walks worthwhile. It was easier to look inconspicuously at sites like the lights in windows that created a composite against a black background, like the dappled effect of an impressionist painting. On my walks home sometimes I saw hookers talking together in front of a deli on Sixth Avenue between 57th and Central Park South. I once saw a six-foot tall black transvestite on Park Avenue who muttered, “Motherfucker” at a doorman who looked too long. I set out one night in August for the possibility of any of these things.
I walked up Sixth Avenue past the tourist hotels where doormen screamed on their whistles and cabbies stuffed food into their mouths and hopped into their cabs to race for the next fare. No hookers stood in front of the deli that night. I walked onto Central Park South and the clomp-clomp of hansom cabs. Central Park was inky dark as a mystery that night. I walked past Mickey Mantle’s restaurant; another mystery because Mickey was dead. I passed the doorman dressed as a genie with turban and curly toes on his boots. And then I approached the illuminated splendor of the Plaza’s red-carpeted steps. Men dressed in dinner jackets waited with attractive women while doormen found them cabs from those queued in the street. A few paces past the steps, while I admired the hotel’s flower boxes, a woman screamed as if from the script from a thousand detective TV shows of my youth: “Oh my god, he’s got a gun.”
I heard more screams as I twisted to watch a man dressed in a drab suit sprint across the street toward the park. In one hand he carried a hefty brown briefcase. In the other he carried a gun. He suddenly turned and fired toward The Plaza. Well-dressed people crouched and sprawled for cover on the red carpet. More screams. Shots rang out from the steps. Stocky men in suits rushed between frozen cabs into the street, firing their guns. The man with the briefcase fled east through Grand Army Plaza. It was easy to follow his path by the commotion he created.
I looked eagerly at a woman approaching on the sidewalk, wanting to say, “Did you see that?” She walked past stonefaced. I abandoned my usual route and walked slowly up Fifth Avenue. I was drawn by the sound of more gunshots. I approached a small crowd gathered around a cab at 59th and Fifth Avenue. Men in suits wore earpieces with wires running under their collars. A woman in a pantsuit talked on a radio. A cab sat in the middle of the street with its rear driver’s side door ajar. A few feet away on the ground a man groaned while burly men pinned him to the ground with their knees. The man’s white shirt was stained in blood. He cried out in raspy tones that he couldn’t breathe.
I got a good look at him. He was middle aged and his ruddy face poured sweat. He was thin and his thin chest heaved for breath. The burly men in suits told him in gentle but authoritative tones not to struggle. I thought about my discomfort in the heat. It didn’t compare to being shot and bleeding into a suit on a hot street while men squeezed the breath from you.
Soon my sympathy passed and instinct took over. I wondered how much The Post or Daily News would pay for a photograph? Wasn’t it good practice to always carry a camera in my shoulder bag? I cursed myself and looked wistfully down Fifth Avenue. I knew Bulova and Tiffany sat perched in windows only a few blocks away but no disposable cameras would be found nearby.
I was distracted from my disappointment by other witnesses. We compared tales. One said he saw the trouble start in the hotel’s lobby. The cab driver, an East Indian, was disconsolate. He paced nervously, possibly wondering how he managed to get into this predicament. He stopped to pick up a fare dressed in a suit on the Upper East Side and the man had been shot while entering his cab. The police arrived and wouldn’t let him leave. The police moved at a snail’s pace while the man lay on the street, groaning. Cops talked to some witnesses, filled out paperwork on clipboards. Others looked for shells on the street.
Eventually I drifted away home as an ambulance arrived. The Daily News placed the story inside under a sensational but forgettable headline. The story described the suspect as a recent parolee. Security had been beefed up at the Plaza recently due to unrelated thefts. Plain-clothes (suits) security confronted the suspect in the elevator. He pulled a gun and fled when the doors opened in the lobby. There was a black-and-white photograph of the suspect on a gurney at the hospital. You couldn’t even see his face.