Theft of Service

by

05/02/2009

New York, New York 10002

Neighborhood: Lower Manhattan

It was the third week of what was to become my first real job, at Irving Plaza, the club in Union Square. I was working three days a week after school, doing odd jobs around the venue. Basically whatever tedious tasks they needed me to do. I was a junior that year, and took the minimum amount of classes, so I usually got out of school early. That Wednesday in early April I was at the club by two.

I was to take a package containing plane tickets belonging to one of my bosses, go down to the Knitting Factory in Tribeca, pick up another oversized envelope from the boss there, and take them both up to a travel agency in Times Square.

Back in the ‘90s, before Metrocards were commonplace, you’d hold up your school train pass and the worker in the booth would buzz you through the gate. But around 3 p.m. gates underground all over the city would usually stay open and kids would all crash through unmonitored. Despite the fact that I only lived a few blocks from my school uptown and never got my own pass, I was in the habit of walking through those gates whenever they were open.

After finishing the Tribeca leg of the journey, I went back into the Canal Street station and walked through the gate that I was not supposed to enter. As I was waiting for the N/R to come, listening to my walkman, an enormous meathead in plainclothes walked right up to me, pulled a police badge on a chain out of his shirt and asked for my train pass. I was speechless. When I admitted that I didn’t have one, he instructed me to follow him. Not knowing what else to do, I let him lead me through an underground maze from one train platform to another. I was terrified. And annoyed. And worried that I was about to lose my job. For a second, I had a fear that he wasn’t a cop, and that something really terrible was about to happen.

We finally made it to a small, dank room where two other plainclothes cops were waiting for us. They asked me where I had planned on going, and made me empty my pockets. There was a collective smirk when it was revealed that I had several subway tokens on my person. They were assholes about it. They repeatedly asked me about prior arrests and if I had any drugs on me. I was feeling pretty stupid by this point. For some reason I expected to be released with a ticket after they were finished interrogating me. They told me that they had a quota to fill, and we had to wait for another arrest before going to the police station. I let out an exasperated groan. Then they put me in handcuffs. I don’t know what I had anticipated happening, but it sure wasn’t that. After a torturous half hour, they brought in a black kid with large dreads, a couple of years older than me. He was pissed. He had jumped over the turnstiles to catch a train that was about to pull out. I sat there while they put him through the same shit I had just endured, except they were even meaner to him.

So the three cops led us two kids out through the busy station, hands in cuffs behind our backs. People in the station stared at us and our invisible scarlet letters as we marched out into the street. I couldn’t believe this was happening. We were being treated as if we had done something far worse than we had. I felt queasy. We came out into the daylight on packed Canal Street and were thrown into an unmarked car. Since there was already a driver, we had to squeeze four in the back. I didn’t appreciate the cops’ cavalier attitudes and lame jokes on the quick drive over. Nothing was funny.

There were some scary guys in that cell. And it was small, and I hadn’t much experience with petty criminals at that point in my young life. One guy came in seemingly stoned out of his mind. He thought everything was hilarious. I had smoked one joint in my entire life, and I barely even drank at that point. For all I knew this guy was on 20 tabs of acid. These people scared the shit out of me. Fortunately, no one really got in my face. I’ve never worn a watch, so it was hard to keep track of time in there, but those hours dragged on. Whenever a cop would come by, I asked about getting a phone call, but to little avail. I would’ve paced, but there wasn’t enough room. Some of the longest few hours of my life were spent in that tiny cell. And for much of the time I was thinking about how I was gonna be fired from my new job when I got out. Someone finally pulled me out to get fingerprinted. That didn’t feel so good, but it was a relief to be out of the cell…until they put me right back in, still without phone call.

I eventually got to call home so I could freak my mother out. The cop who was with me at the phone was sympathetic to my cause and knew that I wasn’t a “real” criminal. He felt bad for me and got on the phone with my father, reassuring him that this was no big deal, just Giuliani cracking down. They wound up talking for a while. The Good Cop informed me that I should have told someone that my father was a lawyer for the Department of Corrections. Would’ve saved myself some trouble.

In a daze, I walked out onto a side street in Chinatown at dusk, with an information sheet regarding my court date for the following month. I didn’t even know what direction I was facing, and spent my ten dollars on a cab back up to the club. There was no show that night, but luckily the artist who designed the ads was working late at the office. He buzzed me in, and I told him the whole story, and made him promise not to tell anyone. My father came downtown and picked me up. He wasn’t mad at me, but just disappointed, which was even worse.

It seems strange to me now, but my parents told me not to tell anyone. I told my girlfriend that night on the phone. I felt like an idiot, but also a little tougher for making it through the day.

I showed up to work the next afternoon nervous as hell, but to my amazement, no one even blinked. Not one person questioned why it took me over five hours to run an errand that I didn’t even complete. My boss had someone else finish the job that morning. I wound up working there for almost three years.

***

About a month later was the big trial. The night before I was due in court, I went to see Pavement at Roseland. I didn’t tell any of my friends what I was doing the next day. It was cool of my parents to let their delinquent punk of a kid go to the show, even though I was cutting school the following day as reward for my stupidity and petty greed. I don’t know if I’d have done the same if the situation was reversed. I remember talking to my girlfriend on the phone when I got home that night. She had visited colleges that weekend, and decided that she wanted to go to Vassar.

My father and I showed up with a criminal attorney friend of his—the two of them in suits, me in a jacket and tie. We were greeted by an incredibly long line of other arrestees, plus friends and family, waiting for their hearings. There were hundreds of people milling about, and we appeared to be the only ones dressed up. My lawyer briefly vanished to speak to someone in charge, and returned to my father and me, telling us we were to go to the front of the line. I was to be the first case heard. This made me anxious.

It just so happened that that Monday morning was the day that a whole bunch of judges were sworn in to start their new careers. So I stood up in this huge courtroom in front of a few hundred disinterested fellow criminals, and was the first case that this judge ever heard. Maybe he remembers me fondly. Maybe he’s writing this same story down right now, but from his perspective. Yeah, maybe.

I was convicted of Theft of Service. The judge happened to read my verdict wrong, and was stumbling over his words. But my punishment was one day of community service and six months of probation.

Fortunately, when a friend and I got busted a few weeks later for switching price tags at the HMV on 86th and Lexington, security just banned us from the store instead of prosecuting us for shoplifting. That would have been bad news for my probation.

***

This story ends the following month, on the last Saturday of June. The heat at seven in the morning was so bad that I got drenched with sweat just walking to the train. I showed up at the Times Square subway station, not knowing what “community service” entailed, and cursing myself for having gotten into this situation.

There were 40 of us lined up in a row near the Shuttle platform. No girls. I was the wimpiest looking one there. I was sixteen years old, and couldn’t have weighed more than 115 pounds. I was intimidated, to say the least. I was also struck by how almost everyone there was either black or Hispanic. My mother had packed me a bagel and cream cheese and a Coke, because we were told to bring a lunch. I vaguely made friends with one other kid. He looked like a guy I went to summer camp with named Kenny Mandel. I even thought it was him for a minute. He was the only other person who came with a lunch.

We spent that interminable day cleaning out garbage cans and transporting trash throughout the Herald Square station. I kept expecting to see someone I knew, and having to explain to them what I was doing there in my neon orange vest. I saw nooks of that place that I never imagined existed, and took breaks in those mysterious-looking rooms you only pass by and yet never really see into.

I crawled home soaked with sweat and reeking of garbage. That day competed with the day of my arrest as containing some of the longest hours of my life at that point. I know all hours are 60 minutes but sometimes I just don’t believe it.

 

Sam Axelrod was born in Manhattan in 1980. He used to have a band in Chicago called The Narrator. He is a senior editor and regular contributor for Take the Handle.

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