He Was No Angel

by

10/07/2018

Neighborhood: Manhattan

One day, back in the early 90s, I came pretty close to being on that list of unarmed black men dead at the hands of New York’s finest.

I was a full-time college student at the time, and holding down a full-time gig at a department store in midtown Manhattan. My co-worker, a Colombian cat named Nelson, and I had plans to hang out after work with another friend of mine and a couple of girls from the cosmetic counter. After work, roundabout six, we all piled into Nelson’s minivan (don’t ask me why he drove a minivan), and headed to a club on the West Side.

I sat in the front passenger seat and everyone else was seated comfortably in the back seats. Nelson was a skillful driver, but, like myself, a little wild and heavy on the gas pedal. We were headed cross-town and about to turn south on 9th Avenue, one of those six-lane mega streets on the New York grid.

By law, and yes, by common sense, you should make this left turn into one of the lanes nearest to the left hand side of the street, but Nelson, road warrior that he was, and knowing that we would have to get over there momentarily for the place we were headed was on that side of the street, made this turn into the lane furthest away. He did so just as the light had finished turning red, and as the light for the 9th avenue traffic was turning green.

Not a bright move.

“What the hell are you doing man?” I asked him reluctantly, hating to be the party-pooper. It had been a carefree atmosphere in the van, everyone looking forward to the night’s festivities. The last thing we needed, though, was to wind up in traction, let alone draw any police attention. I’m not sure if I had “contraband” at the time, but back in them days it was more than likely I did. And if Nelson had a kilo under the seat I wouldn’t have been surprised. He was connected.

“Don’t sweat it man,” Nelson laughed, knucklehead show-off that he was.

As fate would have it, there had been a cop waiting at the light on 9th.

That familiar ear-piercing, gut-wrenching sound of the police warbler sounded and their lights flashed. I felt something shoot through me so fast it hurt my back.

It was common knowledge that cops were bad news. Didn’t matter the crime. From littering, to sneaking on the subway, to jaywalking, to snatching some lady’s pocketbook, to robbing an armored truck, everyone knew your chances of walking away from an encounter with the cops unscathed were about the same. They were just bad news.

I grew up with two criminal-minded older brothers, and you really couldn’t tell the difference between when they’d come home with wounds and bruises from street fights and when they’d had run-ins with the police. But, while the two of them were used to this kind of thing, I’d always gone way out of my way to stay out of trouble.

I’d never even been pulled over in a vehicle by the cops before.

The nonchalant look on Nelson’s face, though, conveyed this was routine for him.

The two cops, both white, approached us from either side of the minivan. The one on the passenger side stood away from my door while the one on the driver side came up to the window. Nelson rolled it down. His movements seemed a bit too hasty and careless for my taste. A Richard Pryor joke, in typical timeless Pryor fashion, was pretty instructional when it came to dealing with cops anywhere.  I kept running it through my head. He would announce every movement: “I am reaching into my pocket for my license,” he said. “‘Cuz I don’t wanna be no motherfucking accident!”

And what was true in the 60s when he told the joke was true in the 90s as well. True now, too.

“Put your hands on the steering wheel!” the officer barked. Nelson looked a little taken aback by his tone but did as instructed. “Who the hell do you think you are?”

Nelson looked at me like I had the answer, then at the cop and said, “Huh?”

“Why you driving like a fucking maniac?”

Nelson still didn’t seem to be processing his words, or maybe the cop’s tone and use of profanity were beyond Nelson’s expectations. Perhaps he was expecting phrases like, “license and registration please,” like in cop shows and movies.

“What?”

“You deaf?!” The cop said sharply and slapped the flat bill of Nelson’s Yankee baseball cap, causing it to flip off his head onto the floor. “I said why you driving like a–”

“WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM?” I screamed at the officer. Actually it wasn’t me at all. This was my first and perhaps last out of body experience, at least that I’m aware of.

“You!” he shouted, pointing at me. “Shut the hell up!”

“FUCK YOU!” I snapped, turning in my seat aggressively towards the cop in the driver’s side window, totally throwing Pryor’s instructions under the minivan. “It’s not your job to be assaulting people! Fuck you touch him for?”

I was inside of myself watching me say and do things that were outside of myself.

There was no fear, I think. If there was, it was buried deep beneath a shaking, righteous fury of the likes I’d never seen rear its head before. At least not from me. I now had front row seats to a happening in my own life.

“Didn’t I tell you to shut the fuck up?! Stay out of this for you get hurt!”

“Get hurt?” I screamed, in a crescendo like the high-pitched voice of a teen boy going through puberty. “Who’s gonna hurt me? You?”

“Yo chill out, Baye!” came a concerned voice from the back seat. Even Nelson was looking at me like I’d lost it.

This was kind of funny to the part of me watching this shit through the window of my mind. But, I took a deep breath.

“Listen, officer, your job is to write fucking tickets, so write your fucking ticket!” I said, coldly, a little more composed. “You don’t have the right to put your hands on anyone…”

“I’m gonna tell you one last time to shut your fucking hole…”

“Or what?” I said. “I know my rights!”

“Or I’m gonna shut it for you!” he said pointing his finger at me, again.

Suddenly, blindly, I must’ve done something, but everything got kind of loopy and the memory is still hazy. Nelson was grabbing me, and from the back seat my boy was holding me from behind. The girls were screaming, the cops were shouting something…

And my hand was actually still on the door, trying to open it…

Trying to get OUT of the minivan!

Trying to die!

The cop on my side, I noticed then, was looking at me like he was a bit intimidated, or like he knew his partner had done something wrong, which fed that fire in me like kerosene.

But, his hand was on his gun…

A big ass fucking gun!

Then suddenly, the show was over. I was once again myself and fully cognizant of what was going on, what I had just done, and how close I’d come to putting myself at the whim of these two officers. Adrenaline had my head pounding like it was going to explode. I think I almost passed out.

Temporary insanity they call it. Right?

“Wonder why a nigga don’t go completely mad?” Richard Pryor whispered in my ear, a line from that same routine on police brutality.

But with my wits about me, I sat back in my seat feeling very afraid of what was inside of me and very ashamed of myself for jeopardizing the lives of everyone in that van.

We drove away with only a ticket to show for this.

Later on, I thought about my temporary insanity, and I wondered what people would have been saying about me if I had gotten gunned down that day.

“Baye? My Baye?? He never hurt anybody!” Mama would say. “He was an angel! He was working full time, and a full-time college student. He was on the dean’s list! And they killed him, for nothing!!”

Cops, naturally, would have released my police record—numerous turnstile jumpings, shoplifting a Sony Walkman once. Some surveillance video of me in some New Jack City-like apartment building in Crown Heights copping weed or blow likely would have surfaced. Or maybe they would have found drugs in the minivan (planted or otherwise).

“Oh Please! He was no angel!” the talk show pundits would have said. “He was a thug. Marijuana, cocaine, we even have reports of crack use, for-chrissakes! It’s no surprise he tried to assault that officer. He’d probably assault his own grandmother.”

“He was one of our best and brightest!” my teachers from grade school would have said during interviews. “He had so much promise!”

“You mean Unique Allah? That’s what he used to tell me to call him,” the dean from my high school would have likely said. “Called me and all the white teachers here ‘devils’. He and his Five-Percenter clique were nothing but trouble. I’m sad to say I’m not surprised he has come to such an end. May god have mercy on his soul!”

“He was a bit of rebel,” one of my white college professors would have said. “Walked around campus with one of those Public Enemy clocks around his neck. You know? Like that Flava Flav character? It was just a matter of time. Rap music is destroying black minds!”

My neighbors and friends in Brooklyn would have marched and protested as we did every other time someone ended like I did. The Reverend Al Sharpton leading the way, megaphones and placards, posters of me grinning, looking happy and industrious as all get out, sporting a Public Enemy T-shirt and hi-top fade. Maybe even Chuck D would have come out and lent his voice to this latest outrage.

“No Justice, No Peace!!”

Maybe people would have even rioted.

Regardless, I would have been one dead mofo!

Why?

What came over me that day? Why did I snap? What was it that made me more concerned about what was right and just than what was the best course of action to leave that encounter alive and in one piece? Why did logic and reason abandon me in a situation when I needed them most?

I don’t know. I still don’t know. All I know is that I was lucky I had people around me that day who gave a fuck, cuz for the longest, blurriest minute or two of my life, I damn sure didn’t.

 

 **

Baye McNeil is an author, columnist and activist from Brooklyn NY, living in Yokohama, Japan since 2004. His work can be found on bayemcneil.com

 

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