I’ve lived in New York for almost four months now. Long enough to know not to stare at the wild-eyed man grumbling to himself on the A train. Long enough to know you aren’t supposed to ask for your bagel toasted at the deli. Long enough to know everything above 14th Street is a headache.
So when I met up with Lauren at one of those too-crowded, semi-touristy coffee shops on Bedford to hear about her months in New Mexico, compare Ok Cupid horror/success stories, and apologize for that small crater my terrier dug in her backyard when I sublet her room this summer, that’s all I was expecting to go down. Maybe we’d split a piece of that berry ricota tart thingie (we did). Just a normal Monday afternoon. But not really.
The first clue that something was up was that the barista laughed at one of my jokes. Baristas, especially Williamsburg coffee slingers, do not, DO NOT laugh at customer’s jokes…especially mine. They are far too busy acting superior and explaining that they’re out of cashew milk and SIGH, they suppose they could make some more almond milk but it’s going to “take a sec.” Additional SIGH.
So when this slightly Burning Man-esque dude laughed at a terrible crack I made about the berry tart, it gave me subconscious pause. But there was peppermint tea to drink and stories to exchange and Lauren and I quickly settled at a small wooden table nearish to the front door, far enough away from the long-haired dudes on their laptops and Midwestern tourists resting their laurels on the cafe’s cracked leather couches, shopping bags piled at their feet.
I suppose we sort of looked touristy too. Who else was getting coffee at 4 pm on a Monday? My laptop, in its sky blue, wetsuit-material case, rested against my chair legs on my left side, messenger bag slung over the back of my chair. Lauren’s green suede purse was between her feet.
We quickly became engrossed in girl talk and I barely looked when a 40-something dude in an oversized tan sweatshirt settled uneasily at the table next to us with a half-eaten muffin and cup of coffee. I did, however, notice when I saw – out of the corner of my eye – my blue laptop case move on the floor. Then again. I looked down to see Tan Sweatshirt’s hand lamely adjusting his gaping open black backpack toooooclose to my laptop, sketchily close. I gave him a look without actually looking in his eyes and he quickly grumbled a harried, “Oh, sorry,” as I sort of snatched my new (like, we’re talking a week old) MacBook Air up from his area and rested it on the other side of my chair, this time leaning against my legs.
I glanced at Lauren as soon as I felt Tan Sweatshirt’s eyes move off of me with an expression that said, “Creep, nine o’clock,” but I don’t think she noticed as we were deep into the “Why does he [take me to dinner/fly across the country to see me/spend the night on my couch] if he doesn’t like me?” section of the conversation, one of the more engrossing topics in Girlworld. As we spiraled into “Maybe he still wants to play the field” or “Maybe he’s waiting for you to make the first move” rationalizing, I noticed Tan Sweatshirt pacing around the small coffee shop, yammering into his cell phone. I wasn’t listening to what he was saying, and pulsed my calf to make sure I still felt the weight of my almost-weightless Air against it. I did.
After a few more laps, Tan Sweatshirt awkwardly gathered up his dilapidated backpack and left the coffee shop. I immediately interrupted Lauren with: “That guy was totally trying to steal my computer.”
Her eyes widened. “What? Are you serious?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Didn’t you see that face I made when I moved my computer over here?” I gestured to the ground and when I looked up, Lauren had slapped her hands against the back of her chair as her mouth dropped open. I heard her high-heeled boots scuttling around on the floor. Her eyes were Mark Ryden huge.
“My purse,” she gasped.
“No. No way!” I immediately stood up as she threw her chair back and did the same, looking around frantically. “He took your purse?!”
“He took my purse,” she said or at least I think she said, I was already busy running out of the cafe and onto Bedford. The insanely crowded afternoon sidewalk seemed like one large, malleable organism, allowing me room to immerse myself in it as I scanned the surrounding few hundred feet. Then I saw him – Tan Sweatshirt – awkwardly walk-shuffling away with what could only be Lauren’s purse wrapped in his shitty black backpack.
Autopilot took over – I ran a few steps down the block yelling, “Hey! HEY! You took her purse! HE TOOK HER PURSE!” More than a few passersby stopped and looked where I pointed, including a group of Hasidic Jews standing right near where Tan Sweatshirt was now rushing through, having heard my shouts. Lauren, frantic, appeared at my side. “He’s right there!” I pointed and then, remembering the rest of our valuables were now unattended in the cafe: “Shit. I have to get our stuff. I’m calling the cops on your phone! Don’t lose him!” My own phone was dead and I had seen Lauren’s on the table (and not in her purse, luckily). I ran back towards the cafe as Lauren, in a fit of Wonder Woman rage, dashed off after Tan Sweatshirt.
Inside the cafe, the long-haired dudes looked up as I burst in and hurriedly grabbed my bag, computer, and Lauren’s phone. I almost paused at the Barista’s counter but his back was to me and I didn’t have time to explain that his establishment was a hotbed of thievery. I dashed out, dialing 911 on Lauren’s phone as I ran down the street in the direction both she and the thief had gone in. I shouted details – street names, clothing, age, height – through the phone line and into the 911 operator’s ears as my legs flew crazily down Bedford. I rounded the corner of 5th and saw both Lauren – closer – and Tan Sweatshirt – farther away. She had accumulated a tall, Puerto Rican dude in a tie and one of the older Hasidic Jewish guys in a wide-brimmed black hat, on her journey. There was a commotion in the middle of the street – horns honking and a taxi parked at a crazy angle in the middle of the road and suddenly the tall dude in the tie was shouting at someone in the cab and emerged holding up Lauren’s green purse as the Hasidic man calmly stood dead center in the road in front of the cab with his hand out, evenly daring the cabbie to drive forward.
What happened next was a blur of expletives and chaos. The dude in the tie handed Lauren her purse while blocking the door of the cab which did indeed contain Tan Sweatshirt (he hailed an escape cab?), who was half trying to get out and half shrinking away from the wall of rage Lauren and I presented him with as he mumbled, “Look I gave her her stuff back- I gave you your stuff back! It’s all there!” and the dude in the tie said, “You fucking stole, man,” and Lauren yelled, “You stole my PURSE!” and I chimed in with, “And you tried to steal my computer!” and Tan Sweatshirt shuddered as he spat, “Look, I’m in a bad way, okay? You don’t have to call the cops!” and Lauren and I simultaneously told him to go fuck himself (classy ladies) and the cars behind the taxi honked and the ever-faint sound of a siren could be heard over the din.
I felt the hot rage twist up my throat as I yelled at this stranger, this thief, then wondered where it came from and knew it was somehow connected to ire I felt at someone reaching their hand into my bubble and trying to take what wasn’t theirs, and then more anger at being able to be stolen from, to live in that bubble in the first place. I heard myself viciously cut off another one of Tan Sweatshirt’s mealy-mouthed pleas with, “I already CALLED the cops, you fucking thief, and they’re gonna be here soon.” I almost snarled when I said it, using the phone pressed to my ear to gesture. “Hurry up,” I said into the phone. “We’ve got him.” Who was I? I didn’t have time to examine it any further because right then something feral and sick snapped into place in Tan Sweatshirt’s eyes and he forced Tie Guy out of his way. Tie Guy must have seen the same caged animal look I did, the look that could have pulled a knife, anything, out of his drooping front pocket and turned this situation into something much more dangerous and real than it already was.
As Tie Guy took a step back, the cabbie, happy to be rid of his trouble passenger, hit the gas and took off. Suddenly the traffic started moving as Lauren, Tie Guy, the Jewish man and myself took stock of the situation, about to start comparing stories but the calm, contemplative Jewish guy pointed out that Tan Sweatshirt was getting away. Again. I jerked my head up and saw that he was indeed and my legs started moving of their own accord as I tailed him. I heard the echoes of Lauren’s boots as she ran after me and realized I was still on the phone, since I had just reported into it, “He’s on Roebling now! We’re going after him. Where are you guys?”
“Ma’am,” the 911 operator droned, as if I had just reported stubbing my toe. “We’ll be there shortly. Don’t go after him yourself.” But Tie Guy had pulled up next to me and we watched as Tan Sweatshirt, about a block ahead of us, took a sharp right on 9th. Lauren, not as fast in her heels, caught up to us. Tie Guy – someone we had accumulated along the way said his name was Joe – also had his phone pressed to his ear.
“They’re coming,” Joe said, not to me but looking right at Lauren. Heyyyyyyyy, I saw what was going on here. “I gave them a really good description of what he looks like.” Lauren batted those big blue ones at him and said, “Thanks for getting my purse back.” Joe grinned but the moment was interrupted by a mop-topped hipster on a way-too-small bike up ahead of us shouting, “The cops are here!” True enough, a flashing cop car raced past us, then him, and took the same corner Tan Sweatshirt had taken. I left Lauren and Joe as I took off sprinting – towards what? Was I going to read him his Miranda Rights? – and the sound of sirens grew louder and louder.
Ripping around the corner, I saw not one but three cop cars all parked in a semi-circle (impressive in the narrow Williamsburg street) and a cluster of blue uniforms surrounding a tan sweatshirt. Bike Guy had riden alongside me as I sprinted and he now circled me, triumphant as if he had some hand in it, saying, “They got him! They got him!” Confusingly, the 0lder Jewish man was also standing on the sidewalk watching Tan Sweatshirt being handcuffed, calmly sucking on a cigarette and talking to some other, younger Hasidic guys who had cropped up out of nowhere. Lauren and Joe rounded the corner as three different NYPD officers, all seemingly thrilled at having something to do, swarmed us, pointing with their thick fingers and thicker accents about who the “victim” was and did I see him touch my laptop and was this cell phone they got off the guy ours (it wasn’t) and could we come to the station if we were officially pressing charges (we were).
The next few hours were a blur of flashing lights, the view from the back of a Brooklyn cop car through the metal grate and out the rain covered windshield, the twenty minutes spent sitting in the back of the parked cop car so they could bring the suspect into the station without running into us, his charge pressers, then Lauren and I being shown into a sort of all-purpose cop hang out room with a few dilapidated vending machines and a mountain of paperwork for us to fill out while the youngish arresting Officer and his older, exhausted partner saw my California ID and told me that END OF WATCH starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as LAPD officers was, “A really fuckin’ good movie…I cried.”
It was only a few hours later, after I opened the door to my silent, darkened apartment and sank into my desk chair as my dog excitedly paced around my weary Converse and my dead phone, my lifeline, was plugged into my non-stolen computer to charge, that the adrenaline wore off and left me with this aching, limb-heavy exhaustion somewhere a little more than the morning after I hiked the Grand Canyon and a little less than the worst breakup I’ve ever (barely) survived. This was what it felt like to be completely empty, I thought. Drained out. I leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes. Listened to the rain beating against the window and replayed the sequence of events in my mind. Tan Sweatshirt, the cops told us, had been arrested sixteen times. Sixteen. Yet there he was, working a busy coffee shop, right under the nose of – oh. Then I got it. The Barista was in on it with him. The cops said they had received four different reports of theft from the SAME coffee shop in the last month. The Barista gives the thief a muffin and a coffee, legitimizing him, as he scopes the clientele for the best marks. That’s why the Barista’s back was to me when I ran back in – I didn’t need to tell him there was a thief in his shop. He already knew. And he was probably getting a kick-back to boot.
My bones hurt as I heard my phone whir back to life and the ding of text messages start flooding in. Lauren (upon my insistence) had already Facebooked some of the photos we had surreptitiously snapped in the back of the cop car. I mean, when else were we going to be riding in the back of one? Or was making a joke out of it a way to deal with the very scary and dangerous situation we had just been in? Tan Sweatshirt could have had a knife or worse on him, then what? I closed my computer, turned off my phone, and took a minute to give thanks that my super heroics didn’t end badly. Well, at least not for me.
I’ve lived in New York for almost four months now. Long enough to know how lucky I am. Long enough to know better.