“Holy shit,” I muttered, a little too loud for my NYPD minder, who held an index finger up to the stubble surrounding his mouth. To that I added this whisper: “Tell me it doesn’t always happen that easy.”
“It does. Every time,” he replied. “Like fish in a barrel. Drop a hook and crime just happens.” He feigned the snap of his finger.
Before I continue, first this admission of guilt. I live in my own little crime-free bubble. And perhaps you do too. I rise, I work, I commute, I socialize, I eat, I sleep, I repeat. All within my bubble. I’m careful. I try to be aware. Lock the door, set the alarm, check the security cameras when the heebie-jeebies come, and resume my view from inside the bubble. I live my life on the right side of the law and trust that the landscape in which I roam will, percentage-wise, keep me safe from harm.
At least so far.
Then there’s this. Because of my job, I not only intellectually bathe in the dark side of man’s conscience but play at it as a professional fictionalisto. Don’t look up fictionalisto. It’s not a word. I made it up, not unlike so many other things about which I write about. Only what I write about is all based on an ugly reality: that no matter how thick we make our protective bubble, we’re still only a knife’s thrust away from man’s nether-side. The crime side. From the petty to the heinous, we live amongst it and share oxygen with it.
Okay. So how about I get back to it? The setting is New York City. I’m in the subway system during morning rush hour. Grand Central Station. Manhattan’s second busiest junction of underground platforms. Once again, I was researching a movie and was embedded for a couple of days with a detectives’ unit within the PD’s transit cops. The day’s assignment? Crime suppression; otherwise called let’s-show-the-showbiz-hotshot-how-truly-dangerous-NYC-can-really-be. It was a five-man squad plus yours truly. All plain clothes and one not-so plain-clothed detective dressed to impress a certain class of criminal. He was jokingly referred to as “Mr. Bait.” A little grease and muss to his hair and the adornments of an expensive watch, pendant, and gold bracelet – all fake but so very real to the eye – and Mr. Bait was ready for his assault.
We entered the tunnels, jumped turnstiles like a bunch of miscreants, and generally acted like semi-drunken louts after an all-night party. In other words, in the rush of morning commuting, we were pretty much little more than set dressing, eventually slipping behind a thin phalanx of plywood construction barriers. Well, all of us but for Mr. Bait. His job was to slowly stumble through the pedestrian tunnel in a pretend stupor. Bent. Woozy. Barely standing. This while the rest of us waited patiently until somebody waltzed in, clocked Bait as molest-able, and robbed him in plain view of all those other bustling commuters.
“How long does this usually take?” I asked, wondering just how many hours I’d have my right eye stuck to a dime-sized peephole in the poster-plastered-plywood.
The nearest detective needn’t have to answer. Within seconds, another detective whispered, “fish on” into his radio. Sure enough, I spotted a hooded young male who, after hustling past Bait, had slowed himself twenty feet beyond Mr. Bait, stopped and begun to scope the crowds of city-goers hoofing past our addled lure who was brilliantly pretending to use the wall tile to keep himself upright.
How fast? you ask. From the time we’d set up behind the construction to when the young predator had begun his stalk of Mr. Bait was no less than two minutes. Yeah. I said: Two. Minutes.
After a further three or so minutes into his stalk on poor Mr. Bait, the predator finally moved in, feigning to be a friend of Mr. Bait’s, easing him to the floor, crouching ever nearer, and one item at a time, removing everything of perceived value from Mr. Bait’s possession and pocketing it as his own. A petty mugging, you might think. Without violence. As crime goes, pretty damned polite, I’d reckon.
Once Mr. Bait was fully relieved of his property, the detectives moved in. The arrest was efficient. A simple frisk returned Bait’s stolen items along with a pig-sticker of a folding knife. After escorting the hoodie to the nearest precinct for processing, we were back at the job. Different crowded pedestrian tunnel, different plywood façade with peepholes enough for a few of our eyeballs. And yes. Minutes again. Mr. Bait was accosted, robbed, and manhandled by a pair of male snatch and grab artists. Minutes. And to prove their point that this was no anomaly, the same act was repeated through the long shift. Mr. Bait played the mark in a drugged funk. And within not more than a few heartbeats, there always appeared bad boys to mug him.
It left me breathless. Never in my life had I witnessed such predatory human behavior, with the last sting resulting in two potential assailants — competitors for the prize, working to outmaneuver each other and be first to Mr. Bait without arousing the suspicions of any of the pedestrians providing the constant flow of normalcy.
At shift’s end, when booking for each suspect was concluded, all but one of those young men had a violent arrest record. Assaults. Armed robberies. Proof that crime, from their perspective, still paid and were Mr. Bait to have put up any reasonable fight, he might’ve gotten himself seriously injured or worse.
What’s the difference between LA and New York? Instead of walking by or amongst the criminal element, we’re driving alongside or by it. Oblivious. Still in our little bubble of human denial. But no matter how we rationalize it away, it’s still there. A constant. Not just beyond the bubble, but perhaps even closer, right under the surface of our collective skins.