Rolling Bums in the Spirit of Giuliani

I’m not sure which I noticed first when I hit the A train stop at 116th after dance class today — the kid coming in the subway gate illegally, or the naggingly familiar white dude standing in a group down the platform — but it was already too late by the time I realized I should warn the kid. The white guy was an undercover cop, and the kid was in deep trouble.


I’d noticed the white guy the week before — bug-eyed and a little crazed looking — had pegged him as the aggravated crackhead du jour, and had studiously avoided eye contact. Then at one point I turned around and saw him and another guy handcuffing an actual crackhead, who had come in through the emergency gate without paying the fare.

The emergency gate is not alarmed. That gate isn’t even locked. It is never locked, and when I get out of dance class at 9:00, there are no attendants in the booth to stop people going through it. As long as I’ve been taking that train home (must be what, three-four years now), there have generally been desperate-looking people conferring or lounging on the stairs into the station. A few weeks ago I passed a woman who was openly holding some sort of small pipe or inhaling device to her mouth smack in the middle of the entryway. She stood there for a while after I entered, at which point a large, dignified black man passed her on his way to buy a Metrocard, shook his head, and barked “Crack is WHACK!” to nobody in particular.

Clearly, just about every local who needs to knows the 116th station offers a free ride on the subway; I’m guessing this kid was a local. He was unaccompanied, maybe thirteen or fourteen years old, wearing a plain, puffy parka which gave no impression of wanting to intimidate or impress anyone to his delicate frame. My heart sank as I realized I had just watched him go through without paying, and realized who else was in the station.

I hurried over to the kid and tried to explain, over the din of a passing express, that he ought to watch out. I pointed out the plainclothes, and as I did, realized there were not two but four of them this week. They were accompanied by an officer in uniform. The kid was startled, and took a second to understand that I wasn’t trying to get him in trouble. Then he thanked me and wandered down the platform — right into the path of a plainclothes. The cop caught the kid’s attention too, startling him nearly into panic, then focusing his attention by flashing a black wallet at waist level. The badge. Jig’s up.

I kind of lost track of what happened to the kid after that, as I felt compelled to keep checking the gate to make sure nobody else was coming in. Jesus — I mean, Harlem’s residents don’t need their kids spending unwarranted nights in jail. I don’t know how many of you remember The Tipping Point, in which Malcolm Gladwell explained that arresting subway turnstile-jumpers was how Giuliani was said to have dramatically reduced crime in New York City. Something about how people who had committed other crimes had usually also been picked up for evading the fare at one point or another, so arresting them on subway platforms was a good way to find people who might be in trouble for other reasons, and book ‘em for a sure thing. But in this case, all I’d seen the cops do was pick up two junkies and a harmless-looking kid.

Harlem’s residents don’t need any more police harrassment, generally. Yes, there was a crackhouse on 114th; I have been offered crack. I have had a woman there introduce herself to me as a crackhead. She was among those who form a visible indicator on the street of the crackhouse’s presence; like a significant number of others, she stuck out not just because she was skinny, twitchy, and bereft, but also because she was white. (Also, she was standing by a stoop with a copy of How The Other Half Lives in her arms, trying to enlighten a bemused black matron about how badly black people had been screwed in Hurricane Katrina, but that’s an anecdote I should have written here before, and will elaborate on another time.)

Yes, there was a crackhouse, if there isn’t anymore. But I can tell you that if a dealer was arrested in the area where I grew up, the entire neighborhood would not have been made to suffer the way the folks on 114th did when the police (ostensibly) cleaned the den out.

When I went down to dance class before I left New York for Christmas, I found a police van parked on 114th, sirens off but emergency lights sweeping around and around. Cops were sitting in there, surveying the street scene. I figured there had been an incident; there seemed to be fewer people on the stoops than usual. Then the van was still there two days later. And it was still there when I came back from break. And its lights were still on.

At that point I sought out one of the few neighbors who was out on the stoop. She confirmed that the van had, in fact, been there, with its lights on 24/7, for over a month. They say they’re cleaning out the crackhouse, she told me, but I think it’s just annoying. And I don’t see any difference.

Can you imagine emergency lights sweeping your window all night long for a month, and walking by what’s essentially a surveillance outpost every day as you go out and return? Arresting criminals who are making the neighborhood a dangerous place is one thing, but harrassing the entire block, as if it were full of rabbits who could be flushed from their holes through stress tactics… I’m telling you, it would not happen in my neighborhood. I wanted to run and grab my camera and hack together a little man-on-the-street piece for YouTube, but heaven knows the cops have never responded well to taping in my past experience, and by the time I managed to make it back for another class, the van was gone.

Along the perpendicular edge of that block, on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, cute little cafes which make smoothies and lattes are popping up. There’s a Washington Mutual branch, and a boutique which is decidedly on the dog-sweaters end of the pet store continuum, about as far from the bulk-chow-and-feeder-mice variety as you can get. The buildings on the other side of Frederick Douglass are better lit. The buildings on the side of the crackhouse and the school which hosts my dance class are interspersed with vacant lots and plagued by rats.

The buildings on the other side of the boulevard are plagued by Europeans. Those buildings are gentrified, being closer to Columbia, and Columbia is making people elsewhere in Harlem angry by calling for lebensraum for its science departments up around 130th. I can’t help but wonder if some push to “clean up” Harlem is why undercover cops are staking out that subway stop. Of course, for all I know, this has been going on for years at that stop…

I don’t see why they don’t just put a damn lock on that emergency gate. It’s a honeypot; at this point, they know the weak point exists, and a handful of cops appear to be exploiting it to up their arrest quotas. I just hope to god that one cop only warned the poor kid who snuck in, and sent him on his way.

Comments 2

  1. Itamar wrote:

    You could put up a sign warning people they should avoid the entrance because of the undercover cops. If the cops complain you might explain it’s your civic duty as a citizen to prevent crime.

    Posted 21 Mar 2007 at 7:45 am
  2. gus wrote:

    heh. I was actually considering that; the problem is that particularly as the station is not staffed by MTA employees, there’ll be nobody watching what the cops do to me when they see me do that… it would officially be vandalism, after all. Still…

    Posted 21 Mar 2007 at 12:40 pm

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