There have been a few periods of my life where I've done everything possible to live below the radar of "the man." Working short-term jobs, moving frequently, living without bank accounts or credit cards. Living the life of a digital nomad, computer disks and portfolio in tow, living out of my backpack or the panniers on my bicycle.
In the days before the widespread use of the internet, google and social networking websites it was much easier to go off the grid. I'm not sure if I could pull off now what I did then.
Today's story comes out of one of those periods of living life underground.
July 1993. I'm on the bus travelling east. It's been a long time since I've been home. I can almost taste the bagels of my imagination and hear the clanking of the wheels of the subway in my mind. I got word last week that the case against the unknown John Doe had been dropped, the investigation ended, the trumped up charges erased.
I've got 3 days on the bus. Plenty of time to sit and think; read and dream and wonder if I'll manage to pick up right where I left off and jump back into the NYC Activist scene of the Lower East Side.
On this side of the trip is Portland Oregon, one of the places that took me in and gave me sustenance and shelter. I've spent time in a few cities and towns on the west coast on this trip. I didn't manage to pick up the amount of freelance work that I really wanted. I've been living very light and survival has been mostly due to the kindness and generosity of strangers and friends. A loan here, a place to crash there, a referral for a temp job that won't ask me too many questions wherever I could find them.
But now, I'm going home. On the other end of the journey is Manhattan, the grit and insanity; the dreams and the dreck.
The journey west was via Train (Amtrak not freight) when my coffers were full from a period of full-time employment. The journey home is Greyhound via a ticket purchased by my parents -- mom called it a loan knowing that I did not want her charity and knowing full well that she'd never accept repayment. The bus is a very different world from the comfort of the train. There's no bar car, no ability to sneak a smoke, few if any interesting conversations -- nothing but monotony. Still, I'm glad to be going home.
9 Months earlier I was living in a nice apartment on Clinton and Delancey, overlooking the entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge. It was a noisy place, sometimes when I was on the phone the person on the other end would ask me if I was calling from a pay phone on the street. The noise of the traffic was intense, especially the trucks who frequently were skidding to a stop at the red light they knew was there but always seemed to think might just be turning from yellow to green just this one time. They would grind to a halt bouncing over the large metal plates that hid the decay that a few years later led to the bridge being partially closed and under reconstruction for years.
At the time of my departure from NYC, my eviction from that apartment was only a matter of time. It was an illegal sublet -- well it was supposed to be a legal sublet leading to me getting the lease but my friend that had the place earlier decided to not follow the instructions from the housing rights organization GOLES (good old lower east side) and screwed my chances to get the lease.
The reality of soon being houseless again, stepping back into my digital nomad persona, was making me think of leaving town for a while.
Now let me point out that I used the term houseless and not homeless. I might not have a place of my own, but I have a community. At times in the past, I'd divided up my time between friends couches, the guest spaces at neighborhood squats, and friends who were travelling who needed someone to watch their space. I spent a lot of time without a place to live, but I only slept outside when I wanted to -- mostly when I rode east towards beaches where you can covertly camp especially if you don't use a car to get there.
The other important context for the rest of the story is that I had been working a full time job doing print production work for a company that put out newsletters for heating oil delivery companies -- a perfect combination of organized crime and environmental nastiness.
I got the job thanks to an associate in the bicycle advocacy/activist community in NYC. He was the editor of the newsletters. The day he had me typeset a story that used a Greenpeace article on the dangers of building new natural gas pipelines as a way of saying "see even Greenpeace thinks heating oil is better than that cleaner burning natural gas" I knew my tenure there was coming to an end. I had been pushed too far; I just could not use my skill for this twisted propaganda anymore. I decided I was going to leave soon (but had a plan that might have allowed me to get unemployment payments). If I had made a couple different decisions I would have gotten what was mine, my unemployment payments. However, I fucked it up and got nothing.
So, the day in question I was all flummoxed over my decision, do I stay or do I go. There was a car-free central park protest, just the thing to clear my mind. I got on my bike and headed over.
At this time, cars were allowed on the central loop road only during rush hour. The rest of the time it was for runners, bikes and skaters. One problem was that the Park cops never closed the entrances and cars would continue to speed around the loop endangering the lives of those using the park for recreation.
Our protest was simple. During the time the cars were allowed, we'd take up one lane and ride really slow. We were legally allowed to take one lane so the cops would back off. At 7:01pm when the cars were no longer allowed in the park, we'd form a line and funnel all the cars out of the park onto Central Park West.
This one night, one car decided to challenge our blockade. He drove slowly into the line of bikes, making it clear that he was going through no matter what.
I had different ideas.
As I watched my friend Mike's bike slowly move under the front bumper, about to meet its death, I leapt (quite literally) into action. Lots of people are shouting, and I'm Flying over the handlebars of my bike. I landed right next to the car. My momentum was moving forward fast and I swung my hand towards the front windshield. My hand was flat open, my intent was to slap the window and scare the driver into stopping the car. But the PTSD kicked in a bit.
Everyone stops, it is super quiet for a moment. Everyone is shocked. Where there was a nice perfectly shaped front windshield a moment ago there's now a fractal pattern of chips held together by some unseen force, the middle layer of auto glass.
No one was more in shock than I was. There was my hand, completely unhurt in the center of a huge depression on the window. I must have been aiming for the driver’s head and not the glass; the glass must have been improperly installed making it vulnerable to breaking.
The Car stopped.
The Driver Got Out.
I reached for my U lock.
A funky standoff indeed.
The crowd starts chanting the license place number of the car as a way of intimidating the driver to back off. We know who you are (or do we).
As the chanting continues, I realize that under the letters and numbers we were yelling was the word "Official." Official plates mean this guy is important, he's in government or some other high level position.
This was the first moment I realized I might be in a situation that I might not get out of. Visions of my police beating in Buffalo flew around my brain and I started to panic.
I was moving slowly to the back of the crowd, starting to plan my getaway.
Bill then came rushing over to me. "Do you realize who that guy is, this is bad, get out of here."
Bill takes off his jacket and shirt and we swap clothes and bikes. I keep my backpack for a few reasons I'll go into some other time.
As we're swapping camouflage Bill tells me to look at the dashboard behind the broken window. Oh shit. Is that? Is that a red siren light? Oh shit. Oh SHIT. Oh, man this is bad. As I'm rambling Bill informs me that he's a Deputy Commissioner of the NYC Parks Department and also a Captain in the NYPD.
Most of the rest of the story is second hand from the folks that lived through the final chapter.
The driver apparently stank like booze and was probably drunk. Lots of folks were still around -- 4 of them decided to stick around until the cops came explicitly to try to file charges against the drunken cop driving the now wounded car.
Of course the cops refused to give a Breathalyzer to the drunken cop, they took the 4 interested in pressing charges to the Central Park Precinct. There they got to fill out accident reports, the first step towards filing real charges. After a couple of them had been given their receipts, the Commander of the precinct came in and tore up all the accident reports (but not the receipts he did not know were already in nervous back pockets).
The tables had turned. The 4 were arrested for disorderly conduct for having been in the roadway legally so they could be hit by the drunk cop.
As the situation progressed over the next week or two, it became clear that all those charges would be dropped if they turned over the "guy that hit the car with the lead pipe" The cops offered to drop the charges if they help arrest the guy that attacked the car. A John Doe warrant was issued for assault with a deadly weapon (a crime more fitting to be charged against the cop in the car if you ask me).
They refused to cooperate. They gave mocking answers.
What was his name? Sven I think... no it was Jose. No that's not it. Homer, it was Homer.
One cop asked my friend for the name of the guy with the lead pipe, he replied that there was no lead pipe. The cop, having watched too many episodes of NYPD Blue, got in his face and asked "well, what type of pipe was it?!"
There was no Pipe!!!
Anyway, after a few liberal types that knew me as a more radical but reasonable activist tried to get me to turn myself in, I decided that all signs were saying one thing: get the fuck out of Dodge.
A week or two later I was on a train from NYC to Chicago, connecting at Chicago for the train to San Fran via Salt Lake and Denver -- One of the most amazingly beautiful sections of train travel in North America.
I looked out the windows for hours, got into amazing political debates in the bar car, found out that middle America has some interesting places and people. We wound back and forth for half a day slowly climbing the Rocky Mountains, I was mesmerized by the landscape and wondered how long until I could return home.
The story would end there if not for the epilogue I learned of years later.
The Commander of the Central Park Precinct, the cop that tore up the accident reports and started the campaign to bring the biker with the pipe to justice in order to cover up for his associate’s drunken assault, is now known as the highest-ranking NYPD officer to kill himself. He was due to appear at a commission investigating police corruption and decided to eat his gun instead.
A while after that, the friend who's bike's peril sparked my actions, the friend who still had his accident report receipt when he was told by the soon to be dead by his own hand Commander of the Central Park Precinct, that there was no accident and he was under arrest, was at a family reunion. His grandfather started talking to him about how he was a little depressed; a cousin that my friend had never met was an NYPD cop and recently killed himself instead of appearing at a corruption investigation.
Not so instant karma.