It happened over eight or so years ago. I was working “non-traditional" shifts at a major NYC midtown law firm.
It was early one Fall Sunday night. It was a work night for me.
No matter what my intention, my departure for work usually resembled the proverbial fireman’s exit. So it was this particular night.
I had opted to wear a mid-calf denim skirt ruffled at the bottom, a crisp white tailored man’s shirt, and a rust colored vest. The dress code for weekends was generous, but I had decided it was high time to spruce myself up more than my usual jeans and a pullover. I threw on a favorite long black suit jacket. I decided I’d have to apply makeup later at the office as I stuffed a pair of gold hoop earrings in my vest pocket to be inserted while awaiting the subway.
The last thing I always did upon leaving for work was grab hold of my keys hanging from a hook next to the door and from another hook one of those clear plastic neck holders often used for passports. I kept my office ID card in it. The card not only provided access to the building but onto the half dozen floors belonging to the firm. Wearing it around my neck was most convenient at the busy office.
I bounded down the apartment stairs and rushed through the mailboxed entryway. As I emerged onto the avenue I was startled by a number of things. It was darker than I had anticipated, eerily quiet even for a Sunday night and there was a serious chill in the air. I should have grabbed a heavier jacket I mourned, but did not want to take the time to go back and get one. To avoid the cold I decided instead of walking across to the west side from the 6 train stop I would switch to the shuttle at 42nd Street.
As I was calculating my route to work and its timing I suddenly stopped to take in a rather surreal image. I gasped. The sidewalks running up and down my block on both sides of the street were generously festooned with yellow crime scene tape. What on earth?
Well, this certainly accounted for the lack of pedestrians and traffic and the “eerie” quietness.
I noted a white and blue police car parked in the street -- parked perpendicular to the direction of traffic and blocking the entry of any cars from the intersection onto my block. Then I looked north to see another police car parallel to this one at the end of that block. I wondered what on earth had happened. The yellow tape was only on my block, however.
I walked the short distance to the corner honoring the stream of yellow and waited for the light to change. Then I realized how silly I was being since there was no traffic.
The deli on the corner directly across the street was closed. This was also unusual.
Then I spotted them. A covey of maybe a dozen police officers of varying ages and, judging from their uniforms, varying ranks. They were huddled on the north side of the building.
As I began to cross the street a young officer left the group to approach me. We stopped and faced each other on the south side of the parked police car.
The young man smiled and nodded politely. Politely and expectantly.
I nodded back.
He seemed to be waiting nervously for me to talk.
“So, what’s going on?” I asked.
He exhaled and began talking furiously fast to fill me in.
“Well, we have him isolated on the second floor of the apartment in his bedroom. He is by one of the windows. He has the gun!”
The young officer paused to turn and point to the second floor directly over a laundry of a tall building that was one block south of my building, catty-corner to it -- the southwest corner.
My jaw dropped. “WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?” I demanded.
The guy looked at me, his forehead furrowing. He pointed to the work badge around my neck. “WHO ARE YOU????” he demanded back.
“I live in that building there on the corner.” My turn to pivot and point.
“YOU MEAN YOU ARE A CIVILIAN???” he gasped. “A CIVILIAN!!!” He exploded with exasperation and sudden disrespect.
Before I had time to answer he threw himself at me bringing us both dramatically and roughly down on the asphalt beside the car.
“FOLLOW ME!” I heard him order as I rallied to sit up. He was crawling on all fours around the car to the other side. I followed suit though it wasn’t easy, finally hoisting up my denim skirt above my poor knees as the hard pebbly surface dug into them. My right elbow began to throb with pain from the fall.
As we huddled beside the police car on its north side he explained to me that there was an emotionally disturbed young man with a gun a block away, who was threatening to shoot himself or others. The young officer and I apparently had been talking while in the proverbial line of fire.
I was astonished. The reality of the situation inspired more awe in me than fear or anger.
We had been discussing the situation IN THE LINE OF FIRE???? What the ...???
As if reading my mind, the young man disclosed. “We thought you were .... er .... we thought you might be ... well, somebody in authority.”
Then he declared, exasperated again, “WE DIDN’T KNOW WHO YOU WERE!!!!”
The adrenaline was pumping assuredly for both of us. But he seemed to have an additional anger at me -- AT ME??? As if I had tricked him. As if I callously had set HIM up for danger.
He pointed once again at the ID around my neck as if it explained everything.
I tried to process the scenario but I kept getting distracted by my heart pounding in my ears.
Let’s see. He had thought I was someone in authority. He apparently had been sent over to find out who I actually was.
He had been wiling to stand before me politely and attentively at the mercy of my assumed AUTHORITARIAN WILL where we were both in jeopardy of being shot. Where we were both in the line of fire because he assumed that is where I deigned to stand in spite of such a perilous circumstance which he had assumed I at least knew the gist of.
As we sat there uncomfortably on the pavement propped up against the police car doors, he asked me where I had been trying to go. I said, “Just to the subway stop. I’m on my way to work.” The stop was a block north.
He pointed to the west side of the street and told me to run across to the corner and then hug the walls of the buildings as I made my way to it. I nodded and watched him race back to the police officers still clustered on the southwest corner.
The bizarre dream I inadvertently had strolled into was coming to an end. For me at least.
I pressed against the police car to get back on my feet, staying hunched over. I then obediently ran to the northwest corner of the intersection and hustled down the sidewalk to the subway station. When I got downstairs I located a pay phone and called my workplace to tell them I would be late.
“But I have a quite a story to explain why,” I promised my supervisor.