Three days before my 33rd birthday, and I hustled down 5th Avenue, toting my briefcase. It was like most weekday summer mornings in the city. I had waited on the downtown platform of the 1 and 9 trains, which then took me to Times Square where I could then switch to the 7 train. This left me just a few blocks from my office, walking at a healthy clip, perspiration streaming down my back in the August heat.
My watch read 8:24, just about five minutes to get to the office on time. I slung my suit jacket over my right shoulder and quickly wiped my brow with an already-saturated handkerchief. I could see my regular coffee stand just ahead of me on the right side of the avenue, my faithful vendor, Abraham, already hard at work, serving his regulars with his customary zeal.
I took my place on the line. And then I heard it.
A friend who sold pension plans for Aetna Insurance once told me that people in big cities are always in such a hurry to get where they’re going, that they rarely notice things happening around them. And when they do, they all try their best to collectively turn their backs.
Screeching tires are really no big deal when you live in a big city, especially in New York. Between that and the sound of ambulance and police sirens and the occasional truck backfire (which often sounds like a gunshot), you’re so immune to certain noises that you just march on. The only catch is that most screeching tires you hear aren’t followed by the sound of screaming. The usual world of 5th Avenue and surrounding city blocks suddenly ceased to exist. And everyone who heard those tires turned to look.
You’d think that something inside you would send a message to your brain when a car hits another person, especially when it happens right in front of you. But the message never comes. You just stand there and stare. And it’s not like in the movies either; the person doesn’t go flying through the air, and there really isn’t a lot of noise. It was more like a dull thud, sort of like when a bundle of newspapers smacks onto the ground, off the back of a delivery truck.
The woman who got hit could have been my mother. She looked like she was somewhere over fifty and pretty well-dressed. She had been knocked loose from the high-heel shoe on her right foot, and it now stood strangely upright in the street next to her.
It all looked staged really. Here was this upscale woman just lying in the middle of 5th Avenue. Blood dripped from her right ear, while the hysterical young girl, who drove what looked like a brand new Wagoneer, screamed for help. From where I stood, it looked like our little world stopped for a moment, as every single pair of eyes looked on. And then something happened that no one could have predicted.
He was on a bicycle. It looked like the type of ten-speed most messengers use. At first, it was as if we were all witnessing the arrival of some sort of urban superhero, the way he just breezed in, sporting dark Ray Bans and a gridlock-deflecting, silver whistle in his mouth.
In that moment, I thought he might be just what the fallen woman needed, as she continued to lie motionless in the street. Instead, though, the heroic image I had hastily conjured shattered when the would-be hero calmly bent down and swiped the woman’s purse.
You’d think that someone would have reacted with rage over that – even disgust. Instead, though, everyone just kept staring, perhaps too shocked by what had just transpired. As he scooped up the purse, he shot a glance in my direction. Still dazed, I watched him shoot me a crooked grin, smugly displaying one of those no-one-can-touch-me expressions; it was the type of expression that a big-money football player might make during an end zone celebration.
I wanted to yell at him in angry protest, but I couldn’t. And by the time I could find the strength to even move at all, the thief on the bicycle had headed south on 5th Avenue, far too fast to be called out by anyone.
By 8:45, the paramedics showed up and tended to the woman. To look at her lifeless body, you’d say there was no way she was going to live. But they loaded her up in the back of the ambulance anyway, with the hysterical woman who had run her down, still crying as the ambulance doors closed. The all-too-familiar sound of the siren wailed away, as they quickly sped away.
As some of the onlookers lingered, I wiped the cascading sweat off the front of my face. Thinking of the thief, I imagined the weighted end of his messenger’s whistle dangling from his neck. With those dark glasses and dark clothing, he was essentially disguised. Except for a ratty-looking baseball cap he wore backwards and a black T-shirt that featured some very faded yellow lettering, he pretty much looked like every other bicycle messenger.
I decided that I couldn’t have done much. After all, this wasn’t my business. And yet, the thought that I just stood there with all the other onlookers and did nothing, somehow made me ashamed. I know it sounds like a load of crap, but I wasn’t raised that way.
Like it was with most mini dramas, the stunned crowd eventually dispersed. I walked across the avenue to my office, still thinking of the grinning messenger. 8:48 now. Well, at least now I had an excuse for being late.
When I got up to the tenth floor, a woman Nicole Lamenola stood in the hallway, sipping coffee.
“Hey, Nicki,” I said softly. The sweat from the heavy air outside still ran in a steady stream
down my back.
“Jesus. Are you OK?” she asked. Her furrowed brow suggested real concern, and somehow I was oddly turned on by her animated reaction.
“Yeah, just can’t seem to turn the water works off this morning, Nicki. I feel like I showered
twice. ‘Ya know?”
I must have looked pretty sorry. But when she giggled coyly, I couldn’t help smile back at her. She wasn’t really my type, but you couldn’t deny that she was especially pretty. And every now and then, I would allow myself to imagine that I might have been occasionally in her thoughts away from the office. I mean we did spend a lot of time together.
So as I stood there and indulged my somewhat lustful thoughts a little, she quickly shocked me back to reality.
“Oh yeah, Paul,” she said. “You know what’s going on out in the street? One of the sales assistants said some woman got hit by a car or something.” She sipped her coffee again, waiting for
“Yeah, jesus. That poor lady never had a chance, I heard. I think some idiot ‘musta run the light
There didn’t seem any reason to give the real version of what happened, given my odd
feelings of cowardice
Instead, I decided to lie a little. “I didn’t really see much,” I said. And walking around the corner, I forced a smile. “I’ll come back over and visit later, maybe when I finally stop sweating. OK?” I wanted to get away from her before my feelings of guilt over the incident replaced my suddenly randy nature. Plain and simple, she was really good looking.
As I made the corner, the activity on the hallway ran at its usually torrid morning pace. My friend, Mike Carroll, walked towards me and hit me with one of his long-tired, yet still-obligatory digs. “Holy shit, man. Is that sweat on your back?”
Quickly going him one better, I chirped, “I dunno, Mike. Is that shit on your face?” His recent attempt at growing a beard/mustache combination made him more than an easy target, and I couldn’t resist.
(And for what it’s worth, I was a notoriously big “sweater,” with pools of the stuff often soaking right through my clothes. At that point, we’d worked together nearly three years, and you’d think he would have worked on developing some new material with which to bust my balls.)
“Hey, Paul, you see that accident this morning?” Mike munched loudly on an apple, as she spoke. “A guy up in Media told me some poor lady got flattened.”
I guess there was no reason to avoid discussing it. It wasn’t like I just wanted to forget about it. I guess thing like that just happened. Besides, Mike Carroll knew me way too well to try to get away with bullshitting him. He was sure to nag me all day until I gave it up. And I was just getting around to spilling it, when he appeared.
Somebody once wrote that coincidence is basically for suckers. Things happen for a reason; that’s just the way it is. So, passing things off as coincidence makes us indecisive – maybe even weak. As I saw a bike messenger at the far end of the hall, I had to go back and look. That day reminded me that a guilty conscience can really peak your curiosity.
“Mike,” I said calmly. “Call security and get ‘em up here as fast as you can.”
When you know someone well, sometimes you just know that they’re for real. And to Mike’s credit, he played along.
“What do I tell ‘em?” Mike asked plainly.
“Tell ‘em there’s a bicycle messenger on the tenth floor who robbed a woman out on 5th Avenue
Mike looked around and then walked part of the way down the hall. He returned almost immediately, and he started dialing the phone. (I never asked him, but I’m guessing he wanted to make sure he wasn’t about to become the butt of some elaborate practical joke. I have to believe, too, that he saw the look on my face. And somehow he knew that I was for real.
With my heart beating a little faster and my stubborn perspiration now flowing more freely than ever down the back of my neck, something occurred to me. It wasn’t that it wasn’t completely clear to me that this was the guy. (There was absolutely no doubt in my mind about that.) Instead, I suddenly realized I might need some help.
As I started down the hall, I paused for a second. And then I stopped at Chuck Ellard’s office. Chuck was a smart, but very quiet guy, who had gone through the sales training program with me. He may have been a little out of shape, but more than that, he was just plain big.
And when he looked up and noticed me in the doorway, he appeared startled – afraid even. I guess I thought I was the one who looked a little scared and unsure about what I might be willing to do next. But one look at Check Ellard’s face told me that my expression didn’t look much like fear at all. Clearly, it was a lot more like rage.
“I need your help, Chuck.”
He sat up a bit in his chair, but he didn’t say anything at first. (Like I said, I’m pretty certain that I didn’t look much like a guy who just stopped by to bullshit.) So, I just looked him right in the eye.
“I swear I’m not jerking you around here, man. There’s a guy at the end of the hall who I’m sure robbed some lady in the street a while ago – right after she got hit by a car.”
I paused for a moment, wondering if he saw the same sincerity that Mike Carroll had instantly recognized. As I waited for Chuck Ellard to answer me – to say anything – I saw the messenger collect his things and head for the elevator.
“That’s it, man,” I said. “He’s leaving.”
I paused for a moment and looked directly at him again. “He looks too tough to take alone.”
With that, Chuck Ellard, who liked to keep mostly to himself, got up from his chair and headed out into the hallway.
Quickly, we ran toward the elevator. A few people turned to look when we more or less sprinted past each of them, but pretty much everyone else just kept working.
We ran past Sally Walsh’s desk (the very last one before the door that led to the bank of elevators), and you could hear the loud “dinging” sound, as the doors opened.
Not that I ever had a moment’s doubt, but there he was.
I saw the whistle dangling from his neck, the dark glasses and the grubby looking baseball cap that he wore backwards. And that’s when I saw it.
The faded yellow lettering on his black T-shirt was now clearly visible. It read “El Rey,” translated literally as “The King.”
When the doors closed, and the elevator began its descent, it was just the three of us. I looked over at Chuck who suddenly had one of those “what-the-fuck-am-I-doing-here?” type expressions on his face.
The messenger pressed the button for the lobby and looked straight up at the elevator counter. I took a long look at him, his mirrored shades reflecting off the front of the elevator’s metal doors.
And as he continued to look up at the descending numbers, I made my move, grabbing him by the back of the neck.
“What the hell are you doing, man?!” he yelled out. He was looking right at me.
I could sense his complete surprise, as he initially offered no resistance. But when I tightened my grip, he recoiled and tried to wriggle away, almost like a child who knows he’s been caught doing
I grabbed him by the throat and tried pinning him to the wall. “I saw you, you son of a bitch! I saw what you did!!” I yelled loudly. I figured sounding really pissed off might somehow make me seem a little more formidable.
He was slender, with thin, striated muscles in his legs, and he looked to be pretty powerful in his upper body. He quickly freed my grip on his throat, and then in one quick motion, struck me hard in the right cheek.
As he scrambled to the front of the elevator, which was now moving, there was literally nowhere to go. We were still only part of the way down, still about seven floors until the main lobby.
I watched him wind up with what looked like just about everything he had, throwing a wild haymaker into Chuck Ellard’s soft stomach.
After all these years, I still go over it in my head, but for a guy who might have been an unwilling participant in the bizarre events that day, that punch instantly got him right in the game.
“You fucker!” he shouted. And with every ounce of rage he could call on, Chuck tackled the messenger below the waist, knocking him into the front of the elevator, just as it arrived at the lobby level. When the messenger managed to scramble up to his feet to try to run away, I sent him flying backward, back into the elevator.
I decided later that it must have been an especially odd circumstance for the people who were waiting in the lobby. I mean it isn’t every day that you see two business types, clad in ties and shirtsleeves, grappling with a bike messenger in a crowded office building elevator.
Perhaps realizing that we weren’t going to just let him run away, the messenger went back on the offensive, smashing me right in the temple, causing my eyes to tear heavily. As I grabbed for my head, (now loudly ringing) through my rapidly swelling eyes, I could see Chuck slugging him right in the upper torso.
As I wiped my hand across the front of my face, I discovered a small drop of blood that began leaking out of the corner of the right side of my mouth. In an instant, I suddenly thought of the broken woman in the street and the unforgivable act of the bike messenger. And when I saw that blood, I flashed back to every high school wrestling match I’d lost, probably could have won.
With all three of us now out on the carpet of the main lobby area, I could barely see the onlookers out of what was left of my periphery. (My right eye was now partially swollen shut.) I saw a security officer make a move towards the melee that had quickly broken out in front of him. I’m guessing that the scene was probably not anything like he expected when he awoke that morning.
Getting to my feet, I managed to subdue the messenger for a moment, while Chuck, showing surprising quickness, knocked him right back down again. A woman screamed loudly as the messenger fell forward, nearly landing directly on top of her.
And so it went for a few more seconds; there was quiet Chuck Ellard and yours truly taking turns beating on the bike messenger, making sure he wouldn’t try to run away.
As I look back, I guess he was a victim that day, too. The idea of wandering into an office where one guy recognized you in a city of 8 million, yeah, the same guy who saw you commit some terrible crime seemed, well, pretty close to impossible.
One of the security officers who eventually came on the scene tried his best to break up what was left of the scuffle. The messenger lay in a heap on the lobby carpet, covering his face. I think it was safe to say that he’d had enough. Still, just to be sure, Chuck kept a knee in his back, just in case he tried to run.
The lobby, often bustling with activity, was oddly quiet that morning when they led the messenger away in handcuffs.
I spent most of the rest of that morning at the 27th precinct, trying my best to explain the events leading up to the showdown in the elevator. I told them how my hunch had proven to be the one-in-a-million chance that the thief would pay for his crime.
After all, it wasn’t right what the messenger did. You just can’t advertise that your “The King” on a faded T-shirt and then do whatever the hell you please to decent people. What about the woman he robbed? Who speaks for her? I didn’t think an act like that should go unpunished then, and I still don’t today.
Chuck Ellard made the trip to the precinct along with me, and for the next week, he was the talk of the company. Sure, he was recognized for his bravery, but more than that, he was practically a folk hero. He had become one of the key players in what had to be the single most bizarre occurrence in the history of the company.
After that day (and a lot of days since) I have found myself thinking of my friend from Aetna. I’d mull over his idea – his insistence, really – that most people, left to their own devices, choose to run from trouble. Like a lot of city dwellers, I guess he was just sort of lost in urban cynicism. Indifference is tough to put down when so many others subscribe to the same mindset.
I know my buddy stood and cheered that day, though, when the story made the front page of the New York Times (Metro Section). It was just a matter of time before some of the doubters had to rise up and make things right again. Maybe it’s just the conscience that makes for urban folklore in a city where most people would rather just turn away.
So, whatever it was that triggered the events of that muggy August morning, one thing was certain. If only for a brief moment, everything in the urban landscape changed. And a few people even turned around to take notice.
Copyright © 1996 by John L. Fischer