Photo by C_Pichler, via Flickr.
I only had to walk one avenue, but in New York City one avenue block can feel like a very long distance.
It was a little after one in the morning and I’d just done a show at the UCB Theater at the corner of 26th Street and Eighth Avenue. I had to make it from Eighth to Seventh and I would be a half block from the one train stop I needed to start my journey home. I’d performed at that theater for a decade. I’d walked that block thousands of times. There wasn’t much to it. A few quiet restaurants, a parking lot, the entrance to an underground S&M club, and not much else.
I’d been on that block late at night so many times that it was easy for me to sense when something was wrong.
I first noticed the man was following me before I even finished crossing Eighth Ave. He’d been slouching on the ground along with a few other homeless people in front of the Duane Reade on the corner. There were a few of these guys who made this corner their stomping grounds, and I’d never felt threatened by them at all. But on this night, as I shuffled east across the avenue, I saw one of the guys stand up, look in my direction, and step towards me. This guy had been sitting apart from the gang of drunks. He’d been using them for camouflage. He wasn’t of their tribe, he rose out above them, and he made me a target. I felt it from half an avenue away.
I picked up my pace and glanced back as he turned the corner. He saw that I was hustling and sped up as well. I abruptly stopped, looking into the window of a closed down restaurant, pretending to read their menu. He stopped too, and pretended to be looking into the window of the shuttered business he was standing in front of.
Fuck, I thought to myself. He isn’t just trying to mug me. He’s waiting for me to get someplace specific.
Is there someone else waiting halfway down the block? My mind raced. Maybe they’re trying to trap me in? I looked to my right, but couldn’t see anyone in the darkness. Do I cross the street and double back to eighth? Do I try to find safety and comfort inside the S&M club? When an unexpected 1 AM visit to an S&M club feels like the safest possible option, you know something has gone wrong with your night.
I resumed my walk, going at a very slow pace—by any reasonable measure, in New York City when someone walks as slow as I was, people behind them will pass them. He didn’t. I was positive—there was someplace or someone this guy was herding me towards, and if I couldn’t figure out how to get out of the situation before I stumbled upon that trap, I was in deep trouble.
I walked fast and heard the guy speed up behind me. My options were running out. I was alone with a predator in the middle of a dark and sleepy block in New York City. I hadn’t turned back in time. I hadn’t ducked into the S&M club in time. I was alone with this guy and his intentions.
That’s when I saw her sleeve sticking out of the window of a parked car: her uniformed sleeve.
I saw that the woman in the driver’s seat of that unmarked parked car was a cop, and I leapt in her direction.
“I don’t want to startle you, ma’am,” I hissed in a whisper. “But that guy halfway down the block is following me.”
“Are you positive?” she asked, glancing back at him in her rear view mirror.
“One hundred percent,” I replied.
“OK,” she smiled. She then reached up, flicked a switch, and a loud siren erupted from the car, shattering the silence of the sleepy block.
The guy turned and sprinted.
“Have a nice night,” she smiled. I glanced down the block nervously. “I’ll keep my eye on you.”
Cops are everywhere in New York City. Cars drive by every few minutes. Uniforms stand nonchalantly at street corners. Anyone who’s ever been around an emergency in Manhattan realizes that there are plainclothes officers on these streets walking past us more than we ever realize.
Cops in New York City don’t have the best reputation. It’s a fast paced city and they deal with a lot, and many people have seen lots of cops interact with the public utilizing what can be gently called “not the best customer service.” The many highly publicized abuses of power by police officers over the years don’t help many NYC citizens trust boys in blue. From what I can tell, most New Yorkers don’t hate cops, but they don’t love them, and generally look towards them with a healthy respect for what they do and an omnipresent fear that they’ll ever have to deal with them personally in any way.
I’ve had a few encounters with cops in this town. The above was by far the most pleasant. Others have ranged from strange to terrifying.
When I lived in Woodside, my apartment was off of Roosevelt Avenue. If you’ve never explored Roosevelt Avenue at night, I sincerely encourage you to hang out for a night along it in the Jackson Heights/Woodside stretch. That area is one of the most diverse in the whole city—Little India buts up against Little Manila, which heads down Roosevelt Avenue into the Irish area. But at night, the Hispanic residents of the neighborhood take over Roosevelt Ave. and it’s beautiful. The 7 Train rides above dozens of street food carts, where little old ladies make the best arepas you’ve ever tasted and you can buy perfect tamales out of stolen shopping carts.
It’s a wonderful, alive scene but it can also be intimidating. There are numerous bars where ladies in bikinis will dance with you for a dollar. They’re not strip clubs per se. They’re comfort bars originally aimed at giving migrant workers companionship in remote locations, they’ve continued to spring up in areas with high illegal immigrant populations. The sidewalks of Jackson Heights are often littered with business cards advertising prostitution services, and it’s not uncommon to walk past a corner where a man will offer to sell you a counterfeit social security card. I list none of this out of judgment; it’s just stuff I’ve seen and that I bring up to note that Roosevelt Avenue has a hidden and intimidating side.
My schedule as a performer often meant late night walks down Roosevelt Avenue from the Jackson Heights station to my house in Woodside. One evening I was walking home with my headphones on and was in that tired, hazy state one enters when walking the same route they walk a dozen times a week. I was off in my own world, on autopilot, just making my way home.
But my routine was smashed when a cop car careened over the curb, onto the sidewalk, and straight at me. The car screeched to a halt and turned a spotlight on me. I threw my back against the front window of the El Sitio Cuban restaurant and instinctively threw my hands up. My headphones tumbled from my ears and I could hear the click as the cop turned on his PA address system.
“Are you Chris Gethard?” he blared over his loudspeaker.
“What?” I shouted. “Yeah. That’s me.”
There was a long pause.
“I saw you do stand up once. You’re really funny,” the cop continued.
“OK,” I said. There was a long pause. “Thank you.”
“Stand up seems really hard,” the loudspeaker blared at me. “I don’t think I’d have the balls to do it.”
“It’s pretty intimidating,” I admitted, “but when it goes well, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
“That’s cool,” the loudspeaker responded. “What the fuck are you doing on Roosevelt Avenue at night?”
“I live on 67th Street,” I informed him.
“Oh shit,” the loudspeaker laughed. “You should take the 7 to 69th Street at night. Roosevelt Avenue can get kinda rough. Lots of bars.”
“I know,” I shouted into the light. “The 7 was just taking too long, so I took the E.”
“I saw a white guy on Roosevelt,” the loudspeaker informed me, “and I was like Is he looking for pussy or drugs?”
“Neither,” I said. “I promise. Just heading home.’
“Cool,” the loudspeaker said. “Good luck with the stand up. I give you a lot of credit.”
The car backed off of the sidewalk and into the street, then drove off. I was left knowing that at least one cop whose face I’ve never seen is a fan of my work.
While that was jarring, it wasn’t a truly scary experience with the NYPD. I’ve only had one of those.
It was 2002, and I’d just graduated college. Strangely enough, four other performers at the UCB graduated that same month. Three of us were from Rutgers, one from NYU, and another from Hofstra—we all decided to throw a joint party.
Comedians will find any excuse to drink, and our mutual college graduation was a good one. Things went real late, and at three in the morning, I was actually one of the first ones to leave my own party. I told my friends Tarik and Katie that I was driving back to Rutgers and they should say their goodbyes. I headed outside, in need of fresh air after a long night of sweating and drinking with other people in their early 20s.
As I made my way onto the street, a guy off to my right stutter stepped, turned, then quickly made his way around the corner.
That’s weird, I thought, that guy near my car was being shady.
A few minutes later, Katie made her way outside.
“Tarik’s not out here yet?” she asked. I shook my head no. “Cool, I get shotgun.”
We sat in the car, waiting for our third friend, windows down since we were both overheated from the party. We were talking and I looked in the rear view, noting that a car was very slowly driving west up 22nd Street.
Then it occurred to me that 22nd Street runs east. Before I could process what was happening, I heard a car door slam.
Then I felt a gun push up against my head, just behind my right ear.
“Don’t. Fucking. Move,” a voice commanded me.
“I won’t,” I said. I looked straight ahead. I could hear Katie breathing heavy next to me.
“Whose fucking car is this?!” the voice barked.
“It’s my car,” I said.
“Don’t fucking lie,” the voice commanded.
I don’t know how I managed to stay calm. “I’m not lying,” I said. “It’s my car. I promise.”
“If you’re lying, you’re in real fucking trouble,” the voice continued. “I’m a cop, don’t fuck around.”
“Oh, thank God,” I said.
“Yeah,” I told him. “I thought you were carjacking me.”
“Don’t play fucking games,” the cop said, exasperated, pushing my head forward with the gun.
“I’m not playing any games, I swear!” I told him.
“OK. License and registration then. And nothing funny,” he said. “Lady, you get out of the car.”
Katie got out.
“My registration is in my glove compartment,” I said. “Is it OK if I reach for it?”
“It’s fine,” the cop said. I leaned away from the gun, but he kept it trained on me.
I produced my license and registration.
“This is my car,” I said again as he looked them over.
“Now this I don’t fucking get,” the cop said. “A neighbor said he saw a guy breaking into a black Nissan parked in this exact spot.”
I thought for a minute.
“Fuck, I saw that guy,” I said. “I didn’t realize he was breaking into my car.”
“When I came out here a guy ran away from my car,” I said. “He must have been breaking into it. Then a neighbor called the cops. Then I scared him off. Then I sat down in the car. Then you pointed a gun at my head, because you thought I was him. It makes sense now.”
The cop laughed.
“Wait,” he said. “If you saw somebody being weird and running away from your car, how come you didn’t call it in?”