by Peter Gannon Crumlish
I witnessed a strange thing the other day. I was walking up Lexington Avenue when I heard someone cry out in alarm behind me. Then a man whipped past, carrying two potted plants with extravagant orange flowers. He disappeared around the corner and I looked after him out of curiosity. Was he an extremely late delivery man? Was there a rush on some azaleas? But when he ducked beneath the stoop of a brownstone my curiosity was satisfied: he was merely a thief; and a petty one at that.
It was odd that I should have thought that. Oh, just a crime being committed. Ho hum. None of my business. But when I saw a concerned citizen (a well-dressed woman in her fifties) and the obvious owner of the potted plants (a short, thickset, scowling Korean) hurry around the corner and seem to lose the trail, I drifted back across the street. Not to tell them where the man was hiding; I wasn't sure I was going to share my secret knowledge with them. I was just going to listen and then, if I felt like it, I just might tell them. It amused me that they had been so easily deceived. He clearly had not left the shelter of the stoop and must still be crouching there, holding his breath.
The poor shop-keeper looked really distressed, and far less legitimately, so did the concerned citizen. As the panting Korean turned around, about to give up on the pursuit, the lady asked me anxiously if I had seen someone run by. I said with what I thought was admirable nonchalance, "Why, yes." Then what I hadn't known I'd do until that moment: I added free of charge, "He's right there." I pointed with my paperback toward the brownstone.
The group marched up and spotted the guy who raised his hands over his head. The Korean pointed and bellowed, "How many times? How many times?" Though this was clearly a rhetorical question, the fugitive, a Middle Eastern by his look, said, "Four."
Around this time I noticed a third member of the party. A white-haired man in his early fifties holding a lidded coffee cup in one hand, a back-pack slung over one shoulder, and wearing a white shirt with his name sewn above the breast pocket in red. He appeared to be a doorman on his break. He took charge. I hung back and watched, holding my say unless something went wrong. The doorman said in a kindly cop voice, "O.K. Do me a favor please? Put them down here please?" The thief complied, putting the plants on the top step at curb level like a sexton placing flowers on an altar. We stood looking down at him, peering up anxiously at our faces.
"Now, just take a step back please?" the citizen cop continued. The guy hesitated, realizing he was trapped down there. At the same time, we all realized that we could hold him here until the cops came, but only by force. He seemed about to fly, but the doorman was insistent. "Step back please?" He indicated with the paper cup in his extended hand. "Do me a favor? Just step back please?" He was so calm and authoritative, as though he were following some department policy, that the man stepped back. I was impressed. The guy was running the whole show and must have been making it up as he went along. Then he turned to the Korean man on his left and told him to just calm down. The man was still pointing at the thief and shouted again, "How many times? How many times?" The doorman told him to stop shouting and also to take a step back. "Just do me a favor? Take a step back please?" The shopkeeper stepped back.
"Now," he continued, "do you want to press charges?" Then there ensued a grumbling from the Korean and a babbled pleading from the miserable captive, who looked about to break through our cordon. The Korean seemed to not necessarily want to call the police. "Do you want to press charges?" the doorman insisted, clearly not going a step further until the shopkeeper decided. The Korean seemed to waver.
"Wait! You're putting words in his mouth," the lady suddenly screeched. She came around from behind the Korean and said, "You can't just let him go. He needs to be scolded!"
I loved that. Scolded. That's what he needs. Just what the police would do to him, by the way.
"Excuse me," said the doorman peremptorily. "I'm taking care of this." He said this without taking his eyes off the Korean who still hadn't answered.
"Do you want to press charges?"
"How many times?" he said one more time.
"O.K. then," the doorman stepped back and the scene folded remarkably fast. The Korean took his plants and walked away, the thief walked away in the opposite direction. It was as though we were all suddenly ashamed to have been involved in it and just wanted to slink unobtrusively away.
I strolled back across the street to my building and thought maybe I had been wrong. Stealing plants hadn't seemed big enough a crime at the time, not worth bothering about, and maybe even worth getting away with. But, you know, that's the guys merchandise, I thought. To him they're probably four dollars each. That's how he makes his living.
I went inside.