When I looked like this, circa 1973, what happened to me yesterday used to happen all the time. Photo © H. Edward Webberman.
I was on the corner of 6th Avenue and 13th Street, in Greenwich Village, not far from my house, around 4:30 yesterday afternoon, when an idea popped into my head for a minor edit for a passage in my book that I'd been struggling with all day.
This is the kind of thing that happens all the time, and I always carry a pen and a piece of paper with me so I can jot down ideas as they come. Since there was nothing horizontal around, like the top of a newspaper box, I leaned against the wall of the nearest building and began scribbling against its smooth marble surface.
I was totally focused on what I was writing when I sensed a presence an inch or two away. Looking to my right, I saw a cop was getting ready to grab me. But as soon as he saw up close what I was doing, and my face, he took a step backwards. Looking to my left, there was another cop, about a foot away.
"Oh, you’re a writer," said the first cop, a compact, wiry guy, about my own size, probably in his late 20s. "We thought you were writing on the wall."
He was now standing next to his partner, a hulking blond guy, about the same age, and they were both backing away quickly.
“You thought I was a graffiti artist?” I said. “With a ballpoint pen
? You were going to arrest me.”
“Have a nice day,” said the first cop.
“Yeah, you, too,” I replied, as they both disappeared around the corner. “Have a nice day.”
But it shook me up—because 40 years ago this is the kind of thing that used to happen to me routinely. Except instead of the cops walking away and telling me to have a nice day, they’d frisk me. One especially memorable night, in 1969, they strip-searched me on a quiet Brooklyn side street—because I was loitering suspiciously. It’s the kind of thing that stays with you.
And I thought that if this were, say, 1973, my encounter with the police would not have ended so happily. At the least they’d have frisked me, because that’s what they always did, and possibly they’d have arrested me for writing on the wall, even if there were a piece a paper between my pen and that smooth marble surface. Because apparently, in this 21st century city, writers scribbling in the streets of Greenwich Village are not only suspicious, but a threat to law and order.