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Flatbush Flashback

Police Story

There's one more story about the police that's worth telling, and I've told it only once before--to the Chilean Website Paniko, when Nowhere Man was published in that country, in 2004. The writer, Javier Foxon, had asked me if Yoko Ono had returned my personal diaries--the ones I'd naively given to her, in 1982, when she asked to read them. Since Chile was 5,000 miles away, the interview was running in Spanish, and Paniko was not widely read by members of the NYPD, I figured I'd tell the truth.

I told Foxon that as the first edition of Nowhere Man was going to press, in 2000, Ono had returned my diaries--except for two small notebooks covering the summer of 1979. Foxon's inevitable follow-up question: What happened to the two volumes?

“Well,” I said, “I’m not really sure, but I don’t think their disappearance had anything to do with Ono.”

I explained that after I’d given my diaries to Ono, she turned them over to the police (and other legal and media entities), who combed though the half-million words I’d written, looking for evidence they could use to charge me with a crime, any crime, and use that as leverage to prevent me from ever writing about John Lennon’s diaries. (You can read about that fiasco here.)

But what the police found in the two volumes that had vanished were detailed notes about the gig I had in the summer of 1979, ghostwriting a novel for a former New York City cop. Those notes contained the names of cops I was taking drugs with, the dates we took the drugs, and the places we took them. In one notable passage, I described smoking a joint with a uniformed, on-duty cop in his patrol car.

“So,” I said to Foxon, “I figured the cops freaked out when they read that, and they wanted that information to disappear. I guess the two missing volumes ended up in a shredder.”

And unless I get arrested today, that’s the last police story I’m going to tell for a while. Read More 
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A White Guy with a Pen

Drawing by Mark The-k.
The most surprising thing about all the feedback I've been getting, on this blog and on Facebook, about my encounter with the police last week is that not one person said anything in support of the police. Somebody, I suppose, could have pointed out that the cops made an honest mistake, that they really did think I was defacing the wall, and that they didn't actually do anything to me (except surreptitiously read my notes).

Instead, people like Peter DuPre, a professional automotive journalist, posted a story about the time the police pulled him over for driving a "suspicious" car, pointed a gun at him, and threatened to shoot his injured dog, who was in the car.

The reason for this kind of reaction, I think, is that are a lot of bad cops out there, most people have had an encounter with one of them, and New York’s stop-and-frisk program has become internationally notorious. That the police accosted me, a middle-aged, middle-class white guy, in my own neighborhood, in the middle of the afternoon, is kind of shocking. And yes, the bit about the cop sneaking up behind me and reading what I was writing does have that distinct odor of the police state. I mean, suppose I was writing a novel about terrorism, and was jotting down some notes about blowing up the Brooklyn Bridge. Would the cops have just walked away? I doubt it.

So, let me just say this before, hopefully, moving on to other topics: Yes, it’s true, I did not like the police when I was younger and they routinely harassed me for walking with long hair, or pulled me over every time they saw me behind the wheel of a car, and gave me tickets for utter bullshit. But things changed, in the summer of 1979, when an ex-cop hired me to ghostwrite a novel (never published) based on his experiences as a patrolman in a New York City ghetto neighborhood. I hung out with cops and ex-cops. I drank with them, smoked weed with them, and snorted coke with them. I rode with them in patrol cars. I listened to their stories and I came to see them as human beings, some of whom had done some genuinely heroic things in the course of their careers. Which is to say that what happened to me the other day is not an indictment of the police themselves, but rather an indictment of what New York City has become under Michael Bloomberg in this age of terrorism, when a white guy wielding a pen can arouse the suspicion of the police, who, I’m sure, were only following orders. Read More 
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The Writing's on the Wall

I've gotten a lot of Facebook feedback since Friday's post about two cops accosting me in Greenwich Village because they thought I was writing graffiti on the wall of a building when, in fact, I was jotting down on a small piece of paper some notes for the book I’m working on.

Some of the feedback was deadly serious, with Skip Slavik, of Ohio, commenting at length about "the whole stop-and-frisk thing" ongoing in New York City, and the culture wars of the late 60s and early 70s, when cops all over America would routinely stop and frisk anybody who looked like a hippie. Other comments were sarcastic, with Gloria Malone, of the Bronx, noting, "Now Bloomberg is going to launch a new campaign against ball point pens."

I’d originally intended the post as a humorous anecdote about some of the absurd things that happen on the streets of New York. But it’s since occurred to me that this incident wasn’t quite as amusing as I first thought. The cop who was preparing to arrest me before he realized what I was doing said, “Oh, you’re a writer,” as he was backing away. How could he have known I was a writer, and not writing down a phone number, unless he was standing there long enough to read my notes? And that gave me the creeps—the idea that a cop had snuck up behind me, and whatever decision he’d made to frisk me or not frisk me, arrest me or not arrest me, was based, in part, on what I’d written. The cop was spying on me, and that’s no joke. It’s what happens in a police state.

And then, when I was out Saturday afternoon, and I stopped to jot down a few more notes, something I’ve been doing unselfconsciously for decades, I felt nervous about it, and took a careful look around to make sure there were no lurking cops. It broke my train of thought.

I leave you then with Exhibit A, the actual notes I was writing when the cops snuck up behind me. If you can’t read my scrawl, it says: “Banks: I knew from the moment I saw him” then a delete symbol followed by “walk in the door.” I then added, “2 cops think I’m writing on the wall. 40 years ago they would have arrested me.”

Good thing I don’t write with a can of spray paint. Read More 
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Law & Order

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. Read More 
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