The Firing Squads Of Antebellum (Naked City, Naked)
‘Manhattan. Sometimes from beyond the skyscrapers, across thousands of high walls, the fearful cry of a too-well-known voice finds you in your insomnia in the middle of the night, and you remember that this desert of iron and cement is an island of un-reality.’
– Albert Camus, ‘American Journals’
The Sierra Madre sun had been baking the gawkers, hawkers, dancing Disney Toons, anonymous faces in anonymous crowds for days. Times Square in thick, heavily moisturized air smelled of sweat, Kosher hot dogs forever boiling, salted pretzels and cheap perfume. The T-Shirts were out in force. Allegiances in many colors displayed across the breasts of the pilgrims come calling on this shrine to fame (not necessarily fortune). ‘Quantum Mechanics – The Dreams that Stuff is Made Of’, for example. My own ‘Hard Rock Cafe – Hong Kong’ was drenched.
Where once the Rolling Stones Tour, name one or any, emblazened the outer reaches of the Square Skyline now were a myriad of datastreams shouting any number of vastly unimportant appeals to starving imaginations, the crowded skyline alleyway bringing to mind ‘Blade Runner’ and zepplins broadcasting via the voice of Tokyo Rose the enchantments of Mars. A tunnel of huge mirrors designed by Doctor No. No longer Neon, still a Wilderness.
The sun ruled, the heat imposing. Dense, all was dense. A crossroad, always crossing, constant motion, constant flow blocked here and there by those searching for whatever it may have been they thought they would find. Just before melting down into the grimy, nearly now slimy concrete of Broadway I needed to release my leaden legs from the weight of heat and age. On safari without prey, today’s march had been from Columbia University environs to here. Never one given to aspiring the French Foreign Legion – no, not one to ‘march or die’ – I found the first available chair, one of those torturous types strewn about for public use, only upon reaching the island between Broadway and 7th Avenue, border of sorts beyond which lay the Garment District and death by prickly heat, the cornerstone and crux a flat-iron, squat structure which was once and will always be to those of us who knew it back in the day as the US Armed Forces Recruiting Center. A favorite perch. On a few occasions during the mid-seventies I had actually come considering enlisting, only to have a change of heart and then, of course, an Anchor Steam or two to assure myself the decision had been undoubtedly correct.
One comes across such perches all over this town, Washington Square Park, the zen garden and waterfalls between 2nd and 3rd avenues on 49th, some secluded or shaded park bench, many such places. I have lost count of the number of times and circumstance which found me sitting somewhere around Times Square at any given midnight (and well beyond) hour. A young man’s neon beacon of last resort is now an NYPD outpost and I rested in its shadow on the unforgiving chair as my legs returned to pliancy and watched the thick crowd meandering around uptown. ‘Hard Rock Cafe’ indeed.
First, sudden movement in the mass two blocks away. Then, a shrill shrieking; not of joy nor yet terror. More shouts. The crowd parts slightly. A couple runs hand-in-hand from the fray. More people running, left, right, anywhere. Cops at full gallop heading toward the minor melee from all directions, melting into the crowd. Shouts, commands. Shrieks, serious now. As if a cattle herd camera-shot viewed from overhead in a Rawhide episode, the human wave moves in one motion. Cops, several now, guns drawn at the ready, emerge into empty space vacated giving chase to as yet unseen prey. Chaos, but not utter, commences but the cops, a growing force by the second, advance in an inverted arrowhead formation, coming closer, pauses now and again, converges, disperses and gives chase. My line of sight impaired by the shifting crowd I could not see who they were after. They soon reach my island, spread across the street advancing slowly but steadily. One cry: ‘He has a knife!’ from the clustered crowd keeping a safe distance behind the advance; another ‘He has a gun!’ ‘Is it a bomb?’. The cops: ‘Put it down! Put it down! Lay on the ground!’ Advancing, weapons at the ready, pointing forward. Unsure as to what weapon the fugitive (from?) may have had the actions of the police gave pause, seemingly indicating perhaps a gun since they were keeping a 10-15 foot distance. One or two were darting from cover to cover. I still could not yet see who they were marching on. Bearing the possibility of bomb in mind, blaming my smithereens on the nights on Broadway not my idea of ‘fade to black’ gracefully nor would I ever wish to end this wild ride with the Bee Gees on my lips, I crossed across the island and looked around the corner, moving in directly behind the cops, never in the line of fire, slightly behind and alongside the armed centurions and under an implacable sun.
New York City. It is different here. Always has been. And not because of the movies. One knew immediately this is no motherfucking movie. Times Square is a prime target for all manner of mindsets, for a vast sea of reasons and causes, and one can feel the presence of subtle menace at times, the hidden surveillance of which we are all aware. We are aware also that on a crowded matinee in summer while watching Chris Walken portray one tortured soul another stupid soul having drank some other pseudo-sacred Kool Aid had already tried to place a firebomb at the theatres’ very doorstep. This man today had only a knife. Seeing that, I followed the ever-swerving pack at close distance, directly behind the police offensive line.
Dead man running. There were at least five weapons aimed directly at him, ready to fire, he was alone in the middle of 42nd Street, no bystander nearby. He was alone except for the brilliant light reflecting off the street. A white shadow. The target held a knife. And abruptly took out what appeared to be a white cell phone, pointed it at us. Someone yelled ‘It’s a cellphone! He’s got a cellphone!’ The cops: ‘Put it down!’ Flailing, dancing a shaman’s two-step, always in motion, darting back and forth, slashing at demons nowhere near, the man in a primate rage, a crystal meth blast from his past dangling sugarplums in his head perhaps, he stood dancing madly in the middle of the street. The cops did not fire. He raged, started peddling backward, always backward. He bolted. The fucking Flash now. The cops followed. A zigg and then a zagg, and off downtown on 7th.
The sound of summer running. Those among us, once raggamuffins or streetwise wretches to a man, who knew a street or two in this streetwisest of towns, a smaller crowd here at the threshold of downtowns to be sure, marched along, to and fro, like dodging a mark or following one. Big Bad Leroy Brown and friends. Bearing witness. Once or twice, the team of cops seemed to have cornered him, slowed, stopped, converged, more commands, and then resumed a chase. Clear sight was lost then regained as I kept running close behind. The chase paused. Only the backs of a wall of cops were visible from where I stood. I was at the corner of 38th and 7th, leaning against a mailbox, trying to see him. Shouts of outrage. Commands! Nothing.
Silence. It was a complete silence, an utter absence of sound, a true silence. A silence I had heard once before.
Close enough to smell. Cordite in the air. Near silence now, lingering forever. The air somehow lighter. No motion anywhere. The lack of sound after gunfire has a surreal quality. I did not see the fussilade. Nor why they after all opened fire. One did not need to see to know the hunt was over. The danse macabre ended underneath an OTB sign, at the foot of a cheap jewelry mart, under a Sierra Madre sun.
Whoever he was, whatever his crimes or virtues, he no longer needed to flee.
Bio: M C (Manny) Alves is a free-lance writer, author of a collection of short fiction, a former journalist and editor. He has also written two books on information technology an operating systems. He is a contributor to various publications and is currently working on a novel. Manny is a long time resident of New York City.