Inna, the widow of my friend, Gilbert, and I were sitting outside of the Russian restaurant across from the Manhattan North Police Precinct on West 54th Street waiting for her son, Harold to pick us up and drive me home downtown before returning to New Jersey, where they live. They had graciously come into the city to see the Sunday afternoon performance my play.
While we waited, we spoke about the physical and psychological difficulties that occur when you become old. We are in our eighties, so that subject was very meaningful to us.
She said, “I am ready to go any time.”
I answered, “We have danced our dance; now it’s just a matter of waiting.” It was at that particular moment that a police car came down the street and parked vertically against the curb in front of the Precinct. Although I continued to speak to Inna, my attention was focused on the police car. Both officers left the car and the driver walked around the front of vehicle; then he and his partner opened the right rear door. It was then that I realized there was someone seated there whom they extricated without any difficulty.
They moved rapidly toward the doors to the Precinct with the cuffed young man between them. He could have been in his early twenties or late teens, with a head of bushy hair, and very thin. He wore sneakers, khaki pants, and a loose-fitting t-shirt. The three of them vanished quickly and just as quickly whatever good feelings I had also vanished, leaving me with thoughts about what I had just witnessed.
What had he done to entangle himself with the police? Did he already have a Rap Sheet? Was this his first arrest? If it was, he was about to enter a hell that he couldn’t possibly imagine.
As these thoughts spilled through my head, my conversation with Inna continued moving from our respective medical issues to our children, and then Harold pulled up and shortly we were on our way downtown. But thoughts about the cuffed young man stayed with me. I couldn’t rid myself of them and I couldn’t help but question why. My only connection with him was what I saw when he was brought into the Precinct. And suddenly I realized I had witnessed the possible beginning of the sociological destruction of another human being, and I was deeply saddened by it and powerless to stop it.
I thought of the opening lines of William Earnest Henley’s poem, Invictus, Out of the night that covers me black as a pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul. But what if there isn’t a soul? What if there’s nothing there except the human grit to survive? Does that young man have enough of it to keep himself free of the human predators that inhabit prisons if he is sent to one?
I knew two ex-cons. One was the art-director of a small publishing house, and the other was a former student of mine. The former was protected by the mob because he didn’t squeal on who hired him to do whatever he did. My former student had to fight to keep his integrity and has the scars to prove it.
Minutes later on the Westside Highway going downtown, Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken slipped into my thoughts and was quickly followed by David Orr’s exegesis of it in his book about the poem. Choice and the chooser are important parts of his analysis. What made the young man I saw choose to do whatever he had done? We know that the choices we make are not made independently of a myriad of “inputs” that range from our genetic make up to the circumstances in which the chooser chooses to do this or that. For me, the cuffed young man may have made the wrong choice or took the wrong road, regardless of which one he chose. But why? It’s a question that will never be answered.
The experience of what I saw had a powerful effect on me. I could have easily been him when I was young and wild. Perhaps it was fear of the consequences, but I never stepped across the line that would have put me where he is now though the opportunities were always there.
I was deeply saddened by what I saw, but in time it will pass away as everything does. Yet an unbidden return of the scene may play itself out again in my memory, only to sink from it once more.
Irving A. Greenfield’s work has been published in Amarillo Bay, Runaway Parade, Writing Tomorrow, eFictionMag, and several others. In addition to short stories, he has published several novels. McKenna’s Piece, a novel, is published by Blueberry Press. He has been a sailor, soldier, college professor, playwright, and novelist. Nine of his plays have been produced. The most recent was the Schemer, at the Play Labs in New York. Two of his plays, Camp # 2, and Billy won awards. One More Time, a full length play, was performed in at the American Theatre of Actors, as was Family Matters in June 2016. Irving and his wife live in Manhattan.