The Manhattan bound train is empty as it lurches forward and begins its midnight journey out of Coney Island. Winter winds whip through the train as passengers slowly board at every elevated station. Most are headed to a night shift job or New York night out. My police radio is dead silent. With only one year on patrol I have yet to learn the best crime fighting efforts do not come from police executives or politicians, but from the tendencies of Mother Nature.
My assignment to late night train patrol was precipitated that winter by a ‘lush worker.’ He was cutting open the pockets of sleeping passengers to remove personal items while they slept. The crime is not atypical for the hour or area, and the eyewitness description of the perpetrator was a black male 18 to 30 years old wearing a black jacket, black jeans, and armed with a box cutter. My platoon had been briefed numerous times about the robbery pattern, and with rookie ambition we certainly generated many stop and frisk reports that winter for the NYPD.
As the train pulled into the Neck Road station, a figure was seen on the opposite platform. He was a tall black man with braided hair, and he wore a full length black jacket and black pants. His hands were in front of him and he was facing the wall while awkwardly pivoting left to right. I could not tell if he was kicking the wall, marking it with paint, or moving back and forth while urinating.
Utilizing the advice of veteran patrol officers, I exited the train and stepped down a few stairs to tactically survey the cloaked figure out of view. Fortunately, his train had also just left and there was ample observation time. His behavior persisted, so I quietly approached for a closer look, but while crossing to his side I made a common rookie mistake.
My radio had began screeching aloud and I quickly muffled it with my hands. The male froze, then looked around. I was surprised he heard the noise from the distance, but Neck Road is an eerily silent place at night. Prior to renovation, the train station was a spawning ground for rats and pigeons, and to this day there is not enough revenue to justify staffing and token booth overnight.
Broad shouldered, the curious figure turned my way and stood silent as I slowly approached. His hands were at his side and his fingers were spread apart. He looked about forty years old from the sporadic gray hairs in his braids. I sensed he was no stranger to being stopped by the police.
“How you doin?” I casually asked, utilizing a common Brooklyn greeting.
“I'm lost,” he said. “I fell asleep on the train.”
Getting closer, I noticed black dress shoes and a black suit beneath the trench coat- not the common attire of a lush worker.
“Must’ve been a good sleep,” I said. “You’ve drooled on yourself.”
He started wiping his coat with a handkerchief, yet he awkwardly looked away and not at the stain as most people would. Then I noticed his walking stick and backpack on the floor next to a garbage pail.
“I know my home station perfectly,” he said gathering his articles, “But I have no idea where I am now. Thank you very much for being here.”
“Just check your belongings, Sir. Unattended items grow legs quickly in Brooklyn” I replied. “These scummers will steal your walking stick if you weren’t looking.”
He smiled, and with that we broke the ice.
We made small talk as we walked toward the Manhattan bound platform. He reminded me to let the blind person grab your arm for better guidance. We exchanged names as I led him to a bench.
“So how long are you on the job?” He asked while using air quotes. I replied, then I enquired if he was born blind or lost his vision over time.
“My sight has diminished in the last decade,” he said, “but I can still see silhouettes.”
“That's very fortunate,” I encouraged.
“Sometimes I wish I never had vision though,” he said, while adjusting his long coat in the thick wooden arm rests of the bench. “I think I'd have less anxiety overall.”
He continued; “Instead of earning my independence as a man in this world, I'm forced to live with my mother and sister for support. I'm blessed that I still have family, but I always dreamed of moving out of the ghetto after college. It's sad enough that I've changed, but I have witnessed myself become a different person to others.
His voice then cracked, ”To the outside world I’ve become a “he,” as in would “he” like a chair or booth, or would “he” like another cup of coffee...as if “I” never existed. You have no idea what it feels like when I go shopping and I ask the salesman if a shirt is a lighter or darker tone of black, and my response is, “does it really matter?”
“I used to always date hot women,” he said, “and now I'm alone. Heck, I don't even know what the Spice Girls look like.”
The blind man became silent and looked away into the darkness. The rattle of a distant train started vibrating the tracks. We then boarded the train together, arm-in-arm, toward his home station. On our way we discussed our experiences growing up in Brooklyn and how the city was changing. Upon arriving at Newkirk Avenue he softly pushed my arm away.
“I got this,” he said, and he breezed up the stairs and out to street level in no time. I offered to walk him home, but he insisted on walking alone.
“No problem,” I said. “I understand we both have reputations to protect in these parts.” We shook hands and extended that half-a-hug gesture that men do so well.
“Hey Gene,” he said, “thanks again for being there, and more importantly, thank you for treating me like a regular guy.”
He walked away as my radio reverberated off the buildings on Marlborough Road.
Though I do not remember his name, the man’s heartfelt compliment was poignant and lasting. As society now turns its back on modern policing, that richness is rarely experienced on patrol any longer. After two decades in public service, I’ve learned to embrace the lasting value of small deeds. Helping many people in little ways, with empathy and compassion, can be more beneficial to the spirit than helping a few people in big ways. Our positive interactions benefit both the public by breaking down barriers, and our professional selves by promoting positive solutions. As police officers, we’re conditioned to think our careers are defined by newsworthy events, but too often we overlook the touching moments that help us become better cops and better human beings.