May 6, 2007

They Blowed Up Real Good


The phone rang shortly after 8:30 Thursday morning. It was my neighbor, Daniel.

      “Hey,” he said, “Sorry to call so early—do you know why all those cops are out in front of your apartment?”

      “Ummm . . . which, uh, cops are these?” I asked.

      “There are a bunch of them out front—they have the whole corner blocked off. It seems there’s a suspicious package by the laundromat.”

      His voice took on an ironic leer with the words “suspicious package.” Daniel and I share a certain skepticism when it comes to the prevailing (and officially mandated) Homeland Security paranoia.

      “Oh, you’re kidding,” I said.

      Well, I needed an excuse to step outside anyway, so after I got off the phone I put on my hat and coat, grabbed a bag of empties, and headed outside to see what was what.

      At that hour of the morning, the sidewalks were thick with parents walking their kids to school and nannies pushing strollers. I usually try to avoid going out at that time for just that reason, but I wanted to take a peek at this latest threat to our safety, security and the American Way of Life.

      Sure enough, there were several NYPD cruisers parked out front, a few cops milling about, and police tape stretching from the lamppost on the corner, to the fence in front of the laundromat, and then across the street.

      There on the edge of the sidewalk, nestled up close to a parked car, sat an enormous gray suitcase which had been wrapped in duct tape and tagged with yellow spray paint.

      Oh, Jesus Christ.

      The cops, I must say, didn’t seem too terribly concerned about it, so I walked to the corner and prepared to cross the street. I considered, though only briefly, saying “Oh—that’s where I left it!” then ducking under the tape and picking up the suitcase. But no matter how much of a chuckle I would’ve gotten out of that, I didn’t think it was worth being whisked away to some CIA internment camp just outside Minsk for the next ten years. I was supposed to meet Morgan for lunch that afternoon.

      “Excuse me sir,” said an Asian policewoman, “but I’m gonna need to ask you to cross the street.”

      I bit my tongue. I thought my intentions were obvious, given that I was poised on the curb waiting for the light to change.  “That’s, uh . . . that’s what I’m doing,” I told her.

      “If I could ask you to cross over here, please?” She gestured vaguely to a point approximately two feet from where I was standing.

      I took a step to my right, then looked around in confusion, trying to see if there was any yellow tape, any sawhorse, any security measure in my path that I’d accidentally breached, but there was nothing. In fact, crossing the street where she was pointing would’ve been extremely dangerous, given the way people drive in that neighborhood.

      So I just shrugged, walked to the other end of the block, and crossed the street there. Then I walked back in the direction I’d just come. Now that the bomb was on the other side of the street from me, surely I’d be safe.

      You know, it used to take so much more to get a response like this. Speaking from experience, twenty years ago you needed to get your hands on a fifty-five gallon drum, cover it with those black and yellow “radiation hazard” stickers, and haul it someplace really conspicuous if you wanted the cops to show up and block off traffic. It wasn’t easy, I’ll tell you.

      What’s more, back then pulling a stunt like that wasn’t followed by an intense manhunt for the pranksters, charges, fines, jail time or worse.

      Ten years ago, even, I was working as the receptionist at a newspaper. The editor at the time was a reasonably paranoid character who, as it happens, used to get a lot of sinister-looking boxes sent to him. But did he call the cops every time one showed up? No, he’d just hand me the package and a pair of scissors, and tell me to go out in the hallway and open it.

      Then in 2001, everything went to hell, and we became a city full of ninnies. Now, Christ, all you need’s an empty grocery bag or a broken bottle and hoo-nelly, watch everyone jump.

      Thinking about the situation at hand, I had to wonder. If this was some sort of (ahem) real terrorist bomb, what was the point of leaving it next to a laundromat? Was the laundromat supposed to be some sort of strategic target? Some kind of symbolic strike? Were those devious terrorists huddled back in their lair, chuckling and thinking “Ha ha ha! Now the infidels will have to walk an extra two blocks before they can again enjoy clean sheets!”? If you want to make a point by blowing up something in this particular neighborhood, there are so many other, better choices (which I began ticking off in my head as I walked).

      Several other squad cars, lights flashing, passed me on their way to the scene, and an NYPD helicopter swung in low and began circling.

      I continued on to the bodega, bought a few packs of smokes and headed back home.

      On the way back, I saw a few more cops, and assumed they were expanding the danger zone. I began wondering when the evacuation was going to start.

      But when I got back to my corner—just ten minutes after I left—the tape was gone, the cops were gone, and the big scary gray suitcase was gone, too. Life rolled on as normal. In fact, if Daniel hadn’t called, I likely never would’ve known that anything had happened.

      There was a message waiting for me on the answering machine. It was Daniel again, who’d watched the whole thing from his window.

      “The bomb squad never showed up, Homeland Security never showed up,” he said. “Eventually I guess the cops got bored. They  just ripped the duct tape off and opened the thing up. It was completely empty. Then they packed up and went away.”

      Yes, well, now I guess we can all rest a little easier.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.