A Person of No Interest
I’m walking down a street in my neighborhood when I spy, out of the corner of my eye, two policemen inspecting a car across the street. Looking more closely I see one of them is talking on the phone, calling in to headquarters, I guess. It could be that they’re issuing a parking ticket, but then maybe not. Maybe it’s something far worse, requiring more than just filing a routine report. Maybe they’re calling for backup. I’m curious and watch some more. Before I know it, the cop who’s on the phone picks up his head, stares at me, and then seemingly points in my direction. The two of them abruptly drop what they’re doing and move toward me, forgetting about the parking ticket, the driver, and whatever infraction the guy might have committed. I don’t understand what they could want from me, an average citizen, an honest taxpayer, but I’m not asking questions. I pick up the pace of my walk, glancing back every once in a while to see if they’re behind me, following. I know every inch of my little neighborhood in Queens, every street, alleyway, nook and cranny, just in case I need to duck out of sight. I don’t want to panic, and I shouldn’t panic, because what after all did I do?
Maybe I did something improper and don’t know it.
I could be unaware of a thousand things I’ve done wrong. Maybe I unconsciously committed a jaywalking offense, who knows? But that’s nothing—nothing for New York’s finest to get excited about. They wouldn’t waste their precious time. Mostly I’ve been minding my own business. Going to the post office to buy stamps. That’s all. It’s no crime. I have a slew of bills to pay and if I don’t get them in the mail in time my electric could be cut off and then my phone line, my gas, water, and God knows what else. Then, right after my visit to the post office, I have in mind to get a long overdue haircut. I realize I don’t have much hair on my head, just on the sides, where it gets a bit unruly sometimes. Mostly my hair grows out of my nostrils and ears, but those hairs need trimming too, don’t they? As anyone can see, I lead a fairly normal life, going about my daily business like every other person, so why should I have anything to fear?
Perhaps they’ve mistaken me for someone else, a suspect in a crime or what they call a person of interest. I don’t know how I could interest them. All I know is that they’re headed in my direction and because of that I’m now jogging down the street. I gave up jogging years ago and never thought I’d be doing it again. But I see I have no choice. These two fresh-faced rookies, looking diligent and respectable as all hell, their blue uniforms clean and perfectly ironed, want to nail me for something, I just know it. I only hope it’s a big mistake, some wild coincidence, and if I slow up they’ll walk right past me, follow some other person, or perhaps hurry into a donut shop or wherever cops go when hunger suddenly hits them. But the fact is, I don’t want to take any chances. And so I speed up, turn a corner, go down the street, and then another.
I’m practically sprinting now. I couldn’t care less about my old knee injury, the one I got from jogging barefoot on the beach one summer, on the hard sand incline just above where the water laps onto the shore. The hell with my knee, I say. I have pretty good instincts and know when I’m being followed, and, what’s more, I know the police can’t always be trusted. They’re coming and obviously they don’t want to lose track of me, so they move faster. I’m not sure why I don’t simply turn around and say, “Okay, fellows. I give up. Whatever I did wrong, please, don’t shoot.” But then again, maybe I just don’t want to know. Or I don’t want the humiliation of being asked a bunch of senseless questions by freshmen cops who most likely only want to win brownie points at the precinct, their real concern being not me but getting a pat on the back from their superior and possibly, down the road, a big fat promotion. They have their quotas for issuing parking tickets, so why not a quota for arrests? I’m an easy target, with my usual mild manner. So they think. They probably didn’t expect me to make such a getaway.
I’m now far ahead of them. If I go down a side street perhaps I can lose them altogether. I can disappear into a store, slip out the back way and find myself in a safe alley where they could never capture me. Never. If I sound confident about my moves, my maneuvering, nothing can be further from the truth. I’m actually shivering with nervousness. I’m still boggled by what all this means, still scratching my head trying to comprehend what it is I’m being accused of, and I start to recall everything I did or failed to do most recently. One of my students, I know, got upset about a grade she received on a composition. I wouldn’t be surprised if she filed a complaint. She came to my office this past Wednesday, demanding an explanation about her low grade. I remember it well. I was leaning over the desk, leaning over perhaps a little too much, in order to point out her grammatical errors, not to mention all her abysmal mistakes in logic and organization. She could have assumed I was trying to get too close, that I was eyeing her inappropriately—peering, as she might have thought, down at her breasts, two ripe peaches half exposed beneath a tightly fitting red spandex shirt. And so there it was: her perfect opportunity to retaliate, to get back at an overly strict instructor, an unfair grader. That’ll show him. She could have easily dreamt up a story about me, about some lecherous old man preying on innocent youth. An elaborate story, no doubt. And now, well, now that I think about it, she probably does deserve a higher grade—for her vivid imagination, her creativity. Maybe I should explain to her that, yes, yes, she will be getting her grade boosted a notch or two, no problem there. I might indeed tell her, if I didn’t believe it was too late. For almost certainly she’s already reported me to the dean of student affairs, who probably in turn contacted the local authorities, and very likely that’s why two rookie cops are now chasing me, relentlessly, down the block.
As I reach the row of shops I can hear them closing in. I’m sure they plan to nab me, wrestle me to the ground, cuff me, and then throw me in the slammer, not only for whatever they have against me but also for running away, resisting arrest. They probably have evidence, piles of it, for whatever I’ve done. I know I had not been a perfect man, far from it. My former wife, Bernice, could easily attest to that. And I haven’t been the best of friends to those who once considered me a friend. I realize I curse out loud too much. And often I say terrible things about politicians. I once wrote a scathing review of an NPR show I heard while driving on the Grand Central, and sent it to an editor. But can you be arrested for that? I’ve also done a good job annoying city councilmen about the bus noise in my neighborhood, the way the new buses continue to screech while turning corners or stopping at lights. That couldn’t have won me any friends in high places. And let’s not, of course, forget how I regularly pilfer boxes of chalk and Scotch tape from the English department supply room. It’s terrible, I know. And then, finally, there are my very thoughts to consider. Many of them could not be more poisonous. I don’t know any longer what you can say or not say, think or not think, without getting into legal trouble. Yes, I’m guilty of many things. I won’t deny it.
All of this runs through my head as I sidle down a gravel path between two stores that leads to the back door of the barbershop, the same one I was about to visit after going to the post office. I’ve made it. Made it there in one piece, despite all the throbbing in my knee. Oh, that damn knee. I’ve outsmarted the two cops on my tail. They’ve no idea where I could have disappeared to, but they won’t exactly give up their search, will they, no, not a chance, they’ll be clever, they’ll hand out my description to residents in the neighborhood, post signs with a pencil drawing of my picture on it and, sure enough, someone, a person I know, will recognize me and tell the police my address and soon the same two cops, those young rookies, will buzz my door, climb the stairs to my cramped, second-floor bachelor apartment, the place I’ve lived in ever since Bernice and I split up for good, and they’ll ask me, politely, to “step out, sir, and come with us, please,” as they size me up and lead me down the stairs, out the building, and into a patrol car sitting by the curb. I can almost guarantee this will happen, and in the near future.
But right now I hear a police siren and then some commotion from inside the barbershop and I realize the two cops on the beat are closer than I think. And while they wait for backup (more cops, more sirens) I guess they’re interviewing local shopkeepers, collecting more information. They’re probably, this minute, questioning the head barber and his assistants about whether they’ve seen anyone suspicious, anyone fitting my description—a middle-aged man, average height and weight, wearing an old pair of khaki jeans, a blue knit short sleeve shirt, and a New York Yankees baseball cap, which the suspect sometimes takes off to mop the perspiration from his balding head.
If that’s indeed what the police are doing in there, questioning the barbers, I don’t understand why there’s such a ruckus. Anyway I know it’s best to stay put, not try to escape down the gravel path, because I’d surely be caught coming out of this hiding place, or maybe on the way out, clumsy me, I’d bump into an aluminum garbage can and make all kinds of crashing noises, calling attention to myself. For a moment I think of jumping inside the garbage can, but as luck would have it, it’s filled to the top with hair cuttings. So I don’t move an inch. Try not to breathe. But it’s no help. The two policemen, the ones pursuing me, are now opening up the back door of the barbershop and I see there’s no way out. I’m caught. They stand there, eyes squinting. They’re looking at me curiously, surprised somebody’s in back of the store, and I figure my time is up. I wait for them to approach, to grab me and throw me to the ground and read me my rights. I surrender, my white flag waving. I realize I’ve nowhere to go but into the hands of law enforcement. Stretching my arms out in front of me, I bend my wrists, and invite them to slap the cuffs on. “Here, here, take me already.”
But, strangely enough, they don’t come closer. There’s not, as I now understand, any hint of suspicion in the way they stare at me. It’s only curiosity, pure and simple—unless I’m reading them wrong. It’s obvious something else has occurred, something that turns everything upside down. After they start talking, and I pick up bits and pieces of the story, I discover they were only interested to go into the barbershop to handle a dispute. A dispute between the owner, the head barber, and a customer who’s been raving about a bad haircut he received and who, purportedly wielding a razor, began threatening the barber. The police, it turns out, were responding to a 9-1-1 call, a call put in by a witness, also a customer, who was apparently very satisfied with his haircut and thought it totally unjustified for anyone to attack a barber with his own professional instruments. “It’s an outrage,” he said. That’s what the witness kept repeating.
I have a different view, though. I actually sympathize with the man who got the bad haircut. Once a barber cuts off your hair, it’s impossible to put it back. Everybody knows that. Even if you haven’t got much hair on your head to begin with, if you’re mostly bald, every little strand is precious, and so to overcut is a plain outrage, a pure injustice. No question about it. It’s perfectly natural to want to kill your barber. If he cuts off too much, you’re done for. Forget about any favorable impression you might have hoped to make, on a new boss, on a new client, on a young lady who happens your way. It’s now utterly doomed. If it were up to me I’d arrest the barber on the spot. But, sadly, I haven’t the authority to do that.
The two policemen don’t take sides. Morality, not to mention aesthetics, is beside the point. They care only about the law. They deal with the straight facts, comparing notes with each other. Their primary reason for checking out the back of the building is to follow the routine procedure, until a detective shows up. Nothing more. They open the lid of the trashcan, peak in, and close the lid. They look around. Shrug their shoulders. And when they question me as to why I’m sitting on the ground, huddled there and looking pathetic, I answer their question with my own question. “So am I a suspect?” That’s mainly what I want to know. But they only smile and then shake their heads. “No, not really,” one officer says. And when I ask if I’m a person of interest, if I’m at least that, they both look at me oddly and again shake their heads and one goes back inside the barbershop to file his report, shutting the door behind him. The other policeman, now also about to go inside, turns to me at the last second and says, very matter-of-factly, that I shouldn’t worry because they have no interest in me, none whatsoever, and as he leaves all I can do is ask, in my desperation, in my loneliness, why not.