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Special to the Times

A run for justice

Published December 3, 2006


After finishing some sordid business on 42nd Street, I fumbled down the gummy steps of the Times Square subway, bound for the shuttle to Grand Central Station. Slogging into the warm viscera of the city's underground provided me a moment's respite from the icy streets, teeming as always with deadly legions of roving hacks and pedestrians hell-bent on lacerating my face with their outstretched umbrellas.

The shuttle to Grand Central ran frequently and was the only dependable track of New York City's 600-mile-long nervous system, owing to the fact that it ran only between two crosstown points. As I waited at the rails, flecks of newly discharged snow steamed from the lapels of my overcoat. When the train approached and braked, the crowd of commuters muddled in. Most sat on the molded orange seats while the rest stood, ready to disembark at the next station. The stainless steel doors remained open for the latecomers descending the stairs, and a few people hovered at the car's entrance. The electric chimes chimed, signaling that the doors were preparing to close, and everyone practiced their best subway etiquette of looking at one another without seeing anything at all.

As the conductor announced our imminent departure, a man of indeterminate race clothed in baggy jeans and a smart leather baseball jacket jumped into the car, and like a lizard flicking its tongue to catch a fly, snatched the purse of the young lady sitting next to me. He jumped out just as quickly and made for the stairs. Four men including myself gave chase. It was a silent, automatic and, for me, ignoble response: No harm had been done to the woman; we were pursuing only the challenge, not the man. I was nearest, and with the advantage of height I was able to jump to every other step. He was nimble, however, angling through the unfazed crowd like a running back, aided no doubt by his remarkably spotless white sneakers. Hurdling the turnstiles gave him the blue ribbon edge in the race as the meeker members of the posse pushed through.

A turn and another steep stair flight led us back onto 42nd Street at Seventh Avenue. The quarry cut north across 42nd, rabbit-hopping over the funeral mounds of exhaust-blackened slush that fortify the city's street corners until May. Into a stream of yellow death machines we followed, their rush-hour passengers caged behind Plexiglas partitions, no doubt egging their drivers to gun past the fray. After all, to yield in this city is to concede.

I followed the thief with my Totes umbrella at the ready, like a truncheon-wielding Keystone Cop. A wingman from our gang of four fired his afterburners and overtook me, tackling our target before he reached the street gutters. Two others arrived seconds later and held him prostrate. Spent and without use, I bent to catch my breath. A half-circle of onlookers gathered at the scene.

I looked behind to see the victim bounding toward us, the belt of her woolen overcoat undone and ticking expectantly from side to side. Traffic in both directions stopped as the neon lights turned on above the scaffold-lined street, illuminating the nocturne below.

The woman grabbed her purse and gave the leech, still prone, a penalty kick in his gut. Before anyone could comment, she turned heel and headed back for the station without a word or gesture of thanks. This put our ad hoc justice league in a pinch, for without victim or evidence no case could be made against the perp. We were now forced to let him walk free, free to roam and rob again. She had squandered any sense of justice with her swift kick and exit.

Our mob disbanded as quickly as it had formed, blending into the foot traffic on 42nd Street. Our small adventure put no chink in the armaments of evil, caused no seismic rift in the progress of Midtown Manhattan. It was a mild affair, and yet it relieved us, for one charged moment, from our workaday lives.

Brian Christian is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal.

[Last modified December 7, 2006, 14:28:30]

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