Something occurred a couple of Sundays ago - at nine-thirty in the evening - of short duration - but one of those things you realize almost immediately you will never forget.
It was a sound.
I had picked up two guys and a girl, thirty-somethings, at 72nd Street and 5th Avenue, and we headed across Central Park toward their destination of 84th and Amsterdam on the Upper West Side. The ride was mundane - they spoke among themselves - about food, I think - until we were cruising across West 83rd, a one-way street, halfway between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues.
Then there was something there in the middle of that block, an obstruction that brought us to a temporary halt. A police car just ahead of us, with its lights flashing but no siren, was driving slowly around a rental truck that was just sitting there, as if it had chosen the middle of the street to be its parking space. Not knowing if I should follow the cops around the truck, I stopped and we paused for a few moments.
Suddenly there was a howl - actually three or four staccato screams, each about three seconds in length - coming from the area just in front of the rental truck, but out of my sight.
Right away I knew this sound was different than any I’d encountered before - it just didn’t fit into any of the categories of types of sounds on my experiential track. First of all, the loudness of it. It had to have been made by a large male human being for its low pitched wavelength to have been created, but it sounded almost non-human, more like an animal.
Then, the abruptness of it. There had been relative silence on the street just moments before it began - and then, bam! - out of nowhere, this howling.
Also there was an involuntary quality to these screams. Almost always when people make loud noises you know they have some control of the sound that is emanating from their bodies. But this noise was out of the control of the person making it, as if it were being squeezed out of his body, like toothpaste from a tube.
“That is the sound of something not good,” I said to my passengers, who had ceased conversation and were also trying to figure out what could be causing it. Then the girl in the back made a statement that answered the question. You know how when the truth is indicated all the nuances fall into place and you know, yeah, that’s it, that’s what it is. Whether the recognition is of something that is good or bad, there is a release of mental energy when the confusion is resolved, a feeling of relief when the correct item is indicated.
“Someone is being tasered,” she said.
Sure enough, as we slowly drove around the rental truck, we could see that three or four cops had pinned a large man face down on the sidewalk and were putting cuffs on him. I stopped the cab momentarily to comprehend what I was seeing and thought of taking out my camera, but then decided against it, thinking - who knows? - the cops may be offended and decide to write me a ticket for blocking traffic, or whatever.
I moved along, wondering if the police had been justified in using such force. Of course I had no way of knowing, as I hadn’t observed what had come before. My passengers, not appearing to be affected by the incident, ended their momentary pause and picked up the conversation where they’d left off, demonstrating some hefty nonchalance.
New York, as I wrote in my book, is a place where unexpected realities can very suddenly appear before you and then just as suddenly disappear. If we’d driven down West 83rd three minutes earlier or later, we’d probably not have known that anything unusual was about to happen, or had just occurred.
It’s a city that is so capable of these sudden mood swings.