It's never really a good sign when you see large numbers of emergency vehicles on the streets of Manhattan. Nevertheless, recent dramatic incidents seem to have had more than a touch of farce about them.
On Saturday, as I was on my way to play frisbee in Central Park (I have finally become a real New Yorker), I was a little surprised to find the intersection at Houston and Lafayette fairly choked with firetrucks in every shape and size, from demure little red SUVs all the way up to a hook-and-ladder approximately one city block in length. Throw in a few ambulances and some police cars, and you could be forgiven for thinking that some species of major inferno had broken out.
Smoke and flames, however, were nowhere to be seen, and the small army of firemen present were standing around looking rather bored and even slightly embarrassed. It turned out that a derelict building on the corner of Mulberry, tired of waiting to be demolished, had taken matters into its own hands and simply collapsed in on itself. Fortunately, there was no one inside at the time. If any lives were lost they were probably among Manhattan's rat population, which could stand to lose a few members.
Then on Tuesday, walking up Centre St, I saw that the right lane was full of police vehicles, including an enormous, eerily-shiny cobalt-blue truck with no markings that towered over the white NYPD vans. Clustered around the giant blue truck were a squad of policemen in body armor and ballistic helmets, their flak vests blazoned with NYPD ESU. While I watched, one emerged from an adjacent house carrying a ram and other door-breaking equipment while another, an assault rifle slung across his chest, paced back and forth on the pavement.
No one in the interested crowd appeared to have any idea what was going on and the police were busily shooing people away from that side of the street, discouraging casual inquiries. I was a little concerned to see that the police vehicles were actually pulled in ahead of a truck with a large shipping container on it, and wondered vaguely if I ought to back off about four or five miles in case anything radiological was involved.
Fortunately, the truth was rather more mundane, although no less preposterous. The police had gone to 218 Centre to conduct a raid on a shop selling counterfeit goods. At the time time they arrived, there were a number of customers in the shop and the owners had had the not-terribly-good idea of hurrying them into the basement and then locking the door while the cops sorted through the knock-offs upstairs. One of those detained then called 911, precipitating a short-lived and entirely bloodless 'hostage crisis'. I'm not sure at what point the ESU were called in — I arrived just as the fun was winding down — but the final outcome is that the handbag sellers are now looking at an additional charge of 'unlawful imprisonment'.
Let no one say that New York doesn't know how to show tourists a good time.