A Real Beer Bust in New York City—Or—How I Was Rudy Giulianied Out of Sleep One Fine October Morning (Part One)
Waking up to the words, “Open up, it’s the police!” at seven in the morning is the definitive example of a rude awakening. I know because about a year ago two plain clothes cops were screaming the above statement and pounding on the door of my apartment. And to make matters worse they had a warrant allowing them to do this.
“Guilty of what?” you wonder.
Well, this is the tough part, coming clean in public. But it’s time I admit my wrong-doing and maybe then society will forgive me for my heinous actions.
I’m fighting back Jimmy Swaggart-like tears as I prepare to type in this next gut-wrenching, confessional sentence. Okay, here goes...I willfully committed the following crime in broad daylight: I drank a beer in a brown paper bag on the sidewalk in New York City.
Yes, the city of New York, in all its infinite wisdom, paid for two cops to almost bust down my door, handcuff me, take me to jail and then drive me to a court of law, all over one can of beer. There’s a million stories in the Naked City and now there’s one more. Here it is.
It was a muggy August evening about 6:00 at night and I was walking home from midtown to the Upper West Side of Manhattan where I lived at the time. I was thirsty and stopped in at a deli and bought a sixteen ounce can of Budweiser. The Indian gentlemen behind the counter placed it in a small brown paper bag. I coughed up a buck and a quarter and was on my way.
Here in New York you can buy single cans of beer on almost every corner at a bodega or deli. The reason they put it in an individual brown bag is because they assume you’re going to drink it on the street. Now while it is against the law to drink an open can of beer, it’s a law assumed by most to be enforced as vigorously as the “no spitting” law. Hence you’ll see people on almost every block wandering around with a brown paper bag containing a can of beer.
In New York where you’re assaulted by people begging for money, trying to sell you drugs, screaming gibberish, waving flyers in your face and vomiting and pissing in stoops on the corner, an open can of Budweiser seems to be the least of anyone’s worries, especially the cops. But thanks to Mayor Rudy Giuliani this is no longer the case.
When the whip-haired Giuliani was elected a few years ago he vowed to clean up the city and bring the crime rates down. And he’s succeeded. Crime rates have fallen. Most of the murders on the streets are now committed by the cops. Times Square has shuttered up all the famous porno theaters and seedy strip clubs and replaced them with family sports cafes, Starbucks and a giganzo Walt Disney store/mall thingy. Of course I haven’t seen any of this, once the porno theaters and strip clubs shut down there was no reason for me to visit Times Square anymore.
One of Mayor Giuliani’s tactics in overpowering crime in the Big Apple was to employ what is known as a “sweep” of an area and arrest anyone who is doing anything against the law. And Johnny, I mean anything. A friend of mine was busted in a sweep of Alphabet City for smoking a joint on the street and he spent a night in jail. The fact that he was arrested in front of an apartment building that houses several crack dealers was truly an ironic moment that went over the Gestapo-like policemen’s heads as they handcuffed him and ignored the steady stream of people wandering in and out of the building gleefully making purchases of rock cocaine.
Well, on that fateful August night it was my turn. I had walked about a block on Columbus Avenue and had maybe two sips of the illegal brew when a police siren went off howling behind me. Unfazed I continued to walk, sirens go off in the city as frequently as Donald Trump changes girlfriends, so you tend to ignore them.
But a few steps later the police car sidled up to me and a sporty, pumped-up young police officer jumped out and told me to stop.
“Stop what?” I asked this furrowed brow defender of the law.
“What’s in the bag?” He asked in a Joe Friday monotone, that was a stark contrast to his boyish face and blonde crew cut.
“A can of beer.” I answered.
Ba-da-bing, Ba-da-boom! Junior Johnny Law had his man. Without so much as a hot light overhead he had whipped a confession out of me.
“Do you know that it’s against the law to drink open alcohol on the streets?” He quizzed me with ever narrowing eyes.
“Yeah, but this is just a beer,” I countered. Somewhere Perry Mason was blushing.
“A can of beer is an alcoholic beverage sir.” He said in clipped, curt tones while folding his arms and shaking his head at my pathetic defense ploy.
“Oh, right.” I sheepishly replied.
You see I drink beer so often that I don’t think of it as an alcoholic beverage, but more as a staple of life. Like cigarettes. But the young officer had made his point and I was willing to let him have his day.
“Well I’ll just throw it out and be on my way,” I offered and started to walk in the direction of a garbage can.
“Hold it right there sir!” He commanded. “I’ll take the beer, have you got any I.D.?”
With much sadness I surrendered the beer. I almost detected a faint smile as he poured the beer out in front of me and then threw the can out into the street.
“Hmm, the poor fellow must have been out sick on the day that they taught the young cadets that littering is against the law,” I thought to myself as he took out a book of tickets and started writing on the pad.
“Sir we’re doing a sweep of the Upper West Side tonight,” he explained in the Sgt. Friday monotone. “Now while you may think it’s perfectly innocent to be walking along with a can of beer, this kind of behavior leads people to think they can sit on a stoop and smoke pot. Next thing you know they’re selling crack in broad daylight.”
I didn’t want to spoil his lecture by telling him that over in the park at 72nd and Broadway they were probably not only selling crack, but mescaline, heroin and all sorts of illegal, mind altering substances.
“I could’ve taken you to jail tonight, but I decided to write you a summons instead,” he continued. “You’ll have to show up at court on this date and you’ll probably be issued a fine.” He ripped the ticket off the pad and handed it to me in one fell swoop. Then with panther-like moves he jumped back into the car where his partner had kept the car running, wasting taxpayer-funded gasoline.
“Stay out of trouble,” he warned jabbing a finger in the air and the car sped off, probably in hot pursuit of jaywalkers over on Amsterdam and 73rd.
Well I did what any right thinking New Yorker would do. I pitched the ticket in the garbage and bought a six of sixteen ounce Budweisers from another deli and drank them in the safety of my apartment.
By all accounts that should be the end of this story, but it’s not. Let’s fast forward to the first week of October.
It was a Tuesday night and I had been sitting in the P&G Tavern on the corner of Columbus and 72nd drinking, yes that’s right, beer. Even though I like to drink a lot, I know when to say when. So at 4:30 in the morning after ingesting enough Budweiser to make a Clydesdale puke, I decided it was time to say “When.” I stumbled home and passed out on the bed.
The knock on the door came roughly two hours later.
“BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!” Went the door.
Now the earliest most of my friends rise is at the crack of noon, so I knew this was either someone at the wrong door or an unwanted visitor.
“Get the fuck out of here, I’m sleeping!” I graciously informed the uninvited knocker.
And that’s when those five horrific words penetrated my eardrums.
“Open up, it’s the police!”
I sprung up off the bed like a piece of bread popping out of a toaster whose timer had gone horribly awry.
“What?” I asked throwing on a pair of shorts and groggily stumbling towards the eyehole on the apartment door.
“Open up, this is the police and we have a warrant to pick up Martin Wombacher,” the voice from behind the door informed me.
Well now my brain was spinning in a hyperactive hurly-burly mode. This was just too much information to process with a head full of beer and a body functioning on two hours of sleep. I peered through the keyhole and saw two potbellied men whose ages were somewhere between mid thirties to early forties. They each adorned the tops of their heads with baseball caps and were wearing tee shirts straining under the girth of their guts.
“How do I know you two are really cops?” I countered while staring at the dullardly duo from the eyehole.
With this they each produced silver badges on chains from underneath their tee shirts. Even in my fuzzy condition I couldn’t help but notice that they produced the badges and held them out at exactly the same time without blinking with the precision of two synchronized swimmers. These guys were cops alright.
And I should point out that at this time I had long forgotten about the beer ticket. I have trouble remembering things that happened a few hours ago, much less two months ago. So I figured something was amiss.
“Look I think you guys have made a mistake, I haven’t done anything,” I explained wiping crud off my bloodshot, maplined eyes.
“This is Martin Wombacher I’m speaking to right now?” One of them questioned.
“Yeah, but I haven’t done anything.” I whined.
“Open up or we’re going to break the door down.” One of them threatened.
“Holy shitballs,” I thought.
I felt like Otis in an Andy of Mayberry episode gone terribly wrong. I took a deep breath which nearly caused me to faint and opened the door.
Fat and Fatter burst in. The one on the left was holding the warrant.
“Get dressed we’ve got to take you to the holding cell at the precinct jail until the court opens up.”
Was this all some sort of bad acid flashback? Was I dreaming? This had to be a mistake.
“Jail? Jail? Jail?” I was repeating it like a mantra. It was like my brain was a record that the needle kept sticking on. My mouth tasted like a dirty bath mat that had been soaked in rancid beer.
One of the fat boys took a step towards me.
“Have you been drinking?” He asked as his pudgy, silly putty-like face was twisting into a scowl.
If ever there was an appropriate time to emphatically utter the words, “Uh, like, Duh!” it was right then. But I decided to be more diplomatic.
“Well, I was a few hours ago, but then I fell asleep and didn’t expect all this,” I said with a dramatic sweep of the arm. As upset and tired as I was I thought this was nice touch to punctuate my feelings. The fat boys remained unimpressed.
“You like to drink, don’t you,” The other one asked. He was slightly taller and I realized he was chewing gum. I resisted the urge to ask if he brought enough for everybody in the room.
“Yeah, so what? What’s going on here?” I asked in ever-growing belligerent tones. By now I was awake and starting to get pissed. I was also still drunk. I was sure this was the problem of some computer glitch and couldn’t wait to throw these two low rent, overweight Barney Fife’s out of my apartment like yesterday’s rotting garbage.
The one with the warrant shook the paper in my direction and spoke with one of those “gotcha” smiles.
“Do you remember receiving a ticket for an open beer on Columbus Avenue last August?” He asked, flashing his badly stained choppers at me.
Slowly, through the mist of beer floating in my brain, it came back to me.
“Oh yeah,” I replied as I was becoming stupid with shock. “But you don’t mean you’re hauling me off to jail over an unpaid ticket?”
“Bingo!” The one holding the warrant sang out. “Mayor Giuliani has instituted a new policy where we pick up people with outstanding tickets and take them to court, Now get dressed, you’ve got to sit in the holding cell until the court opens at 10:00.”