What happened was, I had just come home from the gym and was about to hop into the shower when I realized that there was a police standoff taking place in front of my apartment building. I could hear somebody on the street yelling, but not in the loose, talking-shit tone of voice my neighbors used when they hung out on the stoop. I walked into my roommate's bedroom and through the window I saw a beat cop on the sidewalk in front of my building. He was crouched behind a parked car, trying to talk calmly to my neighbor across the street. My neighbor was leaning out of his ground-floor window, screaming obscenities in a hoarse, ragged voice. It was about five in the afternoon.
On a short street like mine, it's easy to remember who your neighbors are. My neighbor across the street was a white guy in his early 40s who lived with his mom, a heavyset woman who wore her grey hair in a bun. The two of them were always making a fuss on the street, getting into comically overblown arguments about nothing in particular. My roommate and I, we just figured they were alcoholics.
But as I peeked through the window to the street below, it became apparent that alcoholism wasn't the problem at all. From the looks of it, my neighbor was seriously mentally ill, and he was deep into some sort of psychotic episode. No matter what the cop tried to say to him, he kept screaming things like "Just fucking shoot me! Go ahead and kill me! I know that's what you guys are paid for." And then he'd turn to his mom, who was watching from my side of the street, and say, "That's what you want, right? I know you want me dead, you fucking bitch!"
So my shower had to wait. I stood by the window in my bathrobe, still sweating a little from the gym, and watched the incident unfold. I guess I had come home right before the police showed up, which would explain why I walked in the apartment building without noticing anything, only to hear yelling outside five minutes later. The policeman in front of my house was trying to assess the situation, asking questions like "Rob, do you have any guns in the house? Is there anybody in there with you?" Rob said that he had a shotgun, but as the situation dragged on it became pretty clear that he was bluffing. Rob's mom told the cop that nobody else was in his apartment.
Having cops on the scene seemed to ratify Rob's paranoia at first, giving him someone else to rage against besides his mother. He yelled and screamed non-stop. He threw a large potted plant out the window, spilling soil all over the ground in front of the building. Then he disappeared into the apartment and came back holding a kitchen knife in his hand. Screaming at his mom, he put the blade to his forearm and cut a deep gash into his own skin.
Thinking about this later, I remember hearing people screaming and I remember the feeling of being horrified, and I'm pretty sure I didn't turn away, but I can't remember actually seeing the cut. I can remember what he looked like as he held the knife against his arm, but after that there's a quick gap in my memory, like a few vital frames cut out from a strip of film.
Rob's arm started to bleed, and the cops started to talk amongst themselves with a new urgency to their voices. Rob must've realized on some level that the possibility of him hurting himself gave him some leverage, because I think it was at this point that he started to say things like "If anybody comes in that door I swear to God I'll slit my fucking throat." At one point he even bent over and pointed the kitchen knife at himself, standing completely still as he tried to muster up the courage to plunge it into his own heart. After a few long seconds, he straightened up and put the knife down the windowsill, but he didn't let it go.
Meanwhile, the police were starting to get more control over the scene. They moved Rob's mother around the corner, since seeing her just seemed to make him angrier. Early on the officer in charge got into an argument with some of the other cops on the scene, telling them to keep their guns holstered and eventually telling them to go watch the corner. "If you can't follow orders," he said, "then I can't use you here." After some time the street was crawling with cops of all kinds: uniformed beat cops, captains in white shirts, a few plainclothes officers in suits and trenchcoats. There were even some in full SWAT gear, with helmets, bulletproof vests, riot shields, and semiautomatic machine guns.
From time to time, Rob would slip into moments of relative lucidity. He'd promise to come out after making phone calls to his dad, and to his wife: "She won't let me see my eight-year-old son." His phone had been disconnected, so he wanted to use somebody's cell phone, but the police wouldn't give him a phone until he came out.
Overall, however, he was still pretty deranged. He hadn't bandaged his arm, and blood was spattered over the side of the windowsill and down the building's aluminum siding. There was a white nylon curtain pulled to the side of the window, its bottom half stained a dark, heavy red. Sometimes he would vanish into the apartment and you could hear his screams muffled through the walls. Other times he would disappear from the window and make no sound at all, which was much worse.
The police were really digging in now. Five of the most heavily armored police had snuck into the doorway of the building, and they had the front door key (given to them by Rob's mom, I assume). Rob had screamed at the police to get them out of the doorway, but didn't seem to have the focus to make any credible threats to get them out, so they stayed. You could hear the fatigue in his voice. At this point, he'd been penned in for about an hour.
The end came as a surprise. Rob stepped away from the window, and one of he SWAT officers walked up to the window and started to pull down the bloody curtain. Rob ran back, yelling "Don't you fucking touch that!" and the cop shot him in the chest with a taser gun.
Turns out that a taser gun is yellow and plastic, so it looks sort of like a toy. When the cop fired it, it made a hollow, springing sound that sounded like a toy, too. But immediately after that sound came a low electric sizzle as the current ran through Rob's body—which was loud enough for me to hear from across the street.
Rob fell to the ground almost immediately. I heard somebody yell "Go! Go!" and the other cops opened the front door and rushed into the apartment.
After a few minutes, they came out with Rob. He was tired, and obviously stunned, but conscious enough to walk out on his own. His hands were handcuffed behind his back. His t-shirt was smeared with blood and soaked in sweat.
An F.D.N.Y. ambulance was already parked on the street; the paramedics cut off his t-shirt and wrapped up the gash on his arm. When he lay down in the stretcher I saw something hard and pointed sticking out of him, which might've been the taser darts. They lifted the stretcher into the ambulance, which idled there for a long time. The cops—I counted about 20 of them at this point—stood and talked for a while about what had just happened. From time to time Rob would turn on his side and complain about his mother to the paramedics, but now his tone of voice was less enraged and more annoyed.
Rob's mother walked back from around the corner. Occasionally she would wipe tears from her eyes, but she looked more exhausted than anything else. She listened to the police as they (presumably) told her what was going to happen to her son next. She didn't go to see him in the ambulance.
After a while, the ambulance drove off and the squad cars followed. Rob's mother went inside. The front of her building was a mess, with an upended pot and soil and blood and a curtain pulled halfway out of the window.
Some neighbors came over to offer their help. As one woman started cleaning the front of the building, moving the pot and throwing the curtain away, my downstairs neighbors came back from the laundromat carrying their laundry bags over their shoulders. A Puerto Rican teenager rode by on his bike, talking on his cell phone. The mundane life of the city was creeping back into my street.
One week later, I haven't seen Rob, and I don't think I've seen his mom out either. There are no more ridiculous arguments between the two of them for me to roll my eyes at. I don't know where Rob is—some psych ward, I suppose—and considering that I never knew his name until it was shouted out by a policeman, I guess there's no reason for me to learn.
I look out my roommate's window now, and the front of that building has been cleaned up. There's no more blood on the aluminum siding, and the nylon curtain has been replaced with a new venetian blind. It's a sunny day as I write this, and there's a black-and-white spotted cat sitting on their windowsill, intently watching people walk by.
It looks peaceful. It looks like nothing ever happened.