Expecting the Unexpected in New York City

On seeing a crime in the park & what it taught me about life

Nicole Bianchi
Nov 26, 2019 · 9 min read

During the two-and-a-half years that I went to college in New York City, I saw a crime committed only once.

It happened one November evening in Bryant Park, the nine acres of green space tucked behind the New York Public Library.

I had not planned to visit Bryant Park that evening. I lived outside the city but had stayed over at a friend’s apartment near Herald Square the night before. After saying goodbye to my friend, I set out on the twenty-minute walk toward Grand Central. I dragged my small navy blue suitcase behind me.

When I reached the corner of Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street outside of Bryant Park, I knew that I could make it to Grand Central in less than five minutes. But I hesitated. Something compelled me to enter the park.

Since I had half an hour before the train left, I decided to join the crowds enjoying the holiday festivities within.

It was not unusual that I came alone that night, and it was not particularly unusual that I felt drawn to walk through Bryant Park.

Although I was a New Yorker, I grew up in a suburb of the city. When I arrived as a transfer student at the college in Manhattan in the early 2010s, the map of the city was not part of my DNA like my Brooklyn born friends. Yes, I had visited the city on many occasions: Times Square and Broadway and Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park. But I had never travelled in the city alone. And so my college education included learning how to ride the subway and navigate streets where tourists never ventured.

My adventures always began and ended at Grand Central — the streets surrounding it soon became nearly as familiar as my own neighborhood. Since Bryant Park lay so close, I often wandered there when I craved the sight of a tree and green grass in that concrete jungle of a city.

In the spring and summer, Bryant Park’s focal point is its vast, meticulously manicured lawn where sunbathers nap and children run barefoot. Wide, paved walkways, shaded by tall London plane trees, frame the lawn. Small green tables and green bistro chairs, where haggard business people flock on their lunch breaks, line either side of the walkways. The chairs and tables seem as much a part of the park’s flora and fauna as the flowerbeds and the little gray sparrows with their dappled brown and black wings that flit from tree to tree.

My parents told me stories of when they worked in the city during the 70s and 80s. Back then, large overgrown hedges surrounded Bryant Park, and it was the domain of drug dealers. My parents wouldn’t have dreamed of stepping foot there on their lunch break, much less on a dark November evening.

These stories made me distrust the city at first. I was always on my guard, keeping a tight grip on my purse as I walked down the streets.

But the city did its best to charm me, to assure me it had changed.

Parents with their little children rode the subway. Baristas greeted me warmly at my favorite café. Tourists, not drug dealers, overflowed Times Square, no longer a grimy, crime-ridden blight on the city, but a seeming Disneyland of colorful lights, restaurants, candy stores, and toy stores.

One day as I hurried down Fifth Avenue in front of the public library, I heard a woman’s voice calling, “Miss! Miss!” I turned to see a woman in a business suit running after me and holding up my sweater. “You dropped it,” she explained. I’d taken it off because it was a warm day and hung it over the computer bag I was carrying. It must have slipped off the bag without me knowing.

Kind gestures like this constantly surprised me. The grip on my purse loosened — a little. I was still a New Yorker, of course. When I rode the subway or walked through a crowd, I was on the alert. But in some places I began to feel more comfortable, more at home.

Bryant Park was one of those places.

I often stopped at the park to write or to read a book or to eat my lunch or to sit and talk with friends. Other times, I just loved to walk and observe the surroundings: the people throwing steel balls on the gravel pétanque court (the French game enhanced the park’s European feel) or playing chess or backgammon in the shadows of the trees or taking their children to ride on the brightly painted menagerie of animals that whirled around Le carrousel.

In the wintertime, the park transformed into a magical place: a holiday market.

When I came to the park on that evening in November, the market had only recently opened for the Christmas season. I couldn’t wait to take a glimpse of the shops. It wasn’t that I wanted to go shopping; it was the atmosphere of the place that called to me. It was like a friend inviting me to their holiday party.

I entered the park near the pink granite fountain and made my way to the right and then toward the library terrace with my suitcase clattering behind me.

In the winter, the great lawn transformed into a skating rink called Citi Pond. A pavilion where people could rent skates flanked it on one side, and a glass restaurant, erected for the winter season, overlooked it on the other. On a typical night, you might hear a speaker system blasting “Santa Baby” and see people bundled in oversized coats and thick scarves gliding across the ice.

Shops lined either side of the walkways. They were small, green structures with glass windows. They looked almost like greenhouses and, as night crept across the city, they glowed with a warm yellow light like adventurous stars fallen to earth. Crowds swarmed to them as moths to light.

Within they could find an array of treasures: artisanal soaps with the overpowering aromas of lavender and vanilla, hand-made jewelry, hand-painted ornaments, decadent chocolates, silk scarves, enchantingly crafted toys, and much more.

I do not remember now if I stopped in any of the shops. Perhaps I only planned to take a glimpse of the tree lit up with Christmas lights like a blue flame and crowned with a shimmering white star. Perhaps I wanted to see the statue of the poet William Cullen Bryant seated in his shrine on the library’s terrace. He’d be wearing a wreath of poinsettias and fir branches.

“Isn’t it silly to be dragging your suitcase here? What if someone tries to grab it?” the New Yorker inside me whispered.

“Here? In this beautiful place you love?” Bryant Park replied with its lights and its music and the laughing holiday crowds. “Impossible!”

I passed the carousel. I was in the shadow of the library now and only needed to make another right and continue across to the exit on 42nd Street. A last row of shops beckoned to me. The cinnamon smell of freshly baked churros filled the air.

That’s when I heard the scream.

Yes, somebody screaming and crying. And then the tempo of the crowd of people around me changed — they slowed, twisting their necks to see what was going on.

In a matter of seconds, I realized something was charging toward me out of the crowd. A man running wildly and another man on his heels.

The second man bent forward. He was middle-aged and had a toddler in one arm. He grabbed at the coat of the man in front of him.

I hurried to get out of their path.

The first man stumbled and jerked to the left. He was falling toward me. I saw his face. He couldn’t have been much older than I was, but he towered over me. If I hadn’t managed to take several steps back, he would have knocked me down.

I can’t remember if he tripped over my suitcase or if I pulled it out of the way just in time.

When I try to picture the events of that moment in my head now, it feels like looking through a frosted window. I don’t remember the color of the man’s coat or the color of his eyes, but I remember the look on his face: the anger, desperation, and fear. And I see several people leaping out of the crowd to catch him.

He angrily protested that he hadn’t done anything. He repeated the sentence over and over.

The middle-aged man in a frantic voice described what had happened, how the young man tried to rob him. The thief had thrown the stolen bag aside in the chase, and someone, I think, picked it up and returned it to the owner.

And here was the wife of the middle-aged man — she was still screaming and crying. “How do you rob someone who’s carrying a baby?” she yelled at all of us. When the thief had grabbed the bag, it seemed the middle-aged man had nearly dropped the toddler.

Or perhaps the thief had stolen the bag from the woman who was carrying the baby? I could only hear snatches of the story and what reached my ears was confused, incoherent.

The thief continued protesting. He struggled out of the grasp of the people who had grabbed him. They tried to catch him again, but he darted away somehow and disappeared into the night.

The owner of one of the shops said he was alerting the authorities. I do not know if they ended up stopping the thief.

The crowd began to move again. New people reached the scene who knew nothing of what had happened. They were like waves washing away the past handful of seconds. The lights twinkled. The music blared.

It was as if nothing had happened — had it?

I gripped the handle of my suitcase tightly and continued walking.

It was a rather insignificant crime for Bryant Park and for the city. Not even worth reporting in the newspapers. The husband and wife had not lost their bag. The baby had not been hurt. I had not been trampled.

Several years later, on another day in November, an innocent bystander to a robbery in Bryant Park would not escape unharmed. That time the thief brought a gun. When his victim refused to hand over an expensive coat on the ice skating rink, the thief opened fire. One of the bullets struck a 14-year-old skating nearby and left him paralyzed from the waist down.

But does this mean Bryant Park is not safe? Does this mean the city is not safe? The world spins, and we spin with it, and sometimes there is nothing we can do to prevent the darkness from also spinning into our lives, even when we are in the safest of places, the parks we love or even our homes.

As I neared the park’s exit, I saw that one of the shops had been cleared of all tourists except the woman. Perhaps she was waiting for her husband who had gone to speak with the police.

She sat on a stool cradling her baby, and the toddler stood next to her. Another woman, perhaps the store owner, patted the mother on the shoulder gently, and another woman handed her a drink — maybe water or tea or coffee.

The mother was still sobbing, saying something about how what had happened had wrecked everything, had ruined her vacation to the city. She was afraid. But the two women did their best to console her. The light enveloped them. The mother’s last memories of the city, I hoped, would not be of the thief, but of these women and their kindness.

The robbery did not make me afraid to visit Bryant Park again, though I was more vigilant on future trips and never brought a suitcase with me.

But it did make me treasure more deeply each moment. It made me realize how fragile all of this was — this peacefulness under the trees in the heart of this city. And beyond that — the fragility of our lives, how they can be upended in a matter of seconds.

All we can do is embrace the fleeting days God gives us to comfort those who mourn, protect the weak, show kindness to all we meet, and live lives that will shine out against the darkness.

The Inkwell: Stories

(a fiction & creative nonfiction publication)

Nicole Bianchi

Written by

Writer, Copywriter, Storyteller. Get my newsletter for exclusive articles & resources on how to craft compelling words: www.nicolebianchi.com.

The Inkwell: Stories

(a fiction & creative nonfiction publication)

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