Halloween in the NYPL

If you know me well, you know I kinda hate Halloween.

I’m not one to dress up in costume. I love candy, and that’s part of the problem.

This Halloween, I happened to be in New York City for a business meeting (friends I didn’t see, I hope to see you next time, when I have a bit more time to hang out). When I rode the elevator up to the meeting with It, I should have known it was going to be an interesting day.

Between meetings, I went to the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue to do a little bit of work. I would usually buy a day pass to a coworking space, but I wasn’t planning to spend enough time to make it worth it, and I’d never been to the Rose reading room, so the library seemed a great alternative.

The Rose room is as in stunning in person as it is in pictures. It feels otherworldly, as if we shouldn’t be allowed to use such a gorgeous space for something as plebeian as typing away on laptops. But, alas, I worked.

Rose reading room

Photo from nypl.org

I noticed a young man walking around the room. I didn’t think it odd—there are signs that ask people taking pictures (aka tourists) not to come into the room, but of course, people do, so I assumed he was a tourist, taking in the room.

Then he sat diagonally across from me at my table, next to the man directly across from me. Which was odd.

There are unspoken rules of coworking that flow from humans’ (or at least, Americans’) desire for personal space: if there are three seats open, one would sit in the middle of those three; one would avoid sitting directly next to another person unless absolutely necessary. Three seats were open at the table behind him, but he didn’t sit there, and that was strange.

He only carried his jacket and his phone, nothing that would lead one to believe he was going to work or even read, really.

The young man then proceeded to scoot back in his chair. This is not an easy or quiet operation in that reading room—the gorgeous floors are extremely loud when something makes contact with them, much less a heavy wooden chair scraping it. He scooted and scooted, then leaned back, as if he were trying to see around the man he’d sat next to.

I watched him the whole time, not wanting to be creepy, but wanting to make sure he wasn’t a terrorist or something. I don’t know.

Then he dropped his jacket on the floor. Then picked it up. Then walked very quickly away.

And that was when the man sitting across from me and I looked behind him—a woman’s backpack was open, and it hadn’t been before.

The young man had stolen something from her bag.

The man across from me and I were sorta paralyzed for a moment, unfortunately for too long. We weren’t sure what had just happened and simultaneously couldn’t believe it. Finally, the guy told the woman the young man may have taken something from her bag. He had. Her wallet.

They ran out to see if they could track him down, but he was gone. We reported him to security and the police.

I felt terrible that I didn’t speak up sooner. I was afraid to, not wanting to cause a ruckus in this gorgeous, quiet space, but more so not believing my own eyes and gut.

By the time we finished reporting to security, the young man had made thousands of dollars of charges on the woman’s card, she said. I prayed she was able to recover all of it and that justice would be served.

I felt terrible again when I reported this all to the police. Of course, the officer asked for a description, and, unfortunately, the young man was Latino, in his twenties, probably. Lamenting to my spouse later, I said, “I just want to see a white man commit a crime, that’s all I ask.” There was nothing distinctive about him, and I felt awful that I couldn’t get my brain to recall any more specifics.

I lived in NYC for 3.5 years and never witnessed a crime, but I’m there for a day or so, and there you have it. I went to a coworking space the next day, and even there, in a very secure space, I was pretty paranoid.

So, this was, arguably, a terrible Halloween. And yet I’m grateful to have learned to speak up, even in beautiful spaces—if someone is bold enough to steal from someone, I should be bold enough to try to keep it from happening.

And the guy I was sitting across from and I had one of those defining New York moments you have with a stranger you’ll probably never see again. The stuff short stories and novels are made of, where your character is stretched and you become a different person as your narrative arc continues.

But I’ll continue to hate Halloween. This did nothing to try to convince me of otherwise.

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