February 19, 2006

Bad Call

The Funny Pages | True-Life Tales

I took off, my brown boots coming down hard on the pavement. (Why am I running all those miles in Prospect Park if not to recover personal property when it strikes my fancy?) After four blocks I saw the man's brown coat ahead of me. How was I going to prove that he took my phone? I was almost to him. A cellphone is teeny; he could have it anywhere, I realized. This problem seemed to vanish when I reached him and he was on my phone.I was at my little job on Court Street in Brooklyn, in a vintage clothing store. It's not the most humiliating job I've ever had, but it is the most recent. One benefit is that I get to go to the bathroom at work. When I came out of the bathroom the other day, I saw the back of a man walking out the front door. As we don't carry men's clothing, my eyes scanned the desk to see if he had left fliers or menus. Nothing. Then I realized "nothing" included my cellphone, which had been sitting on the counter. I grabbed the house phone and dialed my cell number. No ringing in the store. Two girls moseyed in. I grabbed the store keys and pronounced: "You guys are going to have to leave. I've been robbed." They blurted words of encouragement and cooperatively dashed out, watching me lock the front door.

"You wanna give me my cellphone back, you [very colorful expletive]?"

"Excuse me!" he said, in what sounded like Hollywood Russian, "I'm trying to talk to my MAH-DER!" He continued ambling down the street.

"Well, why don't you talk to your mother on your cellphone, you [classic expletive]-face?" I said, walking alongside him.

"I'm sorry, Ma," he said. "There is crazy woman. What were you saying?"

"Give me my cellphone or I'm going to shove my boot up your [anatomy-based expletive]." He ignored my boot threat.

In what may be a first in crime-fighting, I deployed my financial woes. "I can't afford another cellphone! I don't even have a land line anymore!" But my whole act looked a little too Connecticut or something for this guy. He was totally unresponsive. So I lunged at my phone, still pressed to his ear, where perhaps Mom was making requests for how big a tree to steal for Christmas. He swatted my hand away.

"What's that, Ma?"

He then calmly turned onto a side street, which was the end of the line for me because in my mind, quiet side street equals gruesome head-bashing equals hospital. I was about to give up when I heard him say, "Gewdbye, Ma." Then he handed me my phone and said, "Is not yours, but here."

I became aware of movement behind us: two or three neighborhood guys were coming toward us looking as if they might bust into the final verse of the "boy, boy, crazy boy" song from "West Side Story." I wondered where they had been singing the first verse.

"What happened?" they asked.

"He stole my phone!"

"Who is he?" they asked. When people are late, they are often stupid as well.

"Who is he? I don't know. A thief. He's a thief!"

"We thought he was your boyfriend."


" 'Cause you know, you don't get involved in a domestic."

"I see." The mama's-boy thief started to walk away.

"You ain't gonna call the cops?" they asked.

"What are the cops gonna do? Get my cellphone back? I did that, right?"

"Yeah. You know, we would have helped you, but we thought—"

"That's O.K., guys, really," I said to them, starting back up Court Street. All the way back to the store, witnesses I hadn't even noticed asked me if I was O.K. and offered their opinions.

An old woman in front of the pharmacy chimed in: "You have to say: 'I don't know this man! Somebody help me."' I thanked her and told her I would do that the next time I was in 1952.

Back at the store I dialed the number he had called. A woman answered. "Yes?" she said.

"Oh, hello, who is this?" I was baiting her.

"Who the hell is this?"

"This is the woman whose phone your son just stole."

"Don't you talk to me like that. I'll have you know I am 52-year-old woman." I was confused. Had she not seen Madonna in a unitard lately?

"Fifty-two's not that old," I said. "I'm just. . .I'm not impressed." I hung up. For the rest of the day I was exhausted from a condition I diagnosed as "vigilante fatigue." My friends told me that what I did was dangerous and stupid, but I do dangerous and stupid things all the time. Like just before closing up the shop and heading home, I went to the bathroom and left my phone right on the counter. Again.

Jeanne Darst is currently performing her solo play, "Sally on the Mount," at Fluxco, a gallery in Los Angeles.


March 30, 2003

NEIGHBORHOOD REPORT: DUMBO; A Little Like Everest, Only Greasy And Illegal

While the industrial buildings of Dumbo have become increasingly trendy in recent years, there is one place the neighborhood's artists can be assured that the bejeweled and Botoxed won't follow their lead, and that's up a grimy abandoned elevator shaft in search of some exercise.

Still, since artists aren't exactly known for their athletic prowess, when they take up a sport like climbing it's not surprising that they tweak the rules. For starters, they climb inside. And not on the climbing walls in the gym. That's so mainstream. So legal. They climb elevator shafts. Dead ones.

The sport of elevator shaft climbing --an activity that involves scouting out elevators that are not in service, returning with rock climbing gear, rappelling down the interior and climbing back up -- isn't exactly sweeping the nation. But it is attracting a few adventurous New Yorkers.

''Usually people climb outdoors to get away from it all,'' said a thirtyish photographer -- no names, he begged, since the activity is illegal -- who organized the gaggle of thrill seekers who had come to Dumbo for a recent climb. ''We come here.''

Here is a 260-foot, 12-story-high shaft. Using traditional outdoor climbing gear, the crew tied their rope to a sturdy beam on the roof. They then rappelled down and made their way back up, not by actually climbing the wall but by ascending the rope mechanically.

''It's a sick sense of fun, we know,'' the photographer said. ''I keep meaning to go climbing outside, but I'm always working, and it's hard to get out of the city.''

Most traditional climbers have never heard of elevator climbing and are generally shocked at the idea. At the same time, they find it pretty gutsy. Charles Shimanski, executive director of the American Alpine Club in Golden, Colo., is one who understands the lure.

''Climbers of any style -- traditional alpine or indoors -- are always looking for long vertical stretches of anything,'' Mr. Shimanski said, ''and they'll resort to anything for a good climb. I do, however, hope these people at some point experience the joy and excitement of climbing outdoors in Mother Nature.''

Jonathan Thesenga, editor of Climbing magazine, sympathized with the need to climb but suggested that it would be ''an enlightening experience if they ever get out on real rock where you don't get covered in grease and you don't have to worry about rats.''

Or the police. So far, this group has operated under the radar of law enforcement. "We have no knowledge of any such thing,'' says Planning Officer John Kopack of the 84th Police Precinct in Brooklyn Heights. According to Officer Kopack, no one has been arrested for climbing, and no accidents have been reported.

At least one member of the group, a 28-year-old sculptor who regularly climbs the Shawangunks in New Paltz, admits the sport has its downside. ''We did get a lot of grease on ourselves the first few times we went,'' he said. ''And we had to throw out all our clothes and wash our ropes many times afterwards. But we just found some other routes.''

A more studied example of climbing elevator shafts involves the artist Matthew Barney, currently the subject of an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. In his 2002 film ''Cremaster 3,'' the narrative begins under the foundation of the partly constructed Chrysler Building, where a character scales one of the elevator shafts. In Mr. Barney's case, the elevator is functioning normally, and the artist received permission to climb it.