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Tidal Transformation: The Story of My Teenage Arrest

​​Before 1968, the land on which I got arrested at age fourteen was not land at all.  These coordinates, once slightly offshore from the west coast of lower Manhattan, were home solely to the dualistic currents of the Hudson River.  The brackish water of this estuary flowed north into the serenity of the Hudson Valley with every high tide, and down into the homogeneity of the Atlantic Ocean with every low tide.  Nicknamed Muhheakantuck (meaning “the river that flows two ways”) by the ancient Lenape population of Manahatta, the river had always been revered and respected in spite of its ambiguity and idiosyncrasy.  Nowadays, the Hudson is New Yorkers’ only reminder of the natural ecosystem that our rapidly developing metropolis was predated by, and will one day return to.  Nobody can say with certainty when the tide of our civilization will inevitably abate and ebb, but there’s no questioning our current trajectory.  




In fact, the Hudson continues to flow only thanks to its stubborn refusal to relent to us gothamists.  If our city’s real estate moguls could tame and assimilate our river, just as they paved over our pastures and leveled our rolling hills, I’m sure they would.  They’ve jabbed at the river with various pier development and land reclamation projects, but none proved as gargantuan and consequential as the creation of Battery Park City in 1968.  


Most of us, upon remembering our city’s beloved Twin Towers, overlook the three million cubic yards of soil and rock that were excavated in order to make way for the skyscrapers’ underground foundational pillars.  This earthen mass, better known by the name “Battery Park City”, found a new home hidden in plain sight: as it was dumped into the Hudson’s waters right across the street from the World Trade Center, the dirt settled firmly above the river’s waterline, adding 91 new acres of land to Manhattan’s southwest tip.  




This rugged sprawl of gravel and sand, standing in confrontational opposition to the opulence of the adjacent Financial District, was a sight to behold.  For over a decade, no developer dared disturb the wild battery, and it remained an anomaly of unregulated public space, right in the middle of the country’s real estate capital.  The city’s agents of counterculture reveled in the vacuum of this vacant lot, turning Battery Park into a sculpture garden, a tanning beach, and everything in between.  It was New York’s own Burning Man grounds, save geographical isolation.  



Energizing as this tabula rasa was, every high tide of abundance and fertility is bound to recede and redirect.  Hardly anyone was surprised when Battery Park’s first apartment buildings broke ground.  Gateway Plaza arrived as the first leaf of kelp to linger on a wet beach face, heralding the tide’s imminent wane. In 1983, it opened the doors to its 6 towers and 1700 rental units, proving that the desolate beach utopia of Battery Park’s early years really was too good to stay true.  This apartment complex, my home until I was fifteen, can be found on the city skyline’s far right side in the image below. 



By the turn of the century, the concrete tissue of Gateway Plaza had metastasized up and down the battery, and the once-solitary apartment complex was flanked by dozens of residential high rises. But this was no ordinary neighborhood: the abnormality of the Battery’s blank slate allowed developers to meticulously control every square inch of the land, excluding all the facets of New York’s signature melting pot that they deemed undesirable. The result was akin to a suburban gated community, comprised of sterile public spaces and families with strollers but devoid of the vibrant culture and cacophony that defined the rest of the city. 



These strollers cradled children destined to grow into the teenage overlords of Battery Park City.  Most kids were innocent, sheltered angels, but the hostile few wreaked enough terror to gain notoriety among the neighborhood population.  Reacting against their pristine environment, these fringe youths of the Battery developed a community of bored delinquency for want of grit and danger. With all sincerity, they named their collective “TMW”: Tribeca’s Most Wanted. The irony was probably lost on them; their name would have better suited white collar tax evaders.  


It was common practice to stumble upon a group of Tribeca’s Most Wanted boisterously loitering in a neighborhood park or plaza, fearing no authority. Their reputation for vandalism, trespassing, and harassment blurred the lines between truth and legend; it was said that they threw glass bottles at moving taxis and robbed elderly women. But despite their amorality, they were the coolest kids I knew. 


Although we shared geographic proximity, I was a vastly different eighth grader than the TMW constituents, and I perceived myself through my own displacement from the norms they set.  I had long, curly, blond hair that made me look like Top Ramen Kenny G; my obsession with early 2000s indie rock was reflected in my thick, black, square-rim glasses and my daily uniform of flannel shirts, skinny jeans, and Vans; I deeply valued getting good grades and pleasing my parents, and had never even been to the principal’s office.  My mischievous peers, on the other hand, favored trendy Hypebeast garb, staying out late on school nights, and experimenting with every adult vice that parents condemn.   



Everybody’s fashion statements aged poorly, but I still reflect upon my own middle-school moral values with fondness and gratitude, wondering in astoundment why I ever thought TMW was cool or why I ever desired joining their feigned rebellion.  However, twisted as it sounds, their comradeship signified that they received far more peer validation for their choices than I did.   At the time, it perplexed me why I didn’t fit in.  I doubted myself, believing that rascality was rewarded and admired far more than the obedience that came naturally to me.  


While I didn’t have a confident posse that shared my eccentric interests, I did have an endlessly loyal and like-minded partner in crime.  Cormac had been my best friend, neighbor, and creative partner since we were four.  As our benevolence blossomed and we came of age, we graduated from scribbling comic books together to shakily filming scripted home movies, erratic Vines, and skateboarding edits.  Our shared language, developed over an entire decade, bordered on telepathy.  We never tired of spending time together, but we both sought to be embraced by the world outside our distinctive bubble.  I’m not sure whether we were yearning for more friends or merely for an audience to perceive our creative antics.  


Naturally, we marveled at TMW’s tight-knit fellowship, never verbalizing our desire to fit in with them but talking about them at length regardless.  We even picked up a few habits from them, hoping it would earn us their attention: the most compelling one being the romanticized trespassing of “Urban Exploration”.   


Battery Park City, with all its luxury developments and private rooftops, is a wondrous neighborhood for children to sneak into places they don’t belong.  The Conrad Hotel on North End Avenue, with all the nooks and crannies across its vast acreage, became the most popular site for such “UrbEx” activities.  TMW were known to wander the hotel’s halls, stairwells, and restricted areas, making a game of evading the security staff.  A few kids, cosplaying as hotel guests, collected bathrobes, slippers, and bathroom products from unsuspecting maids.  When the troublemakers weren’t actively engaged in crime, they’d lounge in the hotel lobby, free from undue scrutiny in this legal safe-zone.  



Cormac and I often hung out in the lobby, marinating in the dangerous atmosphere and marveling at the naivete of the hotel management. Being in such proximity to lawlessness, our degeneracy from “monkey see” to “monkey do” was inevitable.  Curiosity simply got the best of us, and we wanted a piece of the action.  But, we were certainly not natural criminals, lacking the slyness and deception that allowed TMW to walk away from each crime scene unscathed.  Nevertheless, we wanted to do something bold and memorable.  


One day, we slipped into one of the hotel’s restricted stairwells, brandishing permanent markers.  Once inside, we celebrated our bravery, commemorating the act of treachery through a lengthy photoshoot up and down the dark and dusty stairs.  We easily could’ve stopped there, but we soon began contemplating what it would take for the other trespassing dwellers of this stairwell to know that we were cut from the same cloth as them.  The answer came suddenly and impulsively: we uncapped our markers and repeatedly wrote our Instagram usernames on the walls, covering the whole stairwell with our scraggly eighth-grade handwriting.  Then, satisfied that this dramatic act would cement our reputation, we snuck out of the stairwell and walked back home.  The sheer stupidity of committing a crime that explicitly revealed our identity did not occur to us.  



A few days later, we moseyed back into the hotel lobby, eager to share the tales of our adventure and prepared to embark on more.  We made it five paces into the hotel before a soft-spoken junior employee, bless his heart, politely stopped us.  He informed us, to our utter shock and horror, that images of our faces (from security footage and from our public Instagram pages) had been posted throughout the hotel offices along with instructions to call the police immediately if we were seen.  Somehow, he found the mercy to spare us, urging us to leave quickly and never return to the Conrad.  Dumbstruck, we obeyed.  Our mistake was made clear to us, but it was far too late to cover it up.  We were generously given a final warning, and we vowed never to return to the Conrad again.  


We weren’t cool, stealthy rebels.  We were just vandals and trespassers who got caught.  I was too embarrassed to tell anyone what happened.  The incident left me with a deep pit of fear in my stomach, and my heartrate rose every time I walked past the hotel on the way home.  But as month after month passed by, my body gradually let go of the acute shock.  Cormac and I started hanging out with a less malevolent clique, and they had a good influence on us.  That dark stairwell became a distant memory.  


Nearly six months after our offense, Cormac and I were walking through Battery Park with a big group of friends on a warm Friday afternoon.  We were all discussing how to kill time before heading to our middle school’s Spring Fling dance that evening, and our friend Ella suggested going to the Conrad lobby to do some homework.  


Cormac and I shared a frightful glance and bit our tongues, omitting crucial information from our friends in order to protect our pride.  We took the gamble and agreed to Ella’s plan.  Leaning heavily on wishful thinking, I turned over the possible outcomes in my brain as I walked, silently withdrawn from my friends, towards the hotel.  Perhaps six months had been plenty of time for the dust to settle on our transgression.  Perhaps the hotel management long ago forgot about Cormac and I.  These optimistic delusions eased my mind momentarily, but my anxiety revealed itself through the nimbly trembling steps I walked over the Conrad’s threshold. 


We weren’t held in suspense for long.  Almost immediately, a determined security guard sternly walked up to us, his hand raised as a command for us to stop in our tracks.  Although we had no legal obligation to obey him, we were far too scared to ponder our rights; we did as he said.  Even more humiliating than the confused questions from our friends were the amused and gleeful glances of the TMW agents spectating the confrontation from the comfort of the lobby.  As the security guard pulled out his phone and dialed those three ubiquitous emergency digits, I began to sob uncontrollably for fear of the future and regret of the past.  In the present moment, time stood still: I sunk into the purgatory of impending consequence. 


It felt like an eternity before the police officers from the first precinct arrived.  The humiliating gaze of all onlookers corroded my skin with each passing minute.  The cops seemed delighted and relaxed at the sight of such helpless and unthreatening perpetrators, but still firmly denied us any ounce of lenience.  They confiscated our phones and wallets, offering us no more than a single phone call to our parents.  


Through involuntary hiccups, popping snot bubbles, and streams of tears, I called my dad and dryly divulged the circumstance at hand.  Rather than scolding and berating me, he expressed curt words of comprehension in an attempt to mask his surprise.  When there was nothing left to say, I hung up.  An officer swiftly snatched my phone from my hands and coarsely cuffed my wrists.  The handcuffing struck me as more of a melodramatic performance than a necessary precaution, but it provided me with a sobering moment of acceptance, my wrists now too sore to permit me feeling any denial or delusion.  


Their hands gripping our biceps, the officers paraded us through the bustling lobby and out the revolving door to their squad car.  The movie theater next door was hosting a premiere as part of the annual Tribeca Film Festival, and nearly a hundred people were lined up outside watching us get booked.  We gingerly dropped into the backseat of the NYPD vehicle, recoiling from the moviegoers’ gawks.  My dexterity compromised by the handcuffs, I used the back of the passenger seat’s headrest to push my heavy glasses back up the slope of my nose. Putting my seatbelt on was out of the question.  The brief drive to the first precinct was deafeningly silent.  Upon arrival, we were escorted to the juvenile holding room, which was far more colorful and inviting than the drab and dank holding cells I’d seen in movies.  As if sensing our relief and comfort, the officers compensated by handcuffing us both to a hot pipe protruding from the wall.   We plopped down into folding chairs, our arms raised at an awkward angle by the tether from the pipe to our wrists.  We weren’t sure whether we were allowed to speak.  Either way, we didn’t.  


The precinct sent one cop to threateningly stare us down as he filled out our paperwork at an oversized oak desk across the room.  An hour into his writing, his partner popped by to drop off a hefty McDonalds bag and left briskly.  The remaining officer, our babysitter, took his time savoring the mukbang of nuggets, fries, and a burger.  Taunting us, he never took his eyes off us for a single bite, nor did he withhold any expression of impassioned satiation.  Braver – or more desperate – perps would have pleaded for a bite, but not us.  When the epic feast reached its conclusion, the cop lowered his gaze and returned to his police report.  


This windowless room left us suspended in an unmoving limbo.  Rather than using the moment of stillness to reflect on my actions, I daydreamed about the Spring Fling currently lighting up my middle school’s gymnasium.  Gossip of my imprisonment had surely reverberated around the school dance.  I brooded, Is this how my friends will remember me once we’re off at different high schools?  Will I have any friendships after this, save my newly-branded trauma bond with Cormac?  Is this even who I am?  I felt so far from the wholesome quirks that defined my character: I felt like just another hooligan.  At that moment, I asserted my refusal to become another pawn of Battery Park’s demon generation.  Living in my purpose, even if it left me lonely, for the first time seemed far preferable to becoming something I wasn’t.  These thoughts left me with a flush of gratitude and love for Cormac: he’d accepted me unconditionally since before we could tie our shoes.  


Scanning my brain for other figures who saw me as I was, my awareness landed on my parents.  Not only did they praise and reward my individuality, but they’d been around for every drop in the well of my accumulating character.  As well as they knew me, though, I neglected to share with them the feelings and actions which led to this arrest; they were certainly stunned and puzzled by the news.  My heart shattered as I imagined their perception of me souring.  For the first time since puberty, I renounced the accepted trope of teenagers deceiving parents to dance with the devil.  I ached and pined to truly embody the image of me that they’d always seen.  I vowed to make them proud.  


When an officer informed Cormac and I that our parents were waiting outside to pick us up as soon as our processing was complete, my guilt only deepened and festered.  What we didn’t know, however, was that our parents were reclining at the whiskey bar next door, heartily laughing about the situation over drinks.  We were left in the juvie room – still chained to the pipe with arms long since sore – to stew in the dread of facing our makers.  


We sat in those folding chairs for five hours.  A few minutes after 9PM, officers finally uncuffed and escorted us to the precinct’s front desk.  Both of our moms, dads, and dogs were there to greet us.  The cop who’d supervised our bleak evening addressed the two families, informing the parents that their boys were free to go.  He decreed, miraculously, that there would be no court date, no consequence save a permanent vandalism-and-trespassing stain on our record.  Sighing solace, I thanked the heavens and acknowledged my white-middle-class privilege.  Emotionally scarred as I was, things could have gone a lot worse.  I took the lack of punishment as a reward for the silent oath of good behavior I took during captivity.  



Turning a new page in my life, I slung my bookbag over my shoulder and emerged onto Hudson Street.   As the eight of us walked back to Gateway Plaza, nobody dared speak over the rambunctious noise of the warm Manhattan night.  We crossed the West Side Highway back into Battery Park, and a pacific suburban silence swallowed the atmosphere.  I zipped up my hoodie as the Hudson River’s cold breeze cut through me.  Before long, we were all crammed into an elevator, listening to its motor and pulley hum as we ascended to our respective apartments.  The doors opened with a ding at the 24th floor.  My parents and I disembarked.  I looked over my shoulder and bid my partner-in-crime goodnight as we shared one last glance.  When the doors closed, I was left alone with my parents, reborn as an acquiescent and submissive angel.  


Six weeks later, I graduated from middle school.  Later that summer, Cormac and his family permanently moved to Los Angeles, auguring the end of our inseparability.  In September, we both entered high school from opposite coasts; we caught up and exchanged experiences over text when we found the time.  Halfway through my freshman year, my family moved to Brooklyn and I said goodbye to Battery Park City – along with the layered culture it contained – for good.  The law eventually caught up with most TMW offenders, and one particularly malicious boy was even issued a restraining order that forbade him from setting foot on the Battery.  His whole family had to move. 


I often dream about the beautiful anarchist wasteland of 1970s Battery Park, with all its expressive freedom and apathy for orderly society.  Had the ghosts of that era possessed Cormac and I, revealing themselves through our artistic creations and illegal stunts alike?  Would we have been better suited for that version of the Battery than ours?  How long will it take for the tide to inevitably rise again, washing away this capitalist sterility and gilded grotesqueness, cleansing this settlement ashore the river that flows two ways?  The cold, brackish water of our estuary has no stake in these questions, nor their answers.  It is immortal, omnipresent, and apathetic towards our mortal afflictions.  When the ice caps of our planet’s poles have melted, and sea levels rise to submerge Battery Park once again, the same water will flow over the land where I was once arrested at age fourteen.


 

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