Noe Valley Voice November 2000


By Judith Levy-Sender

I don't know about you, but my serotonin levels are at low tide in the afternoons. At 5-ish, I veer toward the closest caramel frappuccino.

So, where to go? This time my built-in ouija board led me to Starbucks on 24th Street. I'd arranged to meet a former colleague there who is a warm do-gooder and a guaranteed laugh-a-cup of coffee.

By 5:30 p.m., the place was fairly packed. "What Condition My Condition Was In" -- a song I had recently heard reprised in the Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski -- played in the background. Fifteen people sat at the eight tables, and four more lounged on the pillowed benches in the window.

A large number of patrons waited in line, including a long-haired thin guy who appeared to be shaking from caffeine withdrawal -- or from something worse. Behind him stood a brown-haired, bespectacled, black-T-shirt-and-jeans-clad guy in his mid-30s, with (unnoticed by me) a police badge hooked on the back of his belt.

After surveying the scene, I turned to my friend and was about to reveal the bizarre plot of The Big Lebowski, when suddenly, from about 10 feet away, a deep voice boomed, "Okay, give me that!"

"That" was a couple of sleek silver-and-black coffee mugs, and the voice belonged to the mid-30s guy with the badge.

"I'm an off-duty policeman," he said as he pushed the thin guy a little this way and a little that. The thin guy handed him first one mug, then another.

"I'm making a citizen's arrest," the cop announced to his stunned audience.

Then began the commentary: "I'm going to write this down," I said, whipping out a notepad. A fellow coffeeshop maven, goo-gooing her baby Estrella, responded with "Go for it!"

Her friend then opined that the police arrest was an overreaction by an obvious rookie flexing his muscles.

"It must be hard to be a policeman," I added. "On the job full-time, even while off duty."

"Type A personality," someone else said.

"I thought it really good that the cop defended Starbucks and their right to make a buck and get their mugs back," another muttered under his breath.

Meantime, the policeman directed the guy to a chair at a table occupied by a young dot-com-er and his woman friend mired in an intense but joyful conversation. I heard the young man say, "I don't think it requires disrupting the whole restaurant."

At this point, just when the off-duty policeman motioned the Starbucks manager to call the station, the alleged thief clutched his heart. His Adam's apple and surrounding veins distending, he began to hyperventilate and then slumped over. The policeman backed off, and our happy couple removed themselves to the wooden bench outside the coffee shop.

The manager now phoned the paramedics. Then one observer remarked that the cop had backed off because "now it's a different story. It's no longer a vagrant robbing some mugs, but a sick man."

A nearby woman suggested that "the thief should be rewarded. He's recycling, and not wasting paper cups. He probably carries the mug around the neighborhood to fill it with water or juice from different places. Why is the cop so anxious? He can't be from Noe Valley."

But another person chimed in with: "In Afghanistan, he'd have one of his arms chopped off."

Within five minutes the area swarmed with uniforms: a fire chief who'd arrived in a shiny car, four paramedics, and two firemen, who all huddled over Mr. X. Another fireman directed traffic past now-blocked-off 24th Street. One of four pairs of blue gloves administered oxygen while the rest of us stared.

When they deemed that Mr. X was ambulatory, they moved him to the fire truck. Once the health crisis was out of the way, along came the paddywagon, driven by two cops, as well as our neighborhood policepeople on bikes. Our ex-patient-now-perpetrator was escorted from the fire engine to the paddywagon.

At this point, I interviewed the off-duty policeman, who gave his side of the story: "He was in front of me and he definitely was on dope -- probably heroin," he said. "His eyes were drooping. When I was standing in line at the counter, I was watching him, and I saw him tuck the mugs into his jacket. I knew I had to wait for him to leave to do a citizen's arrest. So I let him walk out and then I grabbed him and said, 'Let's go back.'

"If the owners charge him," the officer continued, "it's a misdemeanor, but they didn't witness the incident -- I did. So I signed a citizen's arrest. He's arrested. Additionally, I'm responsible for his health, so I called an ambulance. I don't want him to die or keel over on me."

"Well, was he going to keep those mugs?" I asked.

"No," he said emphatically. "He absolutely gave them up to me."

"Charges will be pressed?"

"Yes, because he's been here before, shoplifting."

"Have you worked for the SFPD long?"

"Six months."

After our nice rookie left, the Monday-morning quarterbacking continued to the hissing of the espresso machine. A man with a mustache whose family was from the Middle East replied to the policeman's critics: "The policeman has to show a little force or he'll have a big problem. My father worked as an undercover cop in a country where people are abused by the police. The police have to be above the people."

A latecomer to the scene replied that she was glad the paramedics and the police both were involved and that they treated their suspect with respect. A market researcher popped up and said he saw everything, all aspects of this fleeting movie.

"I saw four things about this," he said, waving his stirring stick for emphasis. "One, there was an overzealous young macho cop. Two, there was a poor homeless guy who ripped off a couple of things. Three, I saw a self-absorbed young couple who refused to have a homeless guy sit at their table. My thoughts at first were, 'Why doesn't the cop get the things and let the guy go?' Then the cop's mood changed. He started to help him and brought him some napkins. He started taking an interest in him, and then the ambulance came and they put oxygen up his nose. Then the guy felt good enough, and next thing he was arrested. The whole scene would've made a great movie!

"In fact, we had a scene happening here before this scene," he continued with a smile. "There was a 50-plus man here whose million-dollar business just failed -- he was recently employed at an investment firm. Today I was re-educating him about e-commerce, and another guy jumped in our conversation. 'You know, I'd like to shop on the Internet,' the guy said. 'I'm tired of shopping in stores. I just went to Costco and bought a too-small pair of underpants, and, well, if I had email, I would not have to leave my house to shop.'"

Guffaws followed.

"One last thing," a guy studying to be a financial planner added. "The city cannot spend a few bucks to feed and keep the homeless, but it can get 13 people to work for it. You do realize what we just saw was one fire chief in a fire truck with three firemen, four paramedics in an ambulance, and our two Noe Valley policewomen on bicycles, and a plain-clothes man. Quite an inventory!"

If this had been a real emergency, would they all have arrived so promptly? I asked myself. I shrugged and turned to my colleague: "Just another uneventful afternoon in Noe Valley!"


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