Volume 80, Number 7 | September 23 - 29, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Paparazzo Diary

Courtesy of the anonymous photographer

Paparazzo Diary is in a tight spot as he’s surrounded by Secret Service agents packing heat — about the only way he can be stopped from getting a photo.

How I was almost shot for being a ‘suicide bomber’

By J.B. Nicholas

The day I almost lost my life to police bullets started like every other, except for one little detail, the kind of cheese I ordered on my breakfast sandwich.

There’s a dive of a donut shop on Broadway under the El near the South Side Williamsburg loft I live in. They serve not just donuts and strong coffee, but pretty good fried chicken as well, which they call AFC, Aden Fried Chicken, after the city in Yemen where the proprietors are presumably from. At night the place glows green from the fluorescent lights that illuminate it. One night, two drunk girls speaking French mounted the counter in front of me and began stripping, letting their underwear flutter to the filthy linoleum floor like the fallen colors of the Ancien Régime.

In the morning, I sometimes get breakfast there, ham, egg and cheese on a roll, which I’ve been eating for breakfast since high school. And, since high school, I’ve always gotten them with plain American cheese, occasionally Swiss, but never cheddar. This morning, Sunday, though, with Friday and Saturday nights still dancing in my head, I looked into the dimly lit, sparsely filled deli counter and my dull eyes came to rest on the block of cheddar sitting there, wrapped up and alone, like a hostage waiting to be liberated. I realized with something of a start that I’d never had cheddar on my egg sandwiches.

Rarely do I pause the perpetual pageant of anarchy that is my daily existence to contemplate mortality, especially my own, but this morning, for just the most momentary of moments, that is precisely what I did, with one simple question.

“Is it too late to get cheddar?”

The man behind the counter frowned.

A subway ride later and I was standing — with two other photographers — on the corner of Madison and 76th St. across from the Carlyle Hotel, where the president of France was staying with his Italian model wife, Carla Bruni. I had covered them the last time they were in New York, when they dined at the Boathouse in Central Park and I stood on a rock, beside the lake, behind the restaurant, and shot them through the window of the restaurant as a cold white sleet fell into the warm black water stretched between us.

I paid my rent for two months off those pictures.

But now it was September again and, not just Sarkozy, but prime ministers and presidents, and kings and tyrants from around the world had jetted into town for the annual exercise in futile jawboning that the United Nations calls the General Assembly.

“Bitches,” said Andrea, one of the few female paparazzi in the city, and an equal among the best, referring not to the assembled leaders and their apologists, but to the typically twenty-something, designer-tag-whoring P.R. princesses who rule the city’s red carpets, deciding who gets into what event, deciding, in effect, who gets to put bread on their table and who gets to starve.

“I mean I hate to use that word, but that’s what they are,” she continued.

“Basically,” chimed in T, the third in our little troika, “any one named Ashley, Tiffany…Amber… .”

“Brittney,” I added, “Brittneys are always trouble… . What’s that?”

Red and white flashing lights twinkled in the distance down Madison Ave., the advance guard for a diplomatic motorcade that was swiftly advancing up the avenue toward us. As the motorcade’s armored limousines drew level with us, the motorcycles leading the way turned left onto 77th St.

“Looks like they’re heading to the Mark…,” Andrea noted, referring to the boutique hotel diagonally across from the Carlyle. But I had already bolted for the corner, hoping to make it there in time to get a picture of whomever it was in those limos.

“Hey!” a voice rang out as I neared the corner.

I never stop for Heys. If I stopped for Heys I wouldn’t make half the pictures I do.

I could see smiling faces filled with wealth and lazy afternoon ease through the thick but untinted windows of the limousines as they turned the corner. As they turned, and with my eyes locked on them, my left hand reached up across to my shoulder and began pulling the backpack with my camera in it off of my back. I was holding one of the pack’s shoulder straps in my left hand, reaching for the bag’s zipper with my right when a second, more insistent “HEY!” sounded from behind me.

That’s when I saw the big picture, very different from the little ones I had been imagining taking. In it, a Pollock-like pattern of blood and bits of brain stuck to the concrete wall of the building I was standing in front of. On the sidewalk lay my nearly headless body, riddled with rounds from the barrage of bullets fired by the automatic-rifle-bearing tactical team of khaki-and-Kevlar-clad men riding in the S.U.V. behind the armored limos.

I froze, letting the backpack slip from my grip to the sidewalk. Then, slowly, I raised my hands and opened my fingers, to show that there were no wires connecting them to the bomb I’d suddenly realized they all thought must be in my backpack. When I turned, every other person I saw either had a gun in their hand or was drawing one — all I saw were guns, first the pistols carried by the plainclothes agents, then the M4’s carried by the tactical team, all of which were pointed at my face, because that’s where they’re trained to shoot suspected suicide bombers, so they can’t detonate whatever explosives they’re carrying.

“ON THE GROUND!”

“He’s a photographer!” yelled T, who, with Andrea, had been mere steps behind me, heading for the same corner I was.

“GET BACK!” yelled one of the Secret Service agents, before pointing his M4 in their faces.

“I’m press! Press! Press! Press!”

I’m cuffed and led around the corner by a bear of bald black man and his partner — plainclothes Secret Service agents with mid-Atlantic accents who had been sitting in a parked Jeep on Madison, assigned to counter-surveillance outside the Mark. They’d chased me down the block.

“I’m lucky they didn’t shoot me!” the black agent said with an easy smile, as we waited for the Bomb Squad to clear my backpack, once he’d begun to believe that it was all some sort of crazy New York City thing that we were all very lucky to walk away from.

The Bomb Squad clears my pack but I’m still in cuffs.

“This is bulls---.”

“You’re not helping things.”

“In a few more minutes this is going to be official bulls---. Right now it’s just bulls---. A few more minutes, o-fish-e-all bulls---.”

Finally, they take the cuffs off. When they do, I’m told I’m free and not under arrest. I start to walk away.

“Where are you going?” one of the agents asks.

“I’ll be at the corner, on the other side of the police line, in front of the Carlyle.”

“But what about your equipment?”

“I’ll wait for it at the corner.”

“Other people are going to want to talk with you… .”

“I’m not talking to anybody. You’ve already taken enough time out of my day already. I have work to do.”

But just as I’m nearing freedom, marked by the ribbon of yellow police tape billowing in the breeze across Madison Ave., I’m arrested again, cuffed and thrown in the back of police car.

“People want talk to you.”

“So you think arresting me is going to help? I’m not talking to anyone. Nobody. No Secret Service, no F.B.I., no D.I.A., ICE, Intel — no one. I don’t care if you get Oprah and a couch — NO ONE! As a matter of fact, LAWYER!”

There’s a steel bench in front of the cell in the 19th Precinct. It has a pair of black handcuffs attached to it. Since the one-nine covers the Upper East Side, I imagine it’s to this bench most of the precinct’s rich clients get cuffed when they forget to pay for that extra makeup they stuffed in their Gucci purse at the Duane Reade, or the prescription pills that fall out of their purses and pockets, without any prescription.

But, no, into the cell is where I went, without my shoes and socks, and it was in that cell, on its filth-encrusted bench that, with my hands cuffed behind my back, I collapsed into tears for the first time in decades, probably.

“This is so wrong,” I yell from my cell. “So wrong. I was just working. All I want to do is work. Just let me work!”

Five hours later, I was released, without being charged, and I returned to the hotel.

The French president and his wife hadn’t left the whole time. I hadn’t missed a thing.

As I waited for night to fall and for the other photographers to leave so that I, too, could go home and wash the day off me, my stomach rumbled with hunger and I thought back to breakfast.

“Is it too late to get cheddar?” I had asked the counterman.

It hadn’t been. And I recalled how the tangy cheddar bit into my tongue as a cool late summer wind wafted down from the pale blue sky, as I sat on the ground on the El platform of the Marcy stop, the part at the end of the platform, the part over the B.Q.E., as the sky and the highway stretched away into nothingness.

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