By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, November 24, 1987
I’m not sure that homeless people should be the only beneficiaries of the city’s new program to commit the mentally ill. Derangement is widespread in Gotham, not at all confined to those living on sidewalks. If we’re going to throw a net over citizens who present a danger to themselves or others (which is the criterion for putting away the homeless against their will), it’s only fair we include those living inside as well as outside.
I know what you’re thinking. You think I’m talking about unhinged politicians who foam and fulminate and fly so out of control that they assault their own dignity and thus endanger themselves. Not true. Although that kind of person, well known to us, may be minus some marbles, he or she is already self-imprisoned and under close observations.
No, I’m talking about more ordinary folks who seem to be exhibiting screwball behavior with greater frequency these days. Here is my partial Christmas list of people who are hazardous to their own or everyone else’s health.
At the top of my list are bus drivers who run red lights — which is virtually redundant, since we know that 97.6 percent of the bus drivers in New York City speed through red lights. They will protest at being singled out, since lots of drivers here ignore red lights. In fact, it’s become something of a tourist attraction — one of those informally approved New York cultural rituals that draws gawkers from every corner of the world.
But the bus drivers do stand out. Because they barrel through red lights not with shifty urban cunning but with blasé insouciance seen elsewhere only in tank commanders. And they almost never get a traffic ticket. There’s an unwritten code that says cops and traffic agents don’t given tickets to other city employees.
It doesn’t really matter that some of these buses are commuter vehicles from the suburbs and are driven by private, not public, lawbreakers. Every bus driver gets the same break, regardless of geographic origin.
I don’t know how many pedestrians they maim or kill on crosswalks every year, but they frighten the wits out of hundreds of thousands — and that’s lunatic behavior. Throw the net over them. Three weeks in Bellevue should straighten out most of them.
Then there are the many categories that have to do with the demented aspects of conspicuous consumption.
Consider the shoppers at Zabar’s on weekends, when the aisles are so crowded with people frenetically waving the numbered slips that indicate their position in line (or maybe in life), as they try to buy smoked salmon at $24 a pound, that it would give Dante Alighieri a new nether level to write about.
A tall middle-aged angry man bears down on the salmon counter, fixing a particular clerk with his vengeful stare. I have no idea what the clerk had done, if anything, but this is what happened next.
“Are you paying for this?” the meshuga customer shouted at him, pointing to whatever it was wrapped in butcher paper that the clerk had in his hand.
“No,” the clerk answered nervously, unsure as to whether he should go for his slicing knife.
“Who’s paying for this?” the customer shouted.
“Then just give me what I want and don’t make a big case of it.”
Silence, or the closest you’ll ever get to it in a consumer asylum like Zabar’s, had descended over this corner of the place. The clerk, still worried about his safety, handed the package over the counter with slow-motion gingerliness. With this, the noise level, as if a knob had been turned, rose again to bedlam normality — to await the next inmate explosion.
I would not throw a net over the entire Zabar’s emporium, which would be too broad an affront to civil liberties and free enterprise. But I would station a net squad there on weekends, when it is most needed.
Net patrols will also be needed at Bloomingdale’s and other department-store bughouses as the Christmas season goes into crescendo. With the Muzak playing “Peace on earth, and mercy mild,” customers long of claw will be drawing blood from fellow humans over possession of cashmere or suede.
Pass the thorazine, please.
Save some nets, too, for holiday movie lines, post office parcel windows and airport ticket counters. In frustration at these sites, people have been known to spit and curse at strangers and sometimes even throw money at the clerks. That’s it, folks, please step up into the van for Bellevue.
The wonderful thing about expanding the city’s commitment program is that the melting pot idea will again become a reality. The homeless, for example, will be able to mix with those who pay $1,500 a month for a studio apartment, an expenditure that is, as we all agree, an automatic sign of being off one’s trolley.
Let the nets be cast wide.