Race, me and Mel Gibson

for The Brooklyn Paper
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The first time it happened, I didn’t give it a lot of thought. It is 20 years ago and I am giving a lift to my friend John Smith (that’s his real name). We pull up to a Williamsburg stoplight and are approached by a squeegee guy. Suddenly, he stops, lowers his spray bottle and rag, puts on a wide grin and says, “Oops, sorry, officers,” and retreats.

A few weeks later, it happened again.

Smith and I are walking through a Brooklyn housing project and a bunch of little kids start following us, giggling and calling me “5-oh” or “officer.”

So I started to wonder: why do these people think I am a cop? The second time it happened, I was a white guy on foot in a mostly black neighborhood; maybe that explains it. But the first time, I was driving a car on a main traffic artery. Could it have something to do with the fact that my friend Smith is black?

Some of my Greenpoint neighbors told me that some people would assume that a middle-aged white guy and a middle-aged black guy driving in the middle of a weekday are undercover cops. I remember thinking, “Could this be true? Is that where we are racially in this city, that the only explanation some people can think of for a white guy and black guy to be driving together is that they’re cops?” This was a pretty depressing thought, and eventually I stopped thinking it.

Years passed — and if anyone mistook me for a cop, I didn’t notice.

Then, last month, it happened again. I am driving down Metropolitan Avenue in my Honda Accord with my buddy Andre, and all of a sudden, traffic slowed. Two minivans ahead of me were going particularly slow. An unpleasant sense of déjà vu crept over me. Besides being English, Andre is also black. Were we being taken for cops?

I pulled alongside one of the vans. The driver, a twentysomething Latino guy, looked pretty nervous; he had his arms straight out, both hands on the wheel, and was staring straight ahead. He never looked at us. Andre, who recently returned from two tours in Iraq with the Royal Marines, suggested pulling the guy over. I suggested that he go back to Basra.

Wednesday was the last straw. Andre and I were driving up to a road construction crew at an intersection. A flagman was signaling us to stop. To our left, the road was clear; to our right, a steam shovel was digging up the street. I made eye contact with the flagman and pointed to the right with a questioning look. He gave me a double thumbs-up and directed the steam shovel to move out of the way. Only when I turned right did I realize that the road was completely torn up and I was driving through a construction site. All of the other cars had turned left. Then it dawned on me: the construction guy let us through because he thought we were cops.

I was confused and needed answers.

I decided to submit the issue to my softball team, which represents an amazingly diverse cross-section of the city. We have white guys, black guys, Asian guys and Latino guys. We have Democrats, Greens and even one Republican. We live in different neighborhoods and do all kinds of jobs; we range in age from 20s to 60s; we even have a city councilman. When I asked them what was going on here, their near-unanimous answer was: “You look like cop.”

“So it’s not about race?” I say with relief.

George (Latino) said I looked like the classic Irish cop. Al (black) and John (black) conceded that part of it could have been that undercover cops often work in interracial pairs, but that the main thing was that I look like a cop. The city councilman (white) blamed Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. Huh?

“It’s not that undercover cops always pair off by race,” he explained. “It’s that people watch too many movies and TV shows that make them think they do.

“And what are you, anyway, Irish?”

Tom Gilbert, who is not Irish, is a writer and historian who lives in Greenpoint.

The Kitchen Sink

The 11th Annual Kent Street Festival, held last Saturday, was the most successful to date. About 2,500 people visited the festival, which featured rides and games for children, freshly baked goods, vendors and three live bands. According to Ken Pawlukiewicz and Stephen Leddick, who co-chaired the event, festival proceeds will go toward preservation of the historic buildings of the Church of the Ascension at 127 Kent St., between Manhattan Avenue and Franklin Street. …

The Sept. 28 issue of the Greenpoint Courier featured a pull-out section devoted to the Mets and Yankees called “The Road to October.” Too bad that some newspapers can’t wait for all the facts to come in before publishing their stories. …

Beside the Point fan Laura Hofman has resigned from the board of directors of the community group GWAAP (Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning). …

Mayor Bloomberg was schedule to hold a town hall meeting in Greenpoint on Oct. 4 at the Polonaise Terrace on Greenpoint Avenue after we went to press. Our pals at the North Brooklyn Development Corporation set it up. …

Save the date: Town Square’s annual Children’s Halloween Parade & Party is scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 28th at 4 pm! For more info, call (718) 609.1090 or visit …

Mad props to our new pal Ben Cramer, who just moved in from Rochester to take a job with the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program. The youngster didn’t know anyone in Greenpoint, but there he was hanging with the kickball crowd at McCarren Park last weekend, and even gave his number to two women. Way to go, Ben! …

The Sunday Times ran a Style section piece on how Brooklyn’s collective ego was suffering due to Heath Ledger’s decision to quit the borough for Manhattan, but the story had a huge hole: Times reporter Alex Williams interviewed our editor, Gersh Kuntzman, for the piece, but left Kuntzman’s rapier-like insights on the paste-up room floor. For the record: Kuntzman told Williams that we Brooklynites don’t care about celebrities, but we’re not averse to gossiping about the outrageous prices they pay for their apartments!

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Reader Feedback

Matthew Wolfe says:
Hi Tom,

My name's Matthew Wolfe. I'm a reporter for the Greenpoint Courier. If you have concerns or suggestions about the content or editorial quality of the paper, I encourage you to direct them to either our editorial staff at editorial [at], or me personally at matthew.m.wolfe [at] As a Greenpoint resident, and historian, we'd be very excited to hear from you.

We're sorry the Mets blew it too.


Matthew Wolfe
Oct. 4, 2007, 3:07 pm

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