I’ve had police at my door. I’ve watched squad cars pull up in front of our house and officers get out.
It was never because they were selling raffle tickets for the Police Athletic League. It was something else, not the worst thing in the world although we always believed it would be the worst thing in the world. Instead, it was always a smaller thing, a concern, a question, an investigation, and, once or twice, the return of a person unable to find his way home on his own.
I am wary of the police. There’s no reason for this; officers have always been respectful toward me, helpful in times of trouble and sometimes unexpectedly compassionate. Still, they make me nervous as if, at any moment, I could unwittingly do something wildly illegal and they’d arrest me.
So a few nights ago when police cars came roaring down our street and screeched to a stop in front of our house, I was terrified. But it quickly became clear that they had been chasing the man who lives across the street. He had pulled in to his driveway and a squad car had pulled in tight behind him. For a minute, it looked like our neighbor tried to back up into the squad car. Meanwhile, officers poured out of the three other squads on the street, all the while their revolving red lights ricocheting off our windows.
The officers yelled at him, still behind the wheel of his car. “Get out of the car and get on the ground!”
I wanted to yell at the police that he was a rabbi, thinking they should treat him with more respect. He wasn’t just an ordinary person. He’s a rabbi. Our neighborhood has many rabbis. We like this about our block although some rabbis and their families are friendlier than others. This man was never friendly but his children were. They sold us candy for their school.
The rabbi got out of his car but refused to get on the ground. He was wearing his customary black pants and white dress shirt, his sleeves rolled up and tzitzis hanging at his side. He wasn’t wearing his black hat or suitcoat, the other parts of his uniform, so he looked oddly casual like he’d just been bowling. I doubt he ever went bowling though I wouldn’t know. We had never spoken.
Even with so many policeman standing around him, he continued to yell and struggle. The officers threatened to tase him but instead yanked his arms into handcuffs. And when he wouldn’t quit protesting, one of them threw him up against the side of the squad car. I worried they might hit him or shoot him. Then I saw the rabbi’s daughter running, holding her little brother’s hand, her long skirt flaring out behind her. They tore across the yard and down the street, fast like they were fleeing a fire.
I went outside to be a witness.
Other people came out of their homes and we stood quietly on the sidewalk. A few asked me what happened, thinking I would know because I lived across the street. But I didn’t know, not really. People clucked in small groups. It was his driving, they said, it had to be. He drove fast, careened around corners. We always steered clear of him. He was in a hurry every minute. When he came home, he parked his car and ran into his house. When he left, he ran to his car. “Why is he always running?” I asked my husband. He had no answer.
While the rabbi sat in the back of the squad car, the police talked and went back and forth from one car to another. It was like they were deciding what to do. It astonished me that they would actually take him to jail but then why wouldn’t they if he had done something wrong? That he was a rabbi was something. But not to them. To them, he was a person to be arrested.
Later, my husband and son came outside. My husband stood with me with his arms folded like he does when he is observing and not commenting. I think part of him was glad to see consequences for years of dangerous driving. My son sat on the porch steps, his fedora cocked over one eyebrow, leaning back on his arms, like he was watching a movie he’d seen before.
A woman from the next block stood with us for a while and we talked about how the police had slammed the rabbi against the car. “Well, that’s what happens to people of color,” she said. “So at least they treat everybody the same.” Other rabbis stood nearby, conferring, murmuring.
It took a long while but finally the police drove off with the rabbi in the backseat of a squad car. We looked out our bedroom window as all the squad cars turned off their lights and quietly drove away. The rabbi’s house was dark, all the neighborhood people back in their homes. We went to bed but I stayed awake, worrying about the rabbi whose voice I’d never heard and about his children who had fled down the street.
All of it made me sick.
The next morning, the neighborhood was dead. No one on the street. No children playing. It was if the whole block had a hangover and needed to rest in a dark room with a cool rag on our foreheads.
Just now, several days later, we came back from walking our dogs and saw the rabbi back out of his driveway and drive down the street, slower than usual but faster than most. I realized in that moment that I wish he would apologize. Not just to me, to the whole neighborhood. For scaring us, for making us worry about him, for having us wonder if his children would be alright, for all of it. I wish he would go door to door and apologize. And pledge to do better. I’d accept that. I would. If I heard his voice, I’d accept that.