It was around midnight and I was leaving my mother's house. I had my iPod nano in one hand and my metrocard in the other. On the way out I saw the son of one of her upstairs neighbors coming in. I thought nothing of it, thinking he was just home from college and staying with his folks. As I opened the front door something dropped to the ground. It was a matchbook. As I stepped through it a scuzzy looking guy kept the door from closing with one hand and with the other picked up the matchbook and placed it in between the jamb and the lock, keeping it from latching.
I looked at him. He looked at me. I noticed three other guys in their early 20s standing behind him and walked past, making sure not to make eye contact.
As soon as I was out of sight I tried to figure out what I had just seen. None of these guys lived in the building, and none of them looked like they belonged in the neighborhood. The neighbor's son I had seen had a history of selling drugs and other illegal activities. They were likely with him. This would not have bothered me (maybe he was going to ask his folks for cash before hitting a club) but the matchbook in the doorjamb did. If they were just his friends waiting for him to come down, why would they need to keep the door from locking?
On the other hand if they were planning on robbing someone in the building, or if he owed them money and was going to try and get it from his parents under threat of violence, well, then the matchbook made more sense.
On the one hand I could call the cops and report what I'd seen, knowing that they'd probably send someone by to check the guys out. On the other if they were indeed just friends waiting for him to come down so they could all go do something, well, I didn't want to get them hassled. Just because four sketchy looking young minority males are hanging around outside your building doesn't mean they are up to no good. Isn't that like a basic liberal credo?
In the end I compromised. I found one of the Columbia security guards in the area (My mom lives in University housing) and told him what I'd seen. He told me he'd radio it in. I went back to the building and looked from across the street. A rent-a-cop car rolled up and parked outside, with the guard inside watching the guys outside the building. I called my mom and told her to throw the deadbolt.
I then went to the subway, where I waited for a train about 15 minutes until they closed the platform I was on and told me to go to the uptown platform and transfer to downtown up at 137th street, in Harlem. I still remember the early 90's where being a white boy in Harlem after midnight was a bad idea. As it was I didn't have anything resembling a problem.
But it was interesting to be reminded that even though I'm a New York Native I grew up in one specific New York subculture. Upper Middle Class Academics. And I'm just as capable of getting rattled by some of the more...urban...elements as any tourist.