By Mark Alpert
If I’m going to write a scene that’s set in a real-life location, I like to visit the place before I start writing. Luckily, the novel I’m working on right now is set in New York City, and I’m pretty familiar with most of the book’s settings: Coney Island, the Gowanus Canal, Green-Wood Cemetery, Gracie Mansion, and so on.
But last week, the novel inspired me to visit a new place, one that’s fairly close to home but a little mysterious. In this book, I envision a conflict in the near future (2023) between an aggressive, militarized federal security force (black helicopters, anyone?) and New York City’s police department. I won’t go into the details here, but in this novel the Feds get into a shooting war with the NYPD, and I had to figure out which places would be the natural strongholds for the New York cops. One of them, I figured, would be Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, which is already home to the NYPD’s Aviation Unit and Emergency Service Unit (which in other cities would be called a SWAT team). Another stronghold would be Rodman’s Neck in the Bronx, which is the NYPD’s firing range, and a third would be the new Critical Response Command (CRC), which was set up two years ago by the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Bureau.
The purpose of the CRC is to field a mobile police unit specifically organized to swiftly respond to terrorist incidents similar to the attacks on the Bataclan theater in Paris and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The officers are heavily armed (assault rifles, body armor, etc.) and at least a hundred of them are on duty at any time (the CRC has more than 500 officers in all). Their headquarters is in a central location with relatively quick highway access to four of NYC’s five boroughs and both airports: Randalls Island, which is known to most New Yorkers as that overlooked, interstitial place underneath the Triborough Bridge.
I reasoned that the CRC headquarters probably served as an arsenal for the Counterterrorism Bureau, so it would make a good setting for one of the scenes in my novel. But I wasn’t sure of its exact location. I’ve visited Randalls Island dozens of times over the past decade, mostly because of my kids’ athletic activities; there are many soccer fields and baseball diamonds on the island, as well as a track-and-field stadium. The island is also home to a psychiatric hospital, a homeless shelter, a sewage treatment plant, and a firefighter training academy, but in all my visits there I never spotted a police station.
But it was fairly easy to find on Google Earth: it was the brick building surrounded by dozens of parked police cars. I decided to get a closer look at the place, so I took the subway up to East Harlem one afternoon and walked across one of the three spans of the Triborough Bridge, the span that connects Manhattan to Randalls Island. As I approached the CRC headquarters, I was surprised by the lack of security around the place; there was no manned gate at the entrance to the parking lot, no guards in front of the building. There wasn’t even a buzzer on the front door or a metal detector or a desk sergeant stationed at the entrance. I walked right into the building and saw a bunch of heavily armed cops milling around the lobby.
As it so happened, I really needed to go to the bathroom. I noticed there was a men’s room right off the lobby, so I approached one of the heavily armed officers and asked if I could use it. He nodded and went back to his conversation with the other cops. As I stepped into the bathroom, a man standing at the urinal glanced at me and asked, “Hey, are you new here?” This was kind of a ridiculous question, because I’m clearly not Counterterrorism material. I’m a near-sighted, five-foot-six, 56-year-old writer with a bad back and many, many neuroses. (Plus, I was wearing khaki shorts and a polo shirt.) I explained that I was there only because I really needed to use the bathroom, and then I entered one of the stalls.
Once I got out of the bathroom, I realized I was tremendously thirsty. (It was a hot day.) So I went back to the officers in body armor and asked if I could use their water fountain. One of them reluctantly left his buddies and offered to show me where it was. He led me into the station, which didn’t look so different from any other New York police station — linoleum floor, fluorescent lighting, gray metal desks, phones ringing. Along the way, the Counterterrorism officer asked me, “So who are you here to see?” It was another ridiculous question — if I had an appointment with someone, would I really wear shorts to it? I explained once again that I came into the station only because of my bathroom needs.
The officer stopped short and glared at me. “You shouldn’t be here! This is a secure facility!” At which point I wanted to respond, “Oh really? You could’ve fooled me.” But I’m a polite person (usually) so I said nothing of the sort. Instead, I looked apologetic and said, “So does this mean I can’t use your water fountain?”
We were only a few feet away from the fountain, as it turned out, so the officer relented. I decided to take a good long drink, if only to justify the trouble I’d put this guy through, but by this point one of his supervisors was looking at us curiously and making him nervous. So the officer tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Okay, that’s enough, buddy!” and then he escorted me out of the station.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression: I think the NYPD is way ahead of other police departments in readying itself to combat terrorist violence. And they’ve done an amazing job of deterring and thwarting attacks. (Some of the credit should also go to the agents at the FBI’s New York field office.) I feel that NYC is a safe place for me and my family largely because of their efforts. That said, they need to do a better job of securing their counterterrorism facility.
Did the visit help me by providing details or color that I could put into my novel? Not really. Aside from all the heavily armed officers, the place was nondescript. But visiting the station did make me feel more comfortable about writing the scene. And later on, as I strolled the island’s perimeter, I came up with a good idea for the following scene. (A boat chase!)
So, all in all, it was a productive afternoon.