When the weather permits I like to work in my little backyard here in Brooklyn. It’s a 20’ by 25’ postage stamp of cement and dirt surrounded by the small plots of my neighbors. Over the past couple of weeks as New York City has endured its lockdown, I have noticed one neighbor, day in and day out, cutting people’s hair a few yards down. At first I thought maybe it’s just family haircuts, but unless this guy has old testament levels of offspring, it became clear he had set up shop. I even saw the cash exchanged once or twice.
According to my mayor, one Bill de Blasio, you remember him, big oafy guy who wasted everyone’s time running for president? Yeah, him. So he says that what I should have done when I saw this illegal barber operation going on was to jump on the phone to 311 and alert the authorities so that they could send the officers from the New York Police Department to break up the crime ring.
That is not what I did. I did something that in Brooklyn we like to call “minding your own freakin’ business.” The guy wears a mask and gloves, as do his customers. And while strict social distancing is not in place, nothing is happening that is half as potentially harmful as going to a bodega (that’s what we call delis.) It seemed to me that this cat was running a pretty conscientious little situation and his customers seem fine with whatever danger they may be placing themselves in.
But let’s say I did have a problem with it, that I was that guy. You know, the self-appointed pandemic hall monitor type. Even in that upside down universe, I’m pretty sure my first course of action would be to go talk to the guy before I request that men and women with guns show up at his door.
I very nearly went over to see how much he was charging, but he seems to only know one hair-style, a kind of high and tight that is part Marines and part K-Pop. I rocked that in high school, not really my thing now. But the point is that even though I already knew that de Blasio’s “rat on your neighbor” policy was the epitome of stupidity, being in the actual situation made the awfulness of it more visceral.
There I am, smoking my cigarette, watching this makeshift hairdresser’s busy scissors and I realized I had been deputized by my mayor to mess up his whole deal. It’s not an authority I want, and even just knowing I have it makes me very uncomfortable. The good news is that apparently the hotline Hizzoner set up has mostly been used to mock the policy, not to tattle on fellow citizens, but it’s still disturbing and dystopian.
It brings up an interesting question about the nature of American civil life. Is my primary duty to my government or to my neighbors? For me the answer is clearly the latter. The idea that I should be the entity ensuring everyone lives by the letter of the law is anathema. Should we call the police when there is a serious crime happening? Sure, of course. Should we call the police because someone is cutting hair in their backyard? No.
The American people are smart, they understand what is going on, and they are doing a good job handling what has been asked of them. But they also need to be trusted, we don’t need a state-driven crackdown on people living their lives and we certainly don’t need citizens looking over their shoulders waiting to be sold down the river by fretful neighbors.
So,f no. I will not be telling on neighbors who cut hair, or throw a small BBQ, or sit on their stoops without social distancing, or let their kids play together in the park. That is not a door that should ever be opened in a free society. Thankfully, it is one that my fellow New Yorkers and I do not see fit to go through.