Matthew Wallenstein: The Cap Gun

By February 19, 2021 February 20th, 2021 No Comments

By Matthew Wallenstein
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer

I know a lot of dumb people. I would say that most people are what I would consider dumb. I know some smart people too. The smartest among them is N. I don’t say lightly that he is brilliant. He is very well-read and able to apply his learning to critical thought in ways that were always astounding to me. He introduced me to many books and ideas. In school, he moved through all the tough classes. He ended up at Yale, which was no surprise to any of our friends.

His brain is perhaps most remarkable in that its capacity for intellect is only matched by its capacity for senselessness. One drunken night at Yale he fought almost the entire crew team by himself. I once saw him rip a door off its hinges by accident and walk around a party holding it, confused by what had happened. Junior year of high school he came to school almost every day with only one sideburn shaved. He did like messing with people and their expectations, but you were never quite sure what was or wasn’t play.

Most weekends when we were 16 and 17, a pretty big group of friends would get together. If there was a punk show we would go to it. Most of us were in bands and there were a lot of shows in those days.

When there wasn’t a show, we would find some way to get into trouble. The bookstore was an easy place to wait as more of us arrived before we’d set out on whatever nonsense we had planned for the night. So that was often the meetup spot. It was more or less a central location for us. There was plenty of seating in the cafe where we could sit and look at art books, or Playboys, or peel the magnetic strips off DVDs, sliding them into our backpacks, filling up time as we waited.

One such night I showed up and walked over to the cafe. B and P were sitting there. N showed up with a gun tucked into the wasteland of his pants.

“You brought a gun? What is that for?” P asked laughing.

N pulled it out and showed him that it had an orange tip, it was a toy gun.

“You brought a toy gun?” P said.

We sat there a few minutes and talked about girls and snowboarding and bands. I got up and walked over to the magazine rack which faced the front door. A policeman was walking in. He looked anxious. He had his hand on his gun. Then another walked in, then another, then another, then another. They removed their guns from their belts and walked cautiously towards the cafe. They pointed their guns at N.

“Hold it,” one said.

“Huh?” N said.

“We got a call that there was someone with a gun in their pants. They matched your description.”

N stood up.

“Don’t move,” the cop said.

“Nah,” he said. “It’s fake.”

He started to laugh. He pulled the toy gun from his pants and started waving it around to show them the orange tip. To this day I can’t believe none of them pulled the trigger. When I think about that night I wonder at it. What if it had been different cops? What if one of them had reacted too fast? I often think about the fact that N is part Mexican. In the colder months, he can look very pale, he looks white. But in the summer months, he looks very dark, much less white, not white at all really. Would the reaction and treatment have been different if he had looked darker?

It is speculative thinking, it comes from care for him. But it is sadly not unrealistic. Less than three years ago, about a mile from the house where I am sitting here writing this, a 17-year-old was shot three times by a police officer. He died as a result of it. He was in advanced placement classes too.

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