There is a small piece of New Zealand poised five storeys up from traffic-choked and thief-infested Fifth Avenue in the heart of New York City.
It is a cultural oasis, the New Zealand Consulate in the Rockefeller Centre, a secure, even complacent, little backwater just like home, well isolated and protected from the tougher realities outside.
There are security guards on the ground floor, guards patrolling the corridors, and only one door into the consulate, a door that is easily shut and locked. The staff members are mostly New Zealanders, white and middle class, trusting and trustworthy. No petty criminal would have the audacity to breach such a secure cocoon.
Or so they thought until a recent Friday afternoon.
Dave Robertson is the consul and trade commissioner. Although he is only 33, Robertson has the second highest ranking in the New York office and this is his third overseas posting.
When he walked into the narrow office of his assistant, Greg Hedges, he expected to find Hedges delving into the mysteries of the meat schedule.
Instead he saw a big, black man, about 25 years old, wearing casual slacks and an open-necked shirt, standing behind the desk.
Robertson was immediately on guard. He had spent two years in Papua New Guinea where, as he says, burglary is the national sport.
This man was no businessman. He was not even a window cleaner.
“What are you doing?” Robertson snapped in his best official style.
The black man was so startled he fell over backwards and sat down in the chair.
“Are you looking for someone?” Robertson asked, keeping up the offensive. Robertson is of the type that helped to spread the British Empire round the world so efficiently last century. He is stocky in build with the ruddy complexion that goes with gingery coloured hair.
“Yeah,” the man said, standing up again. “I’m delivering this,” and he pulled a packet of bologna out of his pocket. New Yorkers, not without reason, pronounce it baloney.
Robertson yelled down the corridor for Hedges. “Hey, Greg, there’s someone here with some baloney.”
Hedges came in and looked in the package. Sure enough, there was some baloney in there.
Nothing the slightest bit suspicious in that.
“It’s not for me,” Hedges said. “Who is it for?”
“Uh, a Mr Stewart,” the man said.
“There’s no Stewart here,” Hedges said. “You’re in the wrong office.” The matter was solved. The poor guy was obviously lost.
By this time the man was edging his way out of the door. Hedges noticed his eyes. They were watering and standing out. The man looked fairly scared. In fact he looked petrified.
Hedges thought, “Perhaps I better check,” and glanced back into his office where he had left his red wallet beside his desk.
It was gone.
Hedges’ first thought was, “Is this guy armed?” The man had no jacket on and he didn’t appear to have a knife or a gun. As Hedges checked the man’s back pockets he saw a red wallet poking out. He grabbed the man’s trousers and wrenched the wallet out. He held it up in front of his face.
Hedges couldn’t believe it. It was his wallet ... in that man’s pocket! He was stunned.
But with the action the man knew the jig was up. He broke away from Roberston and shot off down a side corridor. He was heavily built, over six foot, but not an ounce of fat on him and he could move fast.
That was when the fun started.
Robertson knew a quicker way to the front door, the only way out. Barking a string of commands - “Shut the door! Sound the alarm!” - he sprinted for it ... and got there first.
He could hear the big man thundering down the corridor towards the door. Robertson had second thoughts about stopping him. He looked around for a weapon.
Ah, just the thing. A carton of books was on the floor. A plan flashed into Robertson’s mind. He could sort of bowl the carton at the man’s feet as he came around the corner and trip him up. The man would crash down in front of Robertson and get banged on the head.
Except it didn’t work.
Robertson tried to lift the box. He couldn’t budge it. It must be full of lead.
The footsteps pounded up to the corner.
Roberston bent down, struggling with the carton. His fingernails scrabbled on the cardboard sides.
The man burst round the corner, knocking over a secretary who was in the way, saw Robertson half bent over, and aimed a flying karate kick at his head.
Robertson dodged but the man clipped his shoulder as Robertson rolled over backwards.
By this time Hedges had caught up with the scene.
“I just saw him coming, about five feet in the air, right over the top of Dave, legs astride, straight through the air, landed on the ground, didn’t fall over. I grabbed him by one arm and half his chest. Dave made a flying tackle at him from behind, grabbed him by one leg, and he crunched to the ground. By this time Gary Breshinsky, the marketing officer, had jumped on him. Strong as an ox this guy, we could barely hold him down. Mind you, he was pretty desperate too.”
It was like a rugby scrum, arms and legs everywhere, an untidy scrambling heap on the ground in the hallway. It was a scrap the New Zealanders had been trained for ... except this time the ball was fighting back.
Robertson said, “We were all getting tossed around. All of a sudden these two big guys with suits leapt into the middle. For a second or two I didn’t know which side they were on.”
“Someone else had called out for the security guards,” Hedges said. “We grappled with him for a while, five people pawing all over him, finally got handcuffs on him and hauled him into another room here.”
The man immediately demanded his legal rights and an attorney.
All through the commotion the man’s accomplice was sitting in the reception area. He was black and looked in his mid-20s too. A mistaken sense of confidence kept him there. He knew his rights.
He was also arrested.
But the biggest surprise came when the police returned to say the hearing would be held in the family court, the court for minors. The big man whom it had taken five men to subdue claimed he was only 15, and so did his friend.
Their mothers backed them up. The police could not prove otherwise.
, New Zealand, 1980