In January 2001, freshly cleft from my job at College Media Journal (a casualty), I hooked up assignments with CDNow and to cover the Sean “Puffy” Combs trial. For the next eight weeks I enjoyed entertaining insight into the lives of the rich and fabulous while witnessing a sad reminder of the collision of myth and humanity, or what happens when being “real” connects with reality. The story, as you might recall, revolves around an evening at the Manhattan hotspot Club New York for their popular “Hot Chocolate” night, Dec. 27 of 1999. That night, Combs protege Jamal “Shyne” Barrow, Combs and his girlfriend, Jennifer Lopez, were out for a post-Christmas celebration that ended in gunfire and incarceration. Needless to say, it wasn’t a good night for anyone involved. For Barrow it was a particularly tough night, as he would be convicted 16 months later and sentenced to 10 years.

Combs and his entourage partied that night in the packed club’s VIP section, and ran up a $4,000 bill drinking Veuve Cliquot champagne. For all his millions, Combs wasn’t above haggling with the manager about the bill, and, according to his waitress, Monica Caban, stiffing her on the tip. (Outside of court the Combs camp would claim the manager didn’t pass along his gratuity.)

But the real fireworks started when Combs made to leave the club. Ever the impresario, he was gladhanding like a politician with rubbernecking bystanders as childhood friend and bodyguard Anthony “Wolf” Jones opened a path in the crowded bar. During the course of this vainglorious exit, Combs allegedly bumped Matthew “Scar” Allen, causing him to spill his drink. Allen–who was wanted on gun and domestic abuse charges– took exception with this and started berating Combs, finally pulling a wad of money out of his pockets and throwing it in Combs’ face, saying, “You think you got money? I got money!” One witness described the money falling like snow.

At this point, someone fired a gun. It’s unclear who, though the prosecution alleged Combs fired a shot into the ceiling. Then another gun fired, this one by Barrow, who got off three shots from the front door of the club, where he was waiting for Combs.

Unfortunately for Barrow, there were two cops leaning against the wall across the street from the club when the shots were fired, and as he ran out, glancing back over his shoulder as he exited the club, he almost ran over one of them. As Barrow turned to his left to walk away he was blocked by Combs’ limo, and the cop busted him on the hood.

Meanwhile, Combs’ SUV, driven by his weekend driver Wardel Fenderson, pulled out front and Combs, Lopez and Jones climbed in. “What was Barrow doing popping off?” an agitated Lopez asked, according to Fenderson.

Of course, this was the irony. While Combs’ Bad Boy Entertainment had made money with street-tough rappers such as Biggie Smalls (who Barrow’s voice bears an eerie resemblance to), Combs is as gangsta as Al Michaels. While he was born in Harlem, he grew up in the suburb of Mount Vernon and attended a private boys-only Catholic school in the Bronx. The front, of course, is necessary for hip hop’s elusive street cred, but Barrow, it would seem, took it at face value. Growing up on the streets, Barrow resorted to stealing and hustling to make a living, and apparently didn’t realize those tales of “representing” and watching your bro’s back were just hip-hop folklore playing at “keeping it real,” not the way people like Combs actually lived.

The evening didn’t fare much better for Lopez or Combs. After driving on the sidewalk to avoid police cruisers that had just pulled up to block the street, they ran 11 straight red lights before they were apprehended. Police recovered a gun from under the seat of Jones, a convicted felon (and thus not allowed to carry a gun). Lopez by then had already had enough and began walking up the street, prompting one of the officers to call after her. “I’m going home,” a less than thrilled Lopez replied, “I’m going home.”

That would not be the case, of course. As they were driven to the precinct, Combs asked about Lopez’s arrest and, upon hearing they would probably all be released if someone claimed the weapon, said, “Deal. When we get back to the precinct, I’m going to let you know whose gun it is.” According to Fenderson, Combs’ plan was for him to take the rap, allowing them to go free. Fenderson, after endless entreaties from Combs, including the offer of $50,000 and a diamond ring as collateral, admitted to the gun, then just as suddenly rescinded his confession.

In the end, Combs would be cleared of bribery charges, and no one in that car would be charged with the possession of the gun. But Combs did suffer from the incident–during the trial, on Valentine’s Day, Lopez broke off their relationship.

I spoke briefly with Combs, who read The Celestine Prophecy during deliberations. He was aloof, and when I asked if he was worried, replied simply, “What do you think?” Not at all, I would say. He’d hired high-profile lawyers Johnnie Cochran and Benjamin Brafman to defend him. Speaking off the record with the defense team was more illuminating. They’d considered bringing Lopez to the stand, but mock cross-examinations had found her able “to turn from nice to a bitch in seconds flat.”

At one point I offered Cochran a book to sign. He opened it and prepared to sign without even glancing at the cover–Marcia Clark’s Without A Doubt. The nattily attired attorney smiled for a moment when I suggested he read the cover, and then inscribed it “Keep the faith.”

Which is good advice, so long as you are careful what you believe.