When I was a teenager, I got robbed a lot.
This was the mid-1970s, and starting at age 16 I lived alone on the Lower East Side of New York City. The popular depiction of that neighborhood in that era is as a wasteland of burned-out buildings and lost-looking people. That’s not inaccurate.
I was short and scrawny. I wore glasses with thick frames and lenses. I bought my clothes from a man who sold rags from a pushcart. I was an easy, if not an affluent, target
I took the muggings passively. My first mugger explained to me the wisdom of that approach. I was walking on the Bowery one night, and I heard a shout from a nearby parking lot: “Get that boy!” Four or five guys surrounded me. The one facing me calmly explained that resisting made no sense because they would without hesitation make me sorry I had been born. I gave them my five dollars, which was about what I usually had in my pocket.
What could I do? I saw getting robbed as a fact of life in this city, especially for someone like me—a quiet person. A weak person. Barely a person. Each time I was robbed, my heart beat rapidly. But there was also the sense of calm in knowing that events were playing out appropriately according to everyone’s roles.
One winter day, I was walking down Avenue A. I was wearing a cloth coat over an old leather jacket. I was about three blocks from my apartment and eager to get out of the cold when I heard yells, and with blurry speed I was surrounded.
When I was able to focus on the people surrounding me, I saw that they were shorter than I was. Nobody was shorter than I was. Unlike the calm, businesslike muggers of my past encounters, they were bouncing around and yelling. I realized that they were kids—probably only two or three years younger than I was, but still just kids.
The one blocking my path and said, “Gimme your money or I’ll cut you.” He waved something near my face that looked like a small knife.
I had only three dollars. I didn’t want to get stabbed.
But I said, “No.”
“Gimme your money.” The others continued to yelp and jump around. We were standing in the middle of the sidewalk. People looked, but no one stopped.
With a tone of scorn that surprised me, I said, “I’m not giving my money to you.”
One of the kids kicked me on the chin. For a moment, I wondered how he had been able to get his leg that high. The first kid waved the knife. “Gimme. Your. Money.”
“I tell you what,” I said. I reached under my coat and pulled the three dollars out of my pocket. I didn’t own a wallet. “I’ll give you one dollar.” I separated it from the other two and handed it to him.
He snatched it out of my hand and jabbed the knife into my arm around the bicep. I didn’t notice any signal, but the gang ran off, bouncing and whooping like kids in a storybook playing cowboys and Indians.
I looked at my arm, but couldn’t tell how far the knife had penetrated through the coat and jacket. My chin felt sore.
I watched them recede, then resumed my walk. I felt different. I felt taller. My shoulders felt broader. I felt whole. I knew I was still small and weak, but I had found something—the point where logic turned off, where self-preservation turned off, where powerlessness turned off. The point where instinct took over. And it seemed to me, as I walked the last blocks home, that my instincts were strong and pure, and that perhaps I could depend on them for the rest of my life.
When I entered my apartment, I saw that the window off the fire escape was open and my stereo was gone.