The first thing I noticed when I set down my bag in front of Penn Station that morning was that the whole area was crawling with police.
I was Pennsylvania-bound and I had time before my train would arrive so I stood outside the station to relax and smoke. The weather was cold and the light was pale and harsh so I wore a long, double breasted coat and a gray tweed hat with the brim down to shield my eyes. My huge, overstuffed duffel lay at my heels, suggesting that I was a too-hip out-of-towner on my way back to the farm. Other than being male and reasonably large, I looked like the perfect mark. This would not discourage my assailant-to-be.
I noticed him walking toward me from about forty feet away, a short and scruffy man staring intently at me. He was wearing dark, shabby sweat pants and a blue varsity style jacket with white vinyl arms. His hands were in the belly pockets of the coat and as he drew close I noticed that he had a lazy eye. I don’t like to categorize people on the basis of their looks, but this man was a perfect rendering of a pulp novel hustler, appearing dangerous not so much for what he could do physically but, rather, morally. He would attempt to sell me drugs. There would be a misunderstanding and I would be arrested. It was destiny.
As he closed the final ten feet, I shook my head to signify, “No crack, sir. No crack for me.” He spoke quickly and quietly and I remember his words very clearly.
“Don’t move. Don’t scream. I got a gun on you.”
Well. This was exciting. For an instant my mouth was filled with the cold, metallic zing of copious adrenaline. I was up against a building so I wasn’t going anywhere. I looked at his coat pockets. I could see the outlines of every joint in both his hands. He had no gun.
If I had been thinking clearly, many options would have been open to me but, at this point, less than a second had passed since my assailant’s declaration. I was still working on the panicked binary logic of adrenaline. What were my options? Run: Zero. Call for help: Zero. Stand and wait: Zero. Attack: One!
No fake-out mugger expects to get punched by his mark. Moreover, his hands were in his pockets; I could make this blow a good one. I stepped out to my left intending to use the rotation of my hips to whip my right hand into his head like a rock on a string. It would connect spectacularly and I would walk briskly out of there like nothing had happened.
As I stepped, however, my changing point of view revealed a police officer on the corner who had until now been obscured by my target. Before my foot landed, a new scenario flitted through my mind: I strike him. He does not fall. I tackle him and continue striking him until the police arrive.
“He threatened me with a gun,” I say.
The police frisk him and find two dollars, a loose Kool, a razor blade wrapped in a cardboard safety band and a jolly rancher. The police frisk me and find the Mag-Lite that I had haphazardly stuffed into my belt that morning. I go to jail. One way or another I would get arrested today. Destiny.
My left foot hit the ground and my hips rotated but I held the momentum there. Sooner or later, I always reach this point of divergence at which justifying an attack requires a more convoluted manipulation of reason than simply standing down. Excluding the occasional imagined indulgence, I’ve never struck a man full force even when gloved for sport. The blood thrill’s never seemed worth the while when weighed against the possible consequences: arrest, someone croaking unexpectedly and, most frighteningly, contracting a blood-born disease. Possibly all of the above.
But more paralyzing than the potential consequences is the feeling of imminent wrongdoing. My editor blames it on my peculiar West Village Catholic upbringing. I disagree.
But whatever the explanation, the qualms always win and years of erratic training and mental preparation are invariably wasted on a peaceful solution. The man misinterpreted my step.
“Don’t try to run,” he said, “I’ll blow your thing away.”
His alleged gun hand was in position to do it. For a moment I questioned my judgment. Was I sufficiently certain that he was bluffing? I reexamined the bulge in his pocket. He had nothing. I was sure.
Thus far my violent impulses had been more a matter of terror-warped logic than of vengeance. But until now I hadn’t been absolutely certain he didn’t have a gun. Still, the suggestion of explosive genital mutilation was another bomb in the debris-field of my shock-scattered thoughts.
Though his empty threat could not restrain me, I did not receive it flatly as I would have had I never been frightened. In visceral terms, I was still cornered and this man had become infinitely sinister. Maintaining an expression more neutral than my poker-face, I was no longer thinking in terms of a punch, but rather of something I could do to his tonsils. But the urge to commit elaborately contrived acts of violence hardly lends itself to swift action. Given time to operate, my paranoia overcame my anger and I returned my hips to their original orientation.
I’d like to say I picked up my bag and walked away but I could not think of anything to do but to reach in my pocket and assuage this harmless monster.
“Hurry up, man! Give me something!”
I was frozen by my distaste for this solution.
“Hold on!” I growled.
Perhaps the rasp of my voice conveyed the bleeding eye sockets in my imagination because he took on a pleading tone.
“You don’t have to give me everything. I’m hungry, man. Just a few bucks.”
With this, I was back in front of Penn Station, returned from the panic-dislocated anywhere of the past few seconds, the like of which I have never since experienced, even during the real stick-up that occurred years later. This man could not command me to give him anything. He wasn’t a monster, nor even a mugger, but a short, unarmed beggar on whom I had at least forty pounds.
With a hand in my pocket, I could feel a few large bills I had neatly folded in a wad. Some ones and a five were floating free. I grabbed a loose bill and began to wriggle it out.
“Come on, man,” he said, “I’m hungry.”
I got the bill free. It was the five. I just handed it over. He took it and looked down at it for a long moment. When he brought his eyes back up they were filled with guilt. He took his empty hand from his pocket and said,
“I don’t have a gun.”
I nodded. He looked at the bill again and then back at me.
“Do you want it back?”
“No. Keep it,” I said.
The rest of the encounter is something of a blur now. He talked a little bit about how life was hard and no one would help him unless he made threats. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was part of the act: Loosen the wallet with a good shock, confess what everyone already knows about the imaginary status of your gun, and play at contrition. What man could bring himself to take the money back? Five dollars was probably a meager haul for this guy. I told him he shouldn’t stick people up.
We parted with a handshake. Grateful as I am that I didn’t wind up in jail that day, and that no foreign saliva got into my bloodstream, I still resent the guy’s tactics. It took me the full four-hour train ride to wind back to my usual strenuous alertness, which was of course overkill in the boondocks of Pennsylvania.
This account, which first ran in New Partisan, also appeared in New York Press.