In New York: Be Kind to Your Mugger
Time 1983


IT HAPPENED FAR TOO LATE AT NIGHT to be a fashionable mugging. Practically everybody the middle-aged householder knew had long since been assaulted or purse­snatched, or broken and entered in one way or another. People rarely bothered to talk about muggings at dinner parties any more. Truth to tell the householder, who often worked late in the city, had grown a bit smug about being spared so long. He always walked fast and purposefully. He was in pretty good shape. And he liked to think that he had acquired from a boyhood in the country some special alertness, a sharper sense of how to avoid danger than his acquaintances.

At social gatherings with his wife's suburban friends, he found himself in a beleaguered minority. He had grown up with guns; still owned two or three, now never actually used. But he moved in circles where guests tended to edge away at cocktail parties whenever he admitted that he wasn't entirely happy with the idea of living unarmed in a state where only cops and criminals have guns.

He saw the liberals' point, of course. If you overtly distrust the system, in some sort of superstitious way you are inviting it not to work. What was galling was the suspicion that they would forgive all sorts of antisocial behavior - shoplifting, say, flagrant adultery, embezzlement and, of course, mugging - provided some acceptable frailty of the psyche or pocketbook could be dredged up to excuse it. Even the faintest suggestion that an individual might be justified obliged to use violence in defending himself touched some deep root of outrage in his neighbors and his wife.

When the mugging happened, he found himself unready. He was plunging along a shadowy, midtown street well past midnight only a few hundred feet from a hotel where he often stayed when he worked late in the city. Suddenly, he was aware of a dark figure behind and to the left. Then, farther off, exactly abreast of him but ten feet away near the buildings, a second figure appeared. That seemed odd, especially since he now noticed there was not another soul on the street. A taxi's brake lights winked in the distance, though, and the pool of light in front of the hotel reassured him. Just as he I reached that welcoming glare, the figure on the left cut in front of him. The other shadow moved up to just behind his shoulder. Hand thrust forward in his jacket pocket, the first figure said. "Gimme your money or I'll cut you."

Except for an instant when his breath came short, the householder did not feel afraid. Or angry. Instead, he even found himself glancing toward the curb where a chauffeur dozed, or maddeningly seemed to doze, at the wheel of a parked limousine. There was still nobody else on the street. He was aware that whatever it was in the thief's pocket might not be a knife. Very likely wasn't. It occurred to him to demand to see the weapon, then dodge toward the hotel.  At the same time he felt constrained, in some peculiarly inappropriate way, like an actor walking through a barely rehearsed part. Bits of idiot dialogue ran through his mind: "Show me the blade, and I'll show you the money." Folk wisdom was clear, though: never argue, never resist.

"I'll give you what I have." he said. It wouldn't be much. He didn't own a wallet and never carried more than a few dollars cash. In his pockets he found $17 - a ten and seven ones - plus some silver. The boy, for as he handed the money over he saw it was a boy about the age of his youngest son, took the bills and scornfully flung the change into the street.

"Where your wallet, man?"

"I don't have a wallet," he said.

"You want me to cut you to get your wallet?"

Explaining that he had only a folding case full of cards, he fished it out. Grabbing at the case, the boy looked nervous for the first time. After a lightning search, he tossed it toward a green wooden planter near the hotel entryway. In doing so. he let fall a single dollar bill. Caught by a little twist of wind, it skittered an inch or two across the sidewalk.

"You dropped a dollar," the middle-aged householder found himself saying. He felt the folly of the words as they left his mouth. A student had lately been killed by a young mugger for saying exactly the same thing, but in that case, apparently, the suggestion came out as a kind of derisive irony. His own words, he knew with shame, had held no irony. They were, in fact, a reflex, an example of sheer, dumb middle-class helpfulness. He found himself actually blushing at the thought of having spoken them.

The boy bent to retrieve the lost bill. Then the two thieves loped easily away down the sidewalk.  He stood and watched them go. They wore new jogging shoes and beautiful down jackets of the kind that after some argument, he had recently bought for his son. They were good-looking too. Clear-eyed, strong, giving off a kind of energy, like athletes. It seemed to him that for them the whole thing had been a sort of game. And there they went, jogging away in step, knees high, heads up, shoulder to shoulder like some Damon and Pythias of the inner city.

The householder remembered that stride himself. It had carried him across the playing fields of youth after he had been lucky enough to score a goal. For that matter, these two, with their fine jackets and high-stepping pace, looked as care­free as his son and a friend heading away down a tree-lined street at home.

He found himself astonished. Then, for the first time, he had an urge, as strong as a clenching fist, to kill them. His coat had a special change pocket cut laterally into the button flap. It was small, but large enough for a tiny, hammerless handgun he owned and sometimes, to his wife's horror, threatened to license and carry.  In an instant, he moved his hand and, in a theatrical reflex, leveled a pointing finger at the retreating shapes. With the gun in hand, he knew, knew, he would have fired. Aiming for the legs. But he certainly could have killed them both for their disdain.

Inside the hotel he got to a phone and gave the police a description. Two boys in ski jackets. Heading south. The time. The place.  After he explained they had taken nothing identifiable, the distant precinct lost interest. Even if the two were picked up, there was nothing they could be held for. Besides, he was lucky to be unhurt, to have lost only $17. All this the bored voice subliminally conveyed to him.

His wife was staying in the hotel. She had come to town for a party, decided to stay in with him, but then gone to bed early. He entered their darkened room quietly. There was no reason, he realized, to wake her up. Nothing had happened, really. In a sense he hadn't even been mugged. The word seemed to require some actual physical hurt. Or some resistance on his part.

It was only next morning that he told the story. She was shocked, but not deeply so. The tale was too familiar. And there he was, safe and sound. Her natural sympathy, in any case, would go out to the two youths, no doubt driven to crime by circumstances beyond their control. Robert Louis Stevenson, the householder sometimes kiddingly reminded his wife, said that to marry is to domesticate the Recording Angel. But the householder did not really think Stevenson's charge described her. She was generally quite forgetful of details, and rarely accumulated small grievances to hold against anyone.

In marrying, though, he often felt he had linked himself to the very archangel of liberalism. His wife would not willingly kill anything, even an invading cockroach. Her grievance against him was that he seemed to her a madman - conservative in some irretrievably dangerous way - simply because he could not whole­heartedly join her belief in progress. Most of all because he kept refusing to agree that poverty is the main cause, and excuse, for crime. His ritual suggestions that most poor kids somehow resist the temptation to cut people up, or snatch purses, always led to deep distress in his wife.

So it was only after some hesitation that he confided to her the unexpected and inappropriate moment when he would gladly have killed the two boys. She would take it as one more sign of his anti­social nature, but his brief, murderous perception was, he felt, the only unusual thing about the whole affair.

"They were rank amateurs," he concluded. "Out for fun. The police can't touch them. Nothing will be done until people fight back. When enough muggers get shot up, word will get around that the work is a losing proposition."

"Oh, no!" his wife exclaimed. For the first time real concern, compassion, urgency, stirred in her voice. "Oh, no! We can't have that," she said. "That would lead to lawlessness."