And with those words from my boss, “See you.” I’m done. My work responsibilities are over and time itself becomes something different. Time is a resource, something to be viewed dispassionately, to be used to solve my problem. That problem, as always, being how to get hard drugs into my body quickly.
I jog back to my workstation. Greg hardly exists now. I wish him a happy Hanukah as I pull on my jacket, simultaneously shutting down my machine.
I prep my cigarette in the elevator and make for the double doors. I only recall that Lawrence is even there as he recedes from my peripheral vision. By the time he registers I’m about to burst through the double doors that lead onto the street. It does not occur to me that just a few hours prior; this man (who in my right mind I know rarely, if ever, pays me a second thought) had caused me to question the legitimacy of my own existence. Now he’s barely an afterthought.
“Merry Christmas Lawrence!” I shout. I truly don’t care whether he returns my greeting.
I light my cigarette and head north up 5th Ave to the check-cashing store up on 31st Street. It’s dark out. I can somehow sense in the air the innate conviviality of a NY Christmas. A dusting of freshly fallen snow swirls around our collective feet combines with the Christmas lights in store windows to give the city an air that’s vaguely pleasant. It’s the tail end of rush hour and the sidewalks are full of people in post-work, holiday mode. Everyone is racing to get somewhere. To go buy a present, meet a friend for dinner or get home early; whatever it is they are doing out on the sidewalk it’s done with a characteristic New York brusque-ness; they are rushing. At least the crowds move efficiently and don’t hamper my progress. It’s freezing but I barely notice because I’m moving so fast, exercising my body. It’s a biological imperative to get this check turned into cash.
In my head I’m already living in the lizard brain satisfaction of being high on dope and crashed out on my couch. The odd thing about it is that while I would never admit it, being in this anticipatory state is almost, almost as good as the act of getting high itself. As long as things are proceeding as planned that is. One hitch in my progress towards getting those drugs in my arm and no doubt I’d be in distress. For now I am a robot though. An automaton. This then that…
It’s later than I would normally arrive at the check-cashing store on a payday and I’m hoping this translates into a shorter wait, but when I come through the door it’s clear this won’t be the case. The soul-less fluorescent room is packed with people, almost all of them black or Latino. Hope for a quick exit is squashed. The crowd that fills the room is loud and the mood is raucous. Working class men, construction workers, security guards, big strong men dressed for the cold wait in the 4 lines stacked across the width of the room. They shout at and joke with one another. Men hold bottles sheathed in brown paper bags and black women with elaborate fingernails gossip belligerently. I stick out like a sore thumb. I get into line and do my best to disappear against the wall.
This is where you go when you can’t afford a bank account. I put my headphones on, pull my wool cap low across my brow and press play on my ‘Master of Puppets’ cassette. I try to withdraw, will myself away from this place, even though nobody is paying any attention to me. I might as well be a piece of furniture. In my estimation of what they are thinking, I’m not worth a second look.
The truth is I am scared of these people. Black people specifically. While I know I am not in physical danger, that it’s likely nothing will happen to me, I am still cowed. These men… just look at them! Some of these guys are fucking huge! They might be good or bad or likely a bit of both. They may be family men or criminals or benevolent or drunk or mundane – I know that rationally despite my fear they are, after all, just people – but whatever adjective it is that describes them, they are – or at least appear to be – a potent force in the world. They are capable of making their individual wills known. Me? I am nothing. I am pathetic and ineffectual. I’m not a boy anymore, I’ve got the facilities and (barely) the body of man, but I’m not a man either. I am simply male. I’m an empty husk of a person that happens to be of the male variety and I’m far from potent. I’m a sapling swaying in the wind, at the mercy of whatever force decides to exert its means against me. I’m defenseless.
…a beaten dog. I flinch at shadows. I didn’t come to NY this fearful, but after living here for 3 years, I am ashamed to admit I am terrified of almost every dark face that I pass. I didn’t used to be this way. The change happened slowly at first and then gained steam.
The first time I was mugged was just a month after moving to New York. I was a freshman at NYU and living in a dormitory on Washington Square Park West. I was breaking so many common sense street-smarts protocols, that in many respects I very nearly deserved to get robbed. I was asking for it.
Most significantly I was completely and totally inebriated, weaving as I walked west, home to my dorm from the International Bar’s 4 am last call. I had headphones on and was deaf to the world. I wore my camera bag over my shoulder. I can’t imagine a better or more promising mark than I was that night. Amongst the shuttered shoe stores and head shops on the south side of 8th Street I entered a long sidewalk-scaffolding corridor. It was then that a noise – a shout? a footstep? – penetrated the drunken revelry within my headphones and I turned to look behind myself. I never made it around. A fist caught the side of my head, boxing my ear and – just a second later – a sneakered foot blasted me in the side. I went down, still deaf to the world as two young black men proceeded to kick me as I lay on the cold sidewalk. I pulled the headphones off my head and was finally able to hear the men yelling, “The money!” at me.
I was so drunk I don’t recall feeling the kicks they continued to dish out. I lolled on my back, my camera bag actually slipping underneath me and out of view.
“Give us the fucking money!” The two of them continue to shout.
“I don’t have any!” I screamed. I didn’t. If I’d had any money I would have taken a cab home or more likely bought myself more drinks with it anyway. I rarely had any significant amount of money, never more than 5 or 10 dollars, enough for a slice of pizza and a soda.
“Hand it over!”
I reached into my back pocket, grabbed my wallet and handed it up to the man. I never got a good look at him and probably didn’t try. He kicked me one last time in the head and ran away. I could sense the animosity in the last kick. The last one was egregious. It was personal. A moment later a car door slammed and the getaway vehicle accelerated up the block. And that was that.
That was the first time I was legitimately beaten up and it didn’t hurt nearly as bad as I thought it would. In fact the only blow that stuck with me were the first and the last. I stumbled home, not nearly as drunk and slept the beating off. I never reported it to the police or the University. I had a bruised cheek the next day. There were bruises in several places on my body but nothing permanent. 2 days later somebody turned in my wallet along with my student ID. I literally lost nothing physical. The camera equipment I was carrying – worth a thousand dollars or more – was never even considered.
I wasn’t mugged again for a whole year. Not until the next fall, when I had moved into an apartment near Avenue A.
If anything the second mugging – it wasn’t a mugging really, more of a ‘taking’ if anything – was more emasculating than the first. I was drunk. Again. Always drunk. I stopped in a small bodega near my apartment to get a bag of chips to satisfy my drunk-munchies. I couldn’t walk straight and had to close one eye in order to stop the spins. I recall waiting in a line behind a substantial – i.e. big – black man. When the line moved, I stumbled forward and had to put a hand on this fellow’s shoulder to stop myself from going over. Obviously it was very embarrassing but I was too drunk to express my apologies properly. He didn’t appreciate being manhandled.
“Get the fuck off me!” He said. I mumbled my apology as best I could and almost took out a display rack full of gum trying to find something else with which to hold onto in order to stay upright. I earned an angry stare from the Arab cashier.
The black man in front of me finished his purchase, a pack of Newports, and waited for me to step away from the register with my chips. I struggled to return my wallet to my pocket. Once I had done so I lurched toward the door and again attempted to convey my apologies. He put his arm around me and guided me through the door and out onto the sidewalk.
As we stepped out onto 1st Avenue, near the corner of 10th Street, my apartment building less than a block away he asked, “Say man, can you loan me twenty dollars?”
A shock of fear went through me.
“Nooo. Nahh.” I said as I attempt to step away from him. I know I should run but the man is guiding me forward through the gaggle of weed dealers that stand on this corner. Like my assailant – or if you prefer – guardian, they are all black. He is big – I am 6’ 2” – so he must be 6’ 4” or taller and he’s fat. He smells of cologne and cigarettes and wears a puffy NY Giants jacket. He manipulates me easily. Applying just a small amount of force to coerce me in the desired direction. “I don’t got no money.” I say. He’s basically holding me up at this point. I realize even attempting to run would be foolish.
“Aww, don’t be like that.” The man says. He reaches down and takes the wallet from my pocket. I offer no resistance, placing my hand on top of his, really just resting it there more than anything else. He shakes it away. “Let’s see what you got.”
He looks up and down First Ave. and continues to move me down the relative darkness of 10th street. There is little urgency or malice in his movements. It is what it is. What’s mine is his. I am powerless.
“Please, don’t do that.”
He counts what’s there and counts again. “Really? Twelve dollars? That’s all you got?”
“Fuck you!” I slur, “Gimmie that back,” attempting to portray anger.
“Don’t be like that… You don’t even got twenny dollars to loan me!”
“Give it.” I lurch forward and attempt to take the wallet back and he steps away effortlessly. I stumble a couple of steps. “I tell you what. I’m gonna take this ten dollars and leave you two. How bout that? That way you can get some more chips later.”
“C’mon man, at least give me a bag of weed for it!” I say.
“You think I’m a fuckin’ drug dealer!?” He says.
“Gimmie my money!” I shout. I know this exercise is futile. I am nothing.
He shoves the wallet back in my jacket pocket. “Shut the fuck up. You lucky I don’t beat your ass, motherfucker.”
And then he’s gone. Walking with absolutely no urgency around the corner.
I’ve never told anyone about that experience. Later on that year I started using heroin and it wasn’t long after that the muggings, the real muggings, began in earnest.
Why pay for dope when you can just take it off a white boy? Candy from a baby, motherfucker.
And so, I’m a jumpy white guy, a black-knit watch cap pulled down just above my eyes in a room full of black people. At this point it’s animal instinct. I can’t help but cower. It’s a jungle out here and I am prey.