I love this city. I have lived here all my life, but I do not fool myself: this can be a hard place. Still, I believe that the city gets more civil each year. We New Yorkers do learn from our mistakes. Hard lessons, but we learn. I remember so clearly the terrible story in the 1960’s of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was brutally attacked. Thirty-eight neighbors heard her pleas but did not intervene. No one called the police. Her killer twice stopped his mayhem when he saw her neighbors’ lights go on, but he resumed and murdered her once he realized that apathy had frozen all in earshot.
I was mugged while coming home to my nice, middle class co-op apartment near Fort Tryon Park. I am 83 years old, a Brooklyn-born New Yorker, and a confirmed subway rider since childhood. I do not drive. Even if I knew how to, I couldn’t because I am legally blind. Sometimes my children give me grief about riding the subway late at night, but Tuesday night, like every other night I was perfectly fine on the subway. The bad thing happened on my own block in front of my own building.
I had been a long busy day: I’d taught my college writing class downtown, then had dinner with my children uptown, after which I sang my grandchildren to sleep with “The Owl and the Pussycat” and other sundry classics. Then I took the A train all the way uptown. I crossed Fort Washington Avenue heading for my block bounded on the opposite corner by Cabrini Boulevard. Briefcase in my right hand and new leather purse hanging by its straps from my left hand, I hastened, eager to be home at last.
Suddenly, about twenty feet short of the massive stone entry stairs I felt my purse gently lifted with celestial delicacy out of my grasp from behind me. Disbelief delayed my reaction for several seconds, just enough time for a fellow in a baseball cap to race past me towards the corner. Immediately I began to bellow as I pursued him madly. “HELP! POLICE!”
I forgot that I can’t run in the dark. I can’t even walk in the dark because I can’t see and might trip. Now I was a senior fleet-footed Diana. I guess I know that you aren’t supposed to fight back when you’re mugged, but I was just so furious! I ran and ran, around the corner onto Cabrini and all the while I kept up my fierce shouts “HELP! POLICE”. Windows clattered open all around. I’ve been a teacher for more than half a century and my throat has the timbre of a trombone. When I taught in a Harlem junior high school, all the teachers on my floor sent me notes asking if I’d close my door so they could hear themselves. Now all of Washington Heights heard me. “HELP! POLICE! STOP THIEF!”
But then, alas, I lost sight of him.
Dispirited, I turned back. Suddenly – Cabrini Boulevard and Fort Washington Avenue were alive with people, neighbors who I didn’t know and who didn’t know me but who, as I passed, called out to me, “I dialed 911 for you when I heard your shouts. Are you all right?” they asked. “Senora, Yo me llame el 911.” I nodded my thank yous. I was lucky. I was only out a pocketbook, that was all.
Our co-op has a splendid marble lobby with a surveillance camera at the front desk — that was not working. Still, the doormen had been the first to call 911. Both men were most kind and solicitous. I sat with them, absolutely disconsolate. I’d not lost a fortune in money – maybe sixty dollars — plus office keys and house keys, ID cards, a credit card, my calendar. All the trivia with which my life was ordered was gone. In minutes the 34th Precinct cars came tearing along and dispersed quickly with the little information from me but much better information from the doorman – who had spent his life in the neighborhood and had plotted the thief’s probable trajectory along Cabrini Boulevard. The neighbors in the apartment directly below mine, whom I had never met in the more than twenty years I’ve lived in this house, brought me a cold drink and kept me company.
“Don’t worry,” both doormen reassured me. “They’ll get him.” I had my doubts. But they got him. And local youths had led the police to where they’d seen him hide the purse.
I spent three hours in the police station while my purse thief was being booked. It was a frantically busy place in the middle of the night. Many of the policemen stopped to chat and sympathize or comfort me. And in the very early hours of the morning, all my “property” was returned to me – its contents unchanged though I will always think of that purse as “grubby”.
I value enormously what I learned from those difficult hours. You can draw whatever moral you want: my daughter pointed out that my running down the dark city street was the scariest thing in the story; my son was eager to know what I would have done to the thief if I’d caught him. But what I really learned was this: all those people–the doormen, the policemen, the lady down the street, the plainclothesman who volunteered to drive me home that night – are my neighborhood. They cared – and care. And on this particular evening, my neighborhood worked and my city worked till I was safe at home.
P.S. I followed up after the arrest. The mugger turned out to be a fourteen-year-old neighborhood kid. First offense. He was put on probation and would be counseled. I was glad he didn’t get jailed. My doormen said it might well have been a street-gang initiation. My daughter said, “He was lucky he was caught .If he couldn’t steal a purse from a nearly blind 83 year old grandmother who can’t run fast, he probably would not do well in a street gang.”