A couple of weeks back, in a post otherwise dedicated to “Lucking Out,” James Wolcott’s estimable memoir of the fabled bad ol’ days here in NYC, I made a sort of strenuously arguable case against the notion that Manhattan’s Upper East Side — the network of neighborhoods in which I was raised — was one giant safe haven, impervious to the the criminal element rife around the rest of the city. While yes, I affirmed — it may have been comparatively spared the scourges that wreaked utter, lawless havoc in the reaches to its north, west and south (to say nothing of the rest of the boroughs), I maintained that you could indeed still run into trouble there if your number was up.
I realize it sounds like a disingenuous claim, and I’m well aware that I should count my lucky goddamn stars that I wasn’t reared in a less secure environment. I did not fear for my safety on a regular basis. I was not routinely woken from my sleep by gun shots or screams. Our apartment was never broken into. No one ever threatened my life (well, not up there, although I did have a guy emphatically state that he was going to slice my throat open for taking his barstool at the Mars Bar once, but I was arguably an adult by then).
Anyway, lest I create the impression that I endured some kind of dystopian nightmare of a childhood on the mean streets of Manhattan, let’s clear that shit up right now. I was very privileged to live where I did. It was ultimately a cushy slice of urban idyll, practically ripped from the reels of a Whit Stillman film.
But, like many other life-long New Yorkers of virtually every stripe, I did get mugged, and not just once.
When I alluded to same on Facebook after posting that entry, my friend John T. was curious as to how many times I’d actually been mugged. I started to tally the amount of times I’d run into trouble in my now-distant youth, and then thought it would be … well, maybe not fun … but interesting to unspool those yarns here. Here are four instances that sprang to mind. Incidentally, the spooky pics of deserted Upper East Side locales are all mine.
I honestly cannot remember how old I was when I started to walk to school on my own. I flew the question by my mother, recently, and she speculated that I must have been around eleven or twelve, and apparently my school had issued a mandate that by whatever age that was, we students had to get ourselves to school on our own.
In my instance, it wasn’t really that big of a deal. My school was only about five blocks away from our apartment. That said, this was still the late `70’s, the era of the abduction of Etan Patz, the Blackout, White Flight, Son of Sam, etc. By all accounts, New York City was a considerably more dangerous place then than it is now, but none of that really came into the equation. This was where we lived, and this was what we had to do. So, in short order, I started walking those five blocks by myself.
So, there I was …an unassuming eleven-or-twelve-year-old in a little blue blazer and invariably poorly tied tie, making that five block trek. I don’t believe I had a standard route, but on this day, I was walking south on the broad, leafy expanse of Park Avenue, just below East 92nd Street. I’d first noticed a certain big kid standing on the corner, but once I passed him, he turned and started walking closely behind me. By the time I was parallel with the entrance to a large house of worship called The Church of the Heavenly Rest towards the corner of 91st street (conveniently deserted that morning), the guy stepped directly in front of me, muttering something. “You’re going to empty your pockets for me and give me all your money,” he said in a flat, emotionless monotone.
“Wait, what?,” I replied. Something about the wording of his directive kinda threw me. I wasn’t being brave or foolhardy so much as inattentive, and I needed him to expound a bit. Essentially, I wasn’t yet aware that I was being mugged.
“Give me your money, or I’m going to hurt you,” he asserted, now with a bit of emphasis on the last verb.
I got it this time. The trouble was, however, that I didn’t have any money. Lunches at my school were all pre-paid for. As such, I didn’t have any bills or change in my pockets. “Umm,” I stammered….the gravity of the situation now sinking in, “I don’t have any money. I’m sorry.” I really did apologize and pulled my pants-pockets out like rabbit ears to demonstrate.
Apparently, my would-be mugger hadn’t been expecting this particular curve ball. Looking more nervously frustrated than angry (although probably not quite as nervous as I), he looked around and then suddenly took off across the street, heading towards Lexington Avenue. I was left standing on the corner shaking like a leaf, with my pockets waving in the wind.
I was barely two blocks from my front door, but I walked the rest of the way to school.
I actually saw him again over the next couple of mornings, but he took off running at each point (probably assuming that I’d still be without cash and that I’d told all and sundry about our run-in). Ironically enough, after I informed my mom after that first time, she made me start carrying money to have on me … just in case.
There were instances later on wherein, when impending trouble was spied, I managed to avoid potentially dangerous or compromising situations by simply ducking into the entrance of an apartment building (preferably one with a sympathetic doorman and maybe even a convenient service exit).
It probably sounds pretty quaint now, but arcade games used to be a pretty big deal, or at least a big deal to grade school schmucks like myself and my similarly inclined cohorts in the early 80’s. If a candy store or a pizza parlor got ahold of a certain game — be it “Berzerk” or “Joust” or “Dig-Dug” or “Donkey Kong” — kids would often flock from neighborhoods away just to pump dubiously earned quarters into it. I vividly remember traveling across the park just to hit a newspaper shop on the Upper West Side that had a “Tempest” machine.
In my own neighborhood, meanwhile, there were a few key spots that had decent machines. The best of this bunch was probably a joint called Nino’s Pizzeria on Lexington Avenue just south of East 93rd Street (adjacent, at the time, to a hilariously named Chinese restaurant called Fu’s Rush-In). The slices at Nino’s were nothing to write home about, but in a narrow, dimly lit corner of the place, they’d managed to cram four or five crucial arcade games. Sure, they had "Missile Command" and "Pole Position,” but the real draw was their “Stargate” machine. If you don’t remember it, “Stargate” was basically a revamped version of “Defender,” but one that involved more all-engulfing, blinding smart bombs and escape routes through teleportation portals (the stargates in question). If that sounds entirely ridiculous, that’s because it was. Regardless, it was a lot of fun, at the time.
Anyway, my grade school friend — for the purposes of this post, I’ll refer to him as Spike — and I used to quite enjoy blowing shit up on the ol’ “Stargate,” so Nino's was a regular stop for us, and one conveniently close to both of our apartments. It should be noted, at this stage of the proceedings, that Spike was not at all in command of an imposing presence. I mean, neither was I, at the time, but Spike basically boasted all the musculature and chiseled physique of Kermit the Frog. It almost looked like he didn’t have any shoulders. He was short and thin and awkward. Next to him, I practically looked like The Hulk, and I was a pointedly gormless, non-athletic milksop at the time. We made quite a pair.
Anyway, one wintery Saturday afternoon, Spike and I were predictably at Nino’s, perched firmly in front of our beloved “Stargate” machine (probably fresh from a rousing round of “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” one of our other big passions). Nino’s was routinely packed, with lots of patrons coming and going. Back in that narrow arcade game area, with all of our available senses otherwise preoccupied with saving humanoids and incinerating mutants in “Stargate,” Spike and I failed to notice a large group of tough-looking, bigger kids entering the pizzeria. In an instant, a phalanx of tall figures closed in around us.
I was at the game console, and suddenly felt hands reach in to the pockets of my down jacket on either side of me. I was pulled backwards, and one of the toughs immediately assumed my place at the “Stargate” machine. I was suddenly face-to-face with a guy who looked about a foot taller than me. He looked mean in an almost cartoony way … he might very well have had a scar zig-zagging across his cheek. As if on cue, the directive was delivered with a guttural snarl.
“Gimme all your money!”
This time, I was in a pizzeria playing video games. It was almost a given that I’d at least have a few quarters on me. Without breaking eye-contact with the guy, I started searching my pockets. Behind me, I could hear Spike talking back to one of my tormentor’s henchmen (despite his physical disadvantages, Spike didn’t believe in ever going quietly, bless him).
“It’s okay, just TAKE OUT THE WHOLE ROLL!” came the follow-up from my victimizer, assuming either that I had a roll or quarters or possibly even a fetchingly monogrammed billfold. I had about two crumpled-up dollar bills that were snatched silently from my palms the nanosecond Nino’s stale, pizza-scented air hit them.
Unsatisfied, another edict was issued. “Give me everything, or I’m-a fuck you up, boy!”
Time started to move in slow-motion. I had given up everything I had — rather swiftly, at that. I wasn’t sure where Spike was in his own thorny negotiations, but I was starting to believe that we were both about to be in exceptionally big trouble.
And then, ….. like something right out of an old Western, we heard a very familiar voice.
"Hey,….LEAVE THEM ALONE!”
Dramatically silhouetted at the entrance to the arcade game corner stood John T. and Robert C., two upperclassmen from our school. Conveniently, they were older, taller, bigger and tougher that us.
The phalanx of toughs that had surrounded us opened up to face these two challengers. Spike and I stood for a what seemed like an age in the middle of the standoff, until Robert C. — his stare locked on the guy who now possessed my crumpled two dollars — waved us out. “Get out of here, guys,” he said. I was about to needlessly point out the discrepancy in numbers before Spike grabbed my shoulder, urging our exit. We hot-footed it out of Nino’s and onto Lexington Avenue.
Concerned that we were going to be chased, Spike recommended a serpentine route through the surrounding neighborhood back to his mom’s apartment, wherein we bolted the front door and sat panting in the kitchen. While I felt like both a coward and a heel that we’d sprinted out of there, more than anything else, I was just curious as to how John and Robert were going to contend with a group of opponents that outnumbered them.
Two days later, we saw them both back in school, looking entirely unscathed or even slightly worse for wear. We thanked them, but they just laughed us off with a “don’t mention it.” We never really found out what happened.
Only a few, short years later — years that felt like whole lifetimes between my childhood and my late teens — Robert C. would be arrested for strangling and murdering a certain young woman in Central Park.
Speaking of the Park….
By the time my high school years rolled around, I was suddenly blessed with a bit of a growth-spurt, and no longer quite as vulnerably hapless as I’d been as a grade schooler. While, no, I didn’t suddenly fill out and become a lantern-jawed linebacker, I was pleasantly no longer as much of a pipecleaner-spined waif as I’d been in the previous era. Growing up certainly had its advantages.
I was also starting to look at the New York City around me in a different way, desperately attempting to break out of the sheltered mold of the doe-eyed innocent. This came part and parcel with hanging out with another old classmate who — for the purposes of this narrative — I’ll refer to as Rocky. Much like Spike and myself, Rocky had spent many of his formative years in the slump-shouldered ranks of the easily picked-on. By our respective teens, however, Rocky had had quite enough, thank you very much, and transformed himself into a lean, wiry and remarkably dextrous figure who was ready, willing, able and — goddammit — gagging for a fight.
I was still good friends with the comparatively cerebral Spike, but my days spent with Rocky were a great deal more athletic. While he’d always been active, Rocky had recently become immersed in BMX culture, having built himself a formidably rugged and versatile bike and perfected any number of ludicrously dangerous stunts, all of which he readily performed with a showman’s aplomb on our unforgiving Manhattan streets (eons before the advent of bike lanes) and the verdant sprawl of Central Park.
As luck would have it, I’d recently won a BMX of my own in a box of Cheerios (I shit you not — a Huffy Pro-Thunder). Now, in credible BMX circles, Huffy was a name that earned nothing but withering derision. Rocky did his best to trick out my new bike, spiritedly outfitting it with better parts and dispensing with the dorky decals in favor of a resourcefully-executed tiger-stripe design via a roll of masking tape. When he was through with it, it certainly looked cooler, but it still couldn’t withstand the type of beating Rocky doled out to his trusty, battle-scarred Supergoose. By the same token, it wasn’t like I was really able to replicate Rocky’s flashy moves , anyway — his favorite being a gravity-thwarting frame-stand while speeding down the Central Park hill that rolls down towards the Boat House. This was usually punctuated with a flourish of pop-’n’-locking. It was truly something to behold.
Rocky had found his niche, and reveled in it. Eager to similarly pull me out of the ranks of the wimpy-gimps, Rocky zealously endeavored to hone my street-smarts. Beyond his BMX preoccupation, Rocky enjoyed dabbling with martial arts. We’d undertake relatively perilous journeys down to Canal Street to visit a few shady businesses that sold ridiculous gear like nun-chucks and throwing stars. Personally speaking, I never really mastered the nun-chucks (much to the peril of any table-lamps in Rocky’s mom’s apartment), but I became the scourge of many an unsuspecting Central Park tree with my throwing stars. That’s about as far as my weapons-procurement (let alone usage) was ever gonna go. Rocky, however, wasn’t averse to taking it a step further.
As a big part of his fully-realized self, Rocky’s bike was precious to him, and he’d be damned if anything was ever going to come between him and it. With this in mind, Rocky took to discreetly hiding a blade in the crossbar padding — a shining, silver butterfly knife. By this point, he was more that able to handle himself, but evidently still felt like he needed that extra edge. He was serious and (quasi) responsible about it, I suppose, but it always made me nervous. Sure, some of the neighborhoods we were biking around — to say nothing of the wide and frequently remote expanse of Central Park — were populated with predators, but would it ever really come to that?
One late spring afternoon in the early 1980’s, Rocky and I were momentarily resting by the side of the Park Drive just to the east of Bethesda Terrace (the area around the Bandshell and the fountain, for you non-Manhattanites). We were chatting with a friend of Rocky’s who fancied himself an up-and-coming graffiti-writer, although I remained frankly underwhelmed by both his work and his tireless stream of self-promotion. Suddenly, in the middle of a sentence wherein he was doubtlessly extolling how “dope” his “tags” were, he went totally quiet, quickly turned and walked away. Rocky and I looked at each other with puzzlement, …… and then felt hands on our shoulders.
“Get off your bikes” came the directive from two large kids who seemed about a foot taller — and intimidatingly wider -- than us.
Once again, time started to move in glacially slow motion.
My first thought was not that I was about to get my shitty bike stolen or speculating whether or not I was going to get punched in the face, but the panicky notion that Rocky was about to irreparably escalate the situation.
I didn’t even look at my potential assailant at first, my eyes darting to the silver-tinted crossbar under Rocky’s bicycle-gloved fingers.
The big, tough-looking gent in front of Rocky extended his hand in expectation. Rocky stared at him for a long, agonizing pause, and then slowly dismounted his beloved Supergoose, surrendering the bike to the thief.
By this point, there were now two very large hands on my flashily tiger-striped handle-bars. I finally looked into the eyes of the thief basically removing my bicycle out from under me. I’ve joked about it since then, but I believe I may have even informed him that the chain had an irritating tendency to slip and that it might be prudent to consider investing in a new brake cable.
Within nanoseconds, our bikes became their bikes, and they were out of sight.
Rocky’s graffiti friend re-appeared, explaining his hasty exit by claiming that he was concerned that they were going to steal his sneakers along with our bikes. Yeah, thanks a lot.
Somewhat dazed and incredulous, Rocky and I walked over towards the Bandshell, whereupon we noticed — WAIT FOR IT — an idling squad car. We approached the officers inside and told them our sorry tale, neglecting, of course, to mention the fact that Rocky’s purloined vehicle came equipped with a sharp, goddamn knife. The cops put us in the backseat for a maddeningly futile, leisurely drive around the surrounding environs. When that unsurprisingly turned nothing up (by that point, our bikes and their new owners were long out of the park), we all repaired to the police station in the center of Central Park to page through over-stuffed binders of mugshots. We signed a piece or paper or two and were left to walk ourselves home.
We never got our bikes back.
Carl Schurz Park
At the tail end of my junior year in high school, my mother and my step-father got a divorce, and my mother and I moved from East 93rd to East 86th Street between York and East End Avenues, right in the heart of Yorkville. Years earlier, my grandparents had lived on the very same strip, just a few steps to the east.
There were myriad reasons to not be thrilled with this development (not least among them my inherent fear of change), but it could have been a bajillion times worse, in retrospect. While our new apartment was a bit smaller, it was on a perfectly nice street and not too far from my usual stomping grounds. There was a great diner on our corner of York Avenue (The Mansion … amazingly still there in 2015), a little newspaper shop next to that called — somewhat inexplicably — Polymorphos, and, in the other direction, there was the lovely Carl Schurz Park, a charming, little patch of green overlooking the East River that my grandparents used to take me to when I was a toddler. How bad could it all be?
At the tail end of my first week in the new place, Spike — remember him? — came over to hang out. It being a lovely day, I suggested walking down the road to Carl Schurz Park. I switched out of my constricting school tie and threw on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt my sister had sent me from a local punky shop in Georgetown called Commander Salamander (basically a black t-shirt with a skull and crossbones that looked as if Jackson Pollack had thrown up all over it). Poor Spike was still stuck in his tie and an ill-ftting pair of khaki pants, but that was his problem. I put on my sneaks and we split.
Quite unlike the comparatively massive Central Park several avenues to its west, Carl Schurz Park is a sleepy little rectangle of lawns, gardens and pathways ripe for a casual stroll or a contemplative moment. And while its river-side promenade is usually peppered with sunbathers, strollers and dog-walkers, there are many areas around the rest of the park that are quiet, undisturbed and relatively secluded. It is rarely a harried, busy or densely populated space.
Following no particular route, Spike and I were walking along one of the pathways that led under a bridge and into a round little plaza called, deceptively enough, the “Peter Pan Garden.” We paused for a moment, wrapped up in whatever inane conversation we were having — probably arguing over which was the superior Devo album, Freedom of Choice or Q: Are We Not Men?, when we suddenly heard some commotion on the foot-bridge we’d just walked under. I looked up to see a trio of kids on bikes looking down at us, and — apparently — heading our way.
Within seconds, three guys about our own age on BMXs were circling us like a pack of sharks, giving us the odd shove or kick. It wasn’t immediately clear what they wanted, but it wasn’t good.
The ringleader might have been a bit older, with a scraggly, hesher-type mullet ala vintage Matt Dillon, a budding attempt at facial hair and a ratty jersey with the Jack Daniels logo on it. He was flanked by a burly kid with dark hair and a third guy with sandy-colored curly hair, freckles and a purple shirt. “Yo, kid, give us your money,” ordered the ringleader.
The burly kid was already off his bike and shoving Spike down on the grass. Once again, even into our respective teens, Spike was still not in fighting shape of any kind. Purple shirt was still circling on his bike, and gave Spike a swift kick to the ribs. Ringleader, meanwhile, was getting right in my face.
“Where do you guys live?” he hissed, his breath stinking of contraband cigarettes. Right then, I heard Spike take a fist to the chest.
“Look, we don’t have anything,” I stammered. I wasn’t lying. I was wearing a pair of jogging shorts with a single pocket. At the most, I might have had some loose change or a piece of Bazooka bubblegum.
Spike, on the other hand, lived way downtown by this point, and probably had a little money on him to get him home. That said, he wasn’t planning on giving it up. I threw myself in between him and the burly kid, who gave my face a not-entirely-playful slap, followed by the inevitable rejoinder, “Ya gonna cry, man?”
Possibly sensing that we didn’t, in fact, have much in the way of money to give up, the trio were back on their bikes as I was helping Spike up off the grass.
“We’ll see you punks real soon!” laughed the ringleader as they peddled away. Spike immediately started taking me to task for not helping him out sooner.
We repaired back to my place, arguing over how we could have better handled the situation. With the funds he’d doggedly managed to hold onto, Spike treated himself to a cab back downtown, but my problems were just beginning.
As it turned out, the three guys who’d hassled us were evidently members of a semi-notorious gaggle of Yorkville-centric toughs called The 84th Street Gang. Were that not ominous enough, members of said crew were evidently fond of hanging out on the stoop adjacent to Polymorphos — the afore-cited newspaper shop just below the third story window of our new home. As you can probably imagine, this made life a little more interesting in a decidedly unpleasant way.
Rife with colorful monikers like Gino, Slocco (actually Zlatko, I’d later learn) and The Red Twins, the 84th Street Gang had accrued a heavy reputation. After several weeks of taking circuitous routes to my front door (so I didn’t have to pass that fearsome stoop where they hung out), I approached my classmate Willie (immortalized here, and no … not his actual name). Along with already being a preternaturally cool player in New York City nightlife scene (while the rest of us were still hanging out in Central Park, furtively sipping contraband beer), Willie had some shady connections. At this stage of the proceedings, Willie and I hadn’t really forged a meaningful friendship, but we more or less tolerated each other. But now, I needed his help.
I asked Willie if he could maybe get the 84th Streeters to cut me a little slack. In retrospect, this sounds like a ridiculously risky plan. I mean, if I was an antisocial roughneck who regularly enjoyed punching people in the nose, the notion of some kid asking for clemency would only goad me into turning up the heat on my reign of terror. Willie listened to my plight with a signature look of withering disinterest, but said he’d see what he could do. I have no idea if he ever actually spoke to anyone about it.
As time went on, I stopped walking around the block to avoid that stoop (although I did have a few nervy encounters around the neighborhood with the gang in question, including a bug-eyed stare-down with the Ringleader from my Carl Schurz Park encounter on — wait for it — Park Avenue one afternoon). I figured that if I carried myself in a manner that suggested ease, assurance and belonging, either we’d finally air out our differences (whatever they might have actually been) or they’d just leave me alone. As it happened, though, after a while I just stopped spotting them.
A few yeas later, I graduated college and got a job working at LIFE Magazine. During the course of same, I befriended an older freelance copyeditor lady who also lived in Yorkville. We shared many an anecdote over the course of several months, with her regularly pointing out how her son and I were so much alike, had virtually the same interests and were following very similar career paths. When she did this, I would just smile and say I’d love to meet him (and commiserate) some time. The topic came up again over lunch one day, and she whipped out a photograph of him she had in her wallet. I glanced at the photo, and my eyes practically popped out of my skull.
Her son, it turns out, was the sandy-colored, curly haired kid in the purple shirt who’d given my friend Spike a few swift kicks to the ribs.
That horrible afternoon in Carl Schurz Park was pretty much the last genuine mugging (or, rather, attempted mugging) that I endured. This isn’t to say that I never had a twitchy moment on the street ever again (I recall a particular scary incident on the 6 train one night that mercifully didn’t escalate beyond an ominous threat), but I gradually gleaned how to avoid and/or handle these sorts of situations with a bit more self-confidence.
I’m still friends with Rocky today, although like so many other friends, he got married and moved away. Spike and I, regrettably, fell out after he got bored of me whining about a botched office romance I’d been involved with in the early 90’s (who can blame him, really?) I ran into him on the street a couple of years back, and we exchanged numbers, but I was on my way to a funeral at the time and my head was in another space. I ended up losing his card, but he never called me either. I hope he’s doing alright.
I left my old Yorkville neighborhood for good and moved downtown in about 1996, although even while I was still living up there, I was spending much of my time around other parts of town. These days, it seems pretty rare to hear about people getting mugged or jumped or attacked, but then, I’m now a 48-year-old. I’m sure kids out on these Manhattan streets still have their run-ins.
A time is coming soon wherein my children will be braving the pavement on their own, and I’m not at all looking forward to it. I’m already drumming antiquated bits of “street smarts” into their little heads — in much the same way my parents probably did with me -- but I can only hope that they’ll be able to handle whatever comes out them out there.
What about you? Did you ever get mugged? Share your story below.