Walking home to my Brooklyn apartment, my mind is idly fixed on the groceries in my bag. The package of smoked salmon, which is wedged in with my work papers, needs to go in the fridge, I remind myself. The oranges can stay so I have something to snack on at work tomorrow. Then suddenly I am on the ground, aware of sharp pain in my face, blood spurting from my nose, and a young boy tugging on my bag.
“Give me your purse, lady!” he yells, as if he himself can’t believe he is actually barking that ridiculous order. Or maybe I am the one who can’t believe what he is saying. Reeling though I am from the punch, I find myself struck by his choice of words. I generally don’t go by lady, and I certainly don’t feel like a lady sitting on the sidewalk, screaming— as I am now doing at the top of my lungs. It also seems an awfully genteel term coming from someone who’s just thrown his fist (or maybe something heavier?) into my nose.
Lady does immediately ground us in the inescapable racial politics of our interaction, though. He is black and young, probably no more than 17, his eyes open wide in what appears to be panic. I, a small, blond woman— wearing, for no particular reason, my “fancy coat”— am on my way home from Manhattan and a nice dinner. Staring at him across the divide, I am at once terrified and aware of the silliness of the situation. He is barely taller than I am and looks like someone’s picked-on little brother. But any impulse to bond is, of course, misguided. This kid does not want to be friends. He wants my money. In an instant, I remember that it makes sense to graciously cede one’s belongings in such situations— and I do, watching him run into the night with my wallet, my datebook, my half-written column for the coming week.
The sadness that washes over me in the next few minutes is as much about him as it is about my missing things, my favorite scarf (now blood-stained), my nose. He needlessly hurt me, and I am overwhelmed with the desire to school this kid in mugging etiquette: ask first, then punch. (Though, of course, his fist conveyed so much more than a simple request would have.) But his life also seems touchingly awful. I can’t imagine he will run anywhere pleasant or that my $37 will change things for him. And, as sad and hopeless as I feel then, at least for a moment my mugger is a person to me— a violent, sad little person, but a person.
As I proceed with the details of reporting the incident to the police, however, that sense is swallowed up by something bigger than the two of us. The huge, unstoppable forces of the city— the desperation and hatred that forced me and my mugger to collide in the first place— take over the aftermath of the crime. Down at the station, which is decorated with a Nike “Wimps need not apply” poster, my mugger and I slip uncomfortably into the “us and them” dimension. I look at 547— 547!— mug shots of 16–year-old black males. That’s how many have police records in my precinct (no. 88 in Fort Greene); according to the cops, about half the teenage black boys living in the local projects have records. They bring this up by way of explaining why so few of the people on the force actually live in the area. (All the ones I spoke with were white and lived on Long Island.)
The cops are sympathetic enough to my situation— my bruised face, my missing ID and credit cards. But the comfort a few of them offer seems really an invitation into a club of wronged people, separated by a great gulf from the neighborhood kids, whom one uniformed officer likens to “packs of wolves who prey on the villagers.” I ask one officer if he thinks the street I was on was particularly dangerous. He says no, then adds sagely: “Anywhere you have lots of black people, you’re going to have crime.” The comment is both ludicrous and offensive. (Try saying that to the black homeowners on my street, or perhaps to the black man who scooped me off the pavement and walked me home.)
But the officer delivers these hate-filled statements almost like gifts. I know they are meant to console, and I know that when I don’t take them that way— when I go so far as to say that I feel bad for the kid— I am sacrificing whatever fragile common ground I have with the cops. But both of us seem to feel safer on our familiar turf, anyway— the cops insisting on their grim experience of the neighborhood, me persisting in the liberal view of my mugger as a victim himself.
“Oh, so you wouldn’t want to press charges if we find him?” another cop asks later, suspiciously. “At least do it for the next person.” When I say that the situation just makes me sad, he snickers, then refers to the murder of a toddler that took place in the neighborhood not long ago: “You want to know what sad is? Sad is when a six-year-old smashes his little brother into the wall again and again.”
No doubt that is dreadful, unthinkable. But as I sit in the shabby police station, nothing seems worse than the endless stream of young boys’ faces that flash by on the police computer. There is no question these 16-year-olds have been visited by some kind of violence. You can tell some of them have been crying. A few have clearly been beaten up. And most have already mastered the fuck-you look; even staring blankly into the camera, they somehow manage to convey both hatred and apathy. I am slightly relieved to find that none of the pictures looks exactly like him.
Later that day, though, I get a call. A housing project security guard has found my bag, and I go with two cops to retrieve it. We are all depressingly in character. I am jumpy. (Since the mugging I have found myself turning to look behind me— even in my apartment.) The mustachioed detectives, wearing leather coats and carrying coffee cups, strut confidently over what is, for them, familiar turf. As we follow the curling cement path on our way inside, we pass a group of teenagers and hostile energy ping-pongs between our rival gangs. The kids push against the line of confrontation, talking loudly about us to each other. Just feet past them, one of the detectives says, “I bet we just passed your perp.”
It feels as if we’re all in a ridiculous play— or maybe a war. Entering the dilapidated security office, I can’t imagine how it might ever stop, how any of us might relate like people again. As he hands me back my stuff, the guard shrugs, “It happens.” But then he flashes me a smile, reaches into the security refrigerator, and hands me my salmon, which he’s kept chilling.