Image Credit: Jacob Riis
I. The Letter Opener
I was walking home from San Francisco’s Tenderloin after seeing Red House Painters at the Great American Music Hall, a skinny white kid in striped flares out past midnight. From somewhere behind me and to the right, I heard a man’s voice.
“Hey you, give me your wallet. Gimme your wallet. I’m not playing.”
Jogged from my stoned reverie, I turned to see a middle-aged black male in an oversized dress shirt, half untucked. The man’s hair was matted and he stared at me from behind desperate eyes. He was waving something around, something knifelike, oddly shaped, reflective enough to make an impression in the moonlight. “I got a letter opener. I’ll cut you with it,” the man said. He gestured to hurry up as I rifled through my back pockets. “Just give me whatever money you got.” By the way he was looking over his shoulder and fidgeting, I could see he wanted this finished as much as I did.
Then, in a spectacularly awkward moment, the man took a series of aggressive steps toward me. Shocked, I lost my balance, stumbled backward, and hit the ground. The mugger fell towards me, now my partner in an inelegant rhumba. I opened my wallet and threw two unblemished, ATM-fresh twenties in his direction. He snatched the bills up and ran, swinging his improvised weapon as he vanished into the night.
Sobered by adrenaline, I stood and broke into an instinctive run. The city streets were empty and still, like an after-hours movie set, and I raced them with stupid joy. Escape had made me ecstatic; I felt both immortal and acutely aware of my vulnerability. Only once I was safe inside the stairwell of my apartment, did I take stock. Ass a little sore from the fall. Wallet with credit cards in back pocket. No letter-opener-sized holes in my person. Alive.
That blissful summer before my sophomore year of college, I was not yet nineteen and my responsibilities were few. I worked part-time at Dr. Video, a cinephile hangout on Potrero Hill. My girlfriend and I lived rent-free in her sister’s Hayes Valley walkup, adjacent to what were then low-income housing projects. (I visited the area recently, with gentrification in full swing, and couldn’t even afford a pillow from one of the trendy boutiques.) It was 1994, and I was a Pollyanna pothead, unafraid to walk anywhere and a firm believer in the fundamental goodness of people.
For a few months after that first mugging, I basked in my worldliness. As a theater major, I passed off the stick-up as research for my role as an edgy independent. Mythmaking demanded an audience, so I told and retold the tale in a variety of social settings. If I got robbed in the Tenderloin and nobody was there to see it, I had to prove it really happened. (The Red House Painters performance was a believable detail, their mopey repertoire as quintessentially San Francisco as the fog.)
But privately, an unfamiliar sense of disillusionment crept in. In the wake of that initial flood of bravado, I had to confront the ugly face of my racial profiling. Whenever I told the story I couldn’t seem to leave out that the mugger was black, and that fact left me nursing a lingering liberal hangover. I didn’t want him to be black, just like I didn’t want to believe the projects were dangerous. Adding to my confusion, was a dawning sense that I was making inroads on my own path from drug enthusiast to full blown addict. Sure, I was the one who got robbed that night, but both of us were certainly chemically altered. Somehow, I was guilty too. In an attempt to mitigate my own culpability, I mentally re-scripted and re-choreographed the scene: the dark street became impossibly empty, my attacker increasingly deranged. On memory’s stage, we acted out the parts of villain and victim ad infinitum. As much as it offended my sensibilities, I had to admit that I’d been scared of a black man who threatened me with a letter opener. There was something symbolic about being held up with an item so grotesquely bourgeois, one found solely on the desks of the privileged, like me.
A few years earlier that same privilege had granted me, a high school Junior in an affluent suburb, the opportunity to visit Kenya. For three weeks, our alternative education group ate goat with the Maasai and bonded with our homestay families in Nairobi. Distanced from the great white hoax of my childhood, in East Africa, I finally became a minority, if only for a finite period of time.
Minutes after disembarking into the sweltering heat of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, I knew, with unshakable certitude, this was the birthplace of humanity. With my pale skin and first world hang-ups, I felt underripe and ungrateful next to all those relaxed, robust Kenyans. And despite bouncing between Israel and the States throughout my childhood, I became suddenly unexotic when confronted by this truly foreign culture. I decided that black was more beautiful. This reverse racism seemed harmless enough. Polite, even.
From 1993 through 1998, I enjoyed a Bay Area liberal arts undergraduate education, financed entirely by my parents. Alongside the old guard like Ibsen, Chekhov, and Miller, we read Tony Kushner, the it-playwright of the day. “You have a good heart and you think the good thing is to be guilty and kind,” Kushner wrote in Perestroika, “but it’s not always kind to be gentle and soft, there’s a genuine violence softness and kindness visit on people.” One messy, terrifying encounter on a San Francisco street challenged the image I had of myself as a post-racial progressive. There were no more angels in my America and no easy answers to be found.
By 2010, my country had its first black president, one with Kenyan ancestry. More than a decade and a half had passed since that first mugging. After battling my addictions for a few years, I got clean in the late nineties. Post college, I lived in San Jose and Los Angeles, both diverse, sprawling US cities. I was a working musician, which meant I traveled extensively with little financial reward for my efforts.
While performing in New York in late 2009, I stayed with an old college friend. He lived in Park Slope, a Brooklyn community teeming with upwardly mobile new families-and the Yoga studios, coffee shops, and bars required to serve them. On the road, I usually tried to find the closest twelve-step meeting; in this case, that was a nooner at Flatbush-Tompkins Congressional Church near the Flatbush Caton Market. At street level, that neighborhood vibrated with midday activity. Wholesale outlets plied trendy jeans and loud tops and imitation Louis Vuitton bags. The December air was equal parts Chinese food, garbage, and cigarette fumes. As I walked to the meeting, I basked in the magical, terrifying anonymity that only New York could provide.
I’d been in dozens of similar church halls all over the United States. My light skin tone was an anomaly in that room, but I’d found that in recovery circles nobody cared much about color; addiction was a powerful common bond. My plan was to sit in the back and listen, but the secretary wanted to know if I would mind being the main speaker. (Out-of-towners get asked to do that sometimes.) I was flattered and did my best. An hour and a half later, after a few hugs and thank yous, I pushed through the church doors and into the early afternoon light, coasting on a pink cloud of fellowship.
The bump was aggressive, even by New York standards. “You broke my inhaler,” said the large brown-skinned man in the Carhartt jacket who just rammed into me. He wore sunglasses and his black hair was slicked back perfectly. That’s a great look, I thought, reflexively. I stopped in my tracks and watched with jealousy as the bustling Brooklyn street absorbed the rest of the meeting attendees. “You need to fix this man, you broke my inhaler.” He held the item up and moved it around evasively, like a magician. “Look. It’s smashed here.” He indicated nowhere.
“I’m sorry, man. Look, I’m confused. I don’t think I even hit you,” I said.
I didn’t bump into him. This was a scam. We both knew it but the charade continued.
“You gotta fix this. Here, let’s go. I know a guy who can do it.”
We began walking. The man stayed close, using his girth to prod me along. I didn’t want to follow, but I was spellbound. Once again, I became the unwilling dance partner.
“So, yeah, the ATM is down a few blocks here. You can just take out some money to give me. I need to fix this. I can’t breathe without it.” He spoke fast, deflecting arguments, his face frozen in a false display of amiability.
As we marched, I remembered the letter opener incident. Again, my mugger and I were acting, playing our designated roles. I braced myself for something horrible to happen and bargained in vain with the universe.
I was coming out of a meeting.
I was doing the right thing.
It was daytime, for Chrissake.
Our interminable pilgrimage continued. I attempted to keep us on crowded streets, suggesting each market we passed. He sidled up to me to keep me in line. Finally, we reached his pre-approved corner store. It was a classic NYC bodega: small, packed with alcohol and candy, the shopkeepers sequestered by glass.
“Go to the ATM and get eighty dollars. That will cover it.”
I did as he instructed. There were people around, and I wanted to announce that this guy was rolling me. Instead, I just surrendered the money. He stuffed the cash into his pocket.
“Hey, God bless,” he said and bolted.
Like a fever dream, he was gone as quickly as he arrived. I was alone. Alone and short eighty dollars plus bank service charge. Then it hit me: I had made it. Once again, I became filled with that incongruous elation, a tangible feeling of gratitude for my life. I started walking the blocks and blocks to my buddy’s apartment in the Slope.
I’d heard about these kinds of scams (The New Yorker published an article on the “You Broke My Glasses” con way back in May of 2006) but at that moment I had trouble rationalizing my compliance. Had I been wearing the scarlet letter of the unsophisticated? Maybe, as The New Yorker wrote, I was the right demographic for a “scam, which preys on the liberal guilt of middle-class college kids.” Either way, I went over all the escapes I could have made, the perfect sucker punches I should have landed, and other such heroics: typical post-traumatic victim stuff designed to empower me. Unlike the phantom San Francisco mugger, my Brooklyn assailant disarmed me using his criminal charisma alone. When he left me at that ATM, after our chummy half-hour together, I’d nearly convinced myself we could have been friends; I wanted his approval. I called my friend and told him what happened as I walked, breathless in the cold air.
“What were you doing out there?” he laughed. I appreciated his unrepentant pragmatism, a real New Yorker. No need to make a big deal about race, just be smart and don’t hang around that part of town.
“I know. I know. I was going to a meeting.”
“Next time find one somewhere else.”
Like a school child being scolded, I agreed. Except I didn’t want him to be right. Still a stubborn utopian, I thought I should be able to stroll wherever I pleased and that all my brothers and sisters should enjoy the same freedoms.
As I hurried down Flatbush, I battled the specters of both attackers and their respective races. During that trip, I noticed posters for Avenue Q all over the city. I wondered, if, as that off-color puppet performance piece presumed, everyone was “a little bit racist.” Though my pride still smarted, picturing those obscene singing puppets brought some perspective and levity to my situation. The city belonged to me and all the rest of us. Broke my inhaler. Right. That performance alone deserved my money.