3 Muggings in 3 Years, What Would You Do?
Occasionally I feel the need to vent about non-food related issues. What the hell. I guess I've got another existential crisis on my hands, though this one is more tangible than trying to figure out my purpose on this planet.
I don't know why, but I've always had a dream to own a brownstone on a tree-lined city block. Maybe I saw it as the antidote to growing up in a suburbia of strip malls and subdivisions. Or maybe it was the romanticism evoked by The Cosby Show or Moonstruck. Or maybe it was hearing about my mother's own experience growing up in Jersey City. Or maybe it was just a bad idea.
After 5 years in London, I moved to New York. I was instinctively drawn to Brooklyn. I had never been before, but I knew it was where I wanted to be. My mind imagined not only low-rise residential beauty and bohemia, but also distinct neighborhoods where the old New York still lived, and yes, those big, beautiful brownstones.
So three and half years ago (after a year on the Upper West Side), my partner and I took our profits from the sale of our London flat, family loans, and loose change and purchased a brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Our dream home was in near move-in condition and dripping with details. We'd find out later, just what "move-in condition" really meant. Outpriced in Harlem, Park Slope, Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, to me Bed Stuy was our last hope. Nearly four years later, we still await many simple amenities that make life easier, but change is in the air. More now than ever.
We moved in on a rainy October day in 2003. By the time we unloaded the last box from the rental truck, it was 1am. 1am and raining. The asphalt was shiny and slick and the street lights reflected yellow, red and green. Our block had the feeling of a movie set. It was picture perfect. Just as we closed the door to the truck with a thump, a passerby turned around and held us up. He ripped through my pockets frantically searching for cash. And I stupidly had $500.00 in my front pocket. I slipped a few singles off the wad of dough and gave it to him. He started walking away and came back with a vengeance as if the few singles I had given him were like spitting in his face. He ransacked my pockets again. Nothing. He never found the $500.00. Picture perfect and no one around.
We felt nothing but horror and panic later that night as we searched out the safest corner of the house to sleep -- the fourth floor front room overlooking the top of the sycamore tree. With our sleeping bags on pine floors, our hearts pounded and kept us up all night. We had spent our life savings only to be held up at gunpoint. We felt we had been had.
Our life in Bed Stuy from that point on was marked by paranoia. We picked up visiting friends at the subway station with our car, took cabs home late at night and called one another with our cell phones when walking home from the subway. "I'm just crossing Chauncey... Now I'm at Macon." We thought cell phones would help us be safer until we discovered that nearly everyone we knew had been mugged for their cell phones. It was hard to overcome the false safety of the cell phone, but we stopped using them in the open.
Fast forward to about 8pm on a day in February 2006. There was snow on the ground and teenagers outside the subway station decided to peg me with snowballs as I crossed their path. I had reached my limit. A block away I decided to call the cops. Next thing I knew one of the kids came up from behind and started pummeling me in the side of the head. Stunned and bloody, I fell into a stoop dropping my bags and cell phone. He continued to punch. I managed to kick him off me, grabbed my bags and ran home. Cell phone left behind.
Later that same night I canvassed the neighborhood with the police. Whenever they came across a group of teenagers hanging out, they lined them up on the sidewalk. Me, I was in the back seat of the cop car with ice on my wounded head and asked to identify the kids who beat me. There was no way I could. As the cops drove me home, they got a call about a shooting up the street. They were looking for a white Nissan Maxima. Of course the suspect car passed us. There I am still in the back seat. The cops whipped the car around and chased the white Nissan Maxima. They pulled it over. And I ran home for a second time that night.
Our existence in Bed Stuy continued to be marked by fear. Each time I came home from the subway, my stomach felt as if it was being eaten from the inside out. Again, I chalked this up. We stuck it out and miraculously as the year went on, things felt better in the neighborhood. What does it mean for a neighborhood to "feel" better? I don't know. It's an instinctual feeling. The tension wasn't as intense.
Like I said we stuck it out. We refused to be driven out of the place we decided to call home. A few months ago we decided to take out a loan to renovate. As far as renovations go, we're moving along slowly, but steadily. We've nearly finished the basement, the kitchen has been gutted, the wood stripped and the ground floor and parlour floor rewired and my favorite -- French doors to the garden installed. There have been frustrations along the way like the basement flooding from a broken pipe and a boiler dying on us when it snowed in April. We're over the hump and the excitement about the finished product is barely containable.
We're active in our block association. We know a lot of people in the neighborhood and very often bump into people we know. We have wonderful neighbors too.
Last night I got mugged again. One block from my house and in front of a church, a 6 foot, 200lb man wrapped his arm around my neck, repeatedly threatened to kill me and asked for all my money and my cell phone. I handed over about 60 bucks and my new phone. I went through the rigmarole with the cops again. I doubt we will find him.
I am mad at myself. I'm mad at myself for trusting, for not dressing tough enough, for letting my guard down and creating a window of opportunity, for not fighting back. I can't help but wonder if the muggings are a result of a series of stupid mistakes I've made. Or if I could've altered fate by walking a little slower or stopping in the bodega or catching the next train. I replay the events in my head often only with me winning. I never thought mugging would become routine in my life. It's so absurd I could laugh, but I also feel like crying and punching someone's lights.
I feel paralyzed. The rational voice says "Leave now." The voice of fantasy says "Stick it out. It'll be worth it in the long run." Maybe I was stupid for not having left three and half years ago. With the neighborhood in transition and deep into renovation and debt, what would you do?