During my 20s, I lived in a dangerous city. Almost everyone I knew had been mugged at least once, sometimes at gunpoint. Homes (and by “homes,” I mean the substandard housing that nearly everyone I knew lived in) were burglarized. Wheels were stolen from bicycles. Entire bicycles were stolen. The murder rate was through the roof.
As I walked or biked around the city (I didn’t have a car), in the back of my mind was always the worry I’d accidentally witness a drug deal or a murder and get shot because of my wandering eyes. I learned to navigate through the city by moving briskly with my head up, alert, paying attention to my surroundings, but not showing any interest in what illegal things other people might be doing.
One night I was walking with my male friend. It wasn’t too late–maybe 10pm. I can’t remember where we’d just left (maybe work, maybe a bar) or where we were going (probably a bar). We’d left the busy tourist area and were walking through a residential neighborhood, but we were only a couple of blocks away from a cluster of bars where people were likely partying.
My friend was pushing his bicycle. Normally, he would have been riding it, but since I was on foot, he was walking too.
I don’t remember how it happened–if they stepped out of the shadows or approached us on the sidewalk from the opposite direction–but two men we didn’t know were suddenly right there with us. Before my friend could walk past, one put his hands on the bike’s handlebars and said he was taking the bike.
As is so often the case in this type of situation, it all happened so fast.
I didn’t see a gun or a knife or a weapon of any kind. I just saw two guys–one with his hands on the bike, saying he was taking it; the other silent, acting almost as if he didn’t really want to be involved.
I started yelling. I probably screamed Help! I think I screamed Fire! (My mom had told me to scream Fire! if anyone ever tried to kidnap or rape or otherwise hurt me.) I started running in the direction of the bars where I knew there would likely be people.
While I was screaming, but before I ran, I saw my friend had his hands on the handlebars too, fighting for possession.
(For years, whenever I remembered this incident, the image I saw in my mind was that of my friend swinging the entire bicycle up and over his head. My friend says it didn’t happen quite that way. Memory is a fascinating and untrustworthy phenomenon.)
So I ran screaming away from my friend and the would-be bike thieves. I ran a couple of blocks, right up to some guys standing outside a bar. My friend is being robbed, I told them. Two guys are trying to steal his bike. I asked them to please come with me and help my friend.
The guys were slow to react. Maybe the alcohol that was surely in their systems had slowed down neural connections, making what I was saying difficult to comprehend. Maybe they feared I was trying to lure them into the dark where I had friends waiting to rob them.
Before they could decide if or how they should help, my friend came around the corner pushing his bike. He’d gotten away from the would-be thieves. He’d escaped transportation disaster.
I can’t remember now (so many years later) what made the would-be thieves leave, but I’m going to believe my screaming and running for help discouraged them.
We were so cavalier back then. As we continued on our way, we critiqued the technique of the men who’d just tried to rob us. How silly of them to try that without a gun, we laughed. They didn’t even have a knife, we jeered. The second guy should not have let me scream, much less run, I marveled. He should have had me on the ground with his hand over my mouth, I strategized.
We decided we could could be much better robbers than those guys were. They didn’t even know how to do what they were trying to do.
In my naiveté, I thought everyone lived more or less in fear. I didn’t realize until I moved away that I’d spent almost all of my adult life always feeling afraid. Some events were scarier than others, but I always felt some degree of fear. Being afraid was so normal, we laughed at scary situations.
I took this (only marginally related) photo.