Lapinel Arts

 

Story Archive

Hidden Corners

 

I do think of myself as farm raised with a wholesome lifestyle where people milked cows, knew everything about each other, waved and made eye contact. Everything was safe in the region. We didn’t lock our doors, we could wander anywhere we wanted and theft was virtually unknown. There was a downside to rural living but I tend to forget that.

I did spend considerable time in NYC going to school and playing ball in the parks. Though I tried to deny that this was a significant part of my life, the riches and darkness of New York were a piece of the mould that formed me.

Pretty early in childhood I developed the radar that exists in every seasoned New Yorker. The radar is on low hum when there is daylight and the streets are crowded but the signals are piercing on lonely darkened streets. It’s interesting how automated I became. It’s easy to get used to the signals of potential danger that I would often react by moving in a new direction without fear, without thought.

The first time I recognized this subconscious behavior was when I was savvy 23 year old New Yorker. I crossed the street from a safe well-lit side to a darkened, more dangerous looking path. As I crossed the opposite curb I stopped and fell out of my remote mechanized mode of travel and thought about what I had just done. I looked across to the well lit street and I saw three or four young adults involved in a knife fight. This wasn’t play. There wasn’t any playful taunting, the slashes were wild and wide and the tone was deadly serious.

Now aware as to why my radar had sent me across the street I went out of auto pilot and silently backtracked to go another route. How odd it was to think about seeing a knife fight and not running, not being scared, not calling the police. I had become quite numb to the harshness of NYC life.

Verification of the well accepted violence of the city came with a day spent working in the city morgue. In that one day of working with the Pathologist, I saw three murders and many other more common manners of death. One body had been electrocuted in a bath tub. Another body had been strangled. The most interesting one to me was the gunshot victim. This fellow was found slumped in his driver seat and his manner of death was clear based on the skull x-ray near his table. The X-ray showed three bullets lying still in the middle of his cranial vault. The Pathologist showed us the entrance wounds behind his ear.

How horribly exciting and sickening at the same time. My neighbor that lived directly below us had been executed in this same fashion. Hitman. Contract killing. Even now these words belong in the movies or on TV. These aren’t supposed to be real with actual repercussions and a transformation of everybody’s lives. Our neighbor’s children changed after their father was murdered. Our family changed as well.

I found it surreal seeing these real murdered bodies but I was taken to a new level of fear and awareness when I failed to find any newspaper accounts of their deaths.

Developing a radar takes time and experience. I don’t think my radar had grown antennas yet when I was some seven years of age. I was allowed to shop for groceries since the store was a safe two blocks away from my home. Our neighborhood was one block within the safe zone of the upper West side. I was suffering the weight of the grocery bag and only some fifty yards from the entrance to our building when I saw sneakers in front of me. I think I must have been staring at the street cracks because I never saw them coming.

I started to look up but I saw a knife and stared at the hand as the knife was held to my throat. They wanted my money as they kindly stated “because we need new sneakers”. I remember being confused about this and hesitating because I looked at the three pairs of sneakers surrounding me and they all looked like they were in great shape. One of them yelled at me and I quickly shoved my hand into my pocket and handed them all the change I had. They had already relieved me of my grocery bag so reaching for the money was easy.

They left like a flash as I stood there with un-weighted arms and wondered why our doorman wasn’t outside as he often was. Just bad luck I guess.

I took the elevator up the 14 floors and told my Mother. When I mentioned the knife my mother became upset then angry and finally I noticed I was getting upset as well. Again in an instant I was with my mother in a police car cruising the area looking for these guys. I didn’t know why we bothered with this because all I knew about them was that they had nice looking sneakers. We never found them.

In time I developed better skills and knew how to watch, walk and listen. Some of the rules are:

Keep moving.
Give a wide berth to crazies and people arguing.
Avoid quiet or dark streets.
Always look ahead and watch for people cutting the diagonal towards you.
Pay attention to footsteps behind you and react casually as you increase your speed and sneak a look.
No eye contact.

Actually there are so many rules that I started running after getting mugged a number of times (usually for school bus passes). I ran everywhere I went and this became a pleasure and a game. The faster I went the less likely I could get caught in trouble. I’d fly and have fun anticipating the more crowded Broadway traffic by cutting hard and making my movement fluid. I felt like a football player running for that touchdown.

This was fine when I was younger but as I matured I guess I looked dangerous. Once I was stopped mid stride by a big dude who thought I was a thief. He was big and strong enough to lift me in the air at arms length to ask me why I was running. The older I became the more I could sense fear in people as they tried to stay out of my path. This meant I had to tone down my end runs and make them look more casual and relaxed.

Running was good. Having a radar and running was better.

Once I was out late with my older brother. We had been at a school party on the East side and we had to work our way to the West side. Our plan had been to walk since the subways were dangerous at night but this plan changed. We turned a corner and we spotted three dangerous looking guys across the street. They were furious as they threw garbage from several garbage cans into the street. These guys had torn clothes, were muscular and angry. The street light cast the light on them as if they were performers on a stage.
They were looking for something and couldn’t find it. They weren’t just casually looking though the garbage for food or hidden treasures. The curses and yelling became wilder and louder.

Without a word Stephen and I quickened our stealthy pace and we tried to remain invisible in the dark. They didn’t even notice us until we approached the streetlight of the next corner. We stopped and could see that all three were like lions staring at us with sharp eyes.

Wordlessly we turned the corner at a casual walk then once out of sight we broke into a sprint. Both of us could run so I felt pretty safe until I heard then saw that they were after us. We ran hard and cut streets and corners then we ducked into a subway station…it didn’t matter that it wasn’t the correct station. That could have been a bad choice but it worked out for us that night.

Through my teen years, despite the radar I ended up getting mugged often. There are times when you have to take a risk and times when you have to pass through a dangerous area I don’t remember ever being scared and I think it’s because I was thinking so fast and watching every move I don’t have time to be scared. Usually the worst I would get was a punch to the abdomen or face. I was never hit on the head with a pistol like my older brother was. Fortunately these blows were typically weak as the kids were near my age. I do remember thinking that getting punched was OK but if a knife comes out I’m on the move through their weakest break point. That’s primarily what occupied my mind as I half listened to my assailants…watch for a bad moment and know what to do if that moment arrives.

There was one time that I did become apprehensive when I was caught off guard and surrounded by a group of some six boys. They had already had taken my bus pass but they wanted me to fight their leader who was showing off his martial arts moves with shadow play.
I was probably faster than them but I knew I couldn’t break the circle. They wanted to see me fight and I didn’t know what to do.

Though strong at that age, I didn’t know martial arts and I didn’t know if they had any weapons. I knew that this guy could hurt me and I also knew that if I hurt him that the others would gang up on me.

“Fight you coward”

I stood still and kept my mouth shut. I didn’t know what to do.

The taunting continued as I carefully watched all the movement around me. I was too alert to be afraid. I was tense and ready to react but I was also trying to look relaxed and more confused than I really was.

Finally the leader rapidly closes ground on me and throws a sloppy roundhouse kick. It strikes my head with a glancing blow but I throw some drama to make it appear as if I was hurt. I grab my head and make a load noise but I make certain that I stay on my feet. Falling would be a bad mistake.

As I hoped, this was enough for their leader as he called his group and headed East…I headed West. I felt my head and didn’t feel any pain or swelling. I was lucky.

As I got older I became more street aware and never was confronted in the streets again. I did have a liquor bottle thrown at me from the seventh or eighth floor of a building across the street. That one just missed my head and smashed into small pieces on the wall next to me.

I also turned the table a couple of times by rescuing my younger brother from a pack of kids. This was easy…I spotted the event from a distance and I passed by quickly and used all the foul language I knew with a loud angry voice. I grabbed my stunned brother by the back of his collar and dragged him away from the equally stunned group of would be thieves.

Once I stopped a rape.

I was walking up to West End Avenue early in the morning (now an adult). I heard some screaming so I ran around the corner just in time to see a man using his body weight to push a young lady into a gated services area of a building. The gate was open.

I reacted fast and unexpectedly as if by reflex. I ran toward this guy and yelled at him. Before I got close enough he turned away and let the lady go.
He walked away and said calmly,

“Crazy bitch”.

She ran past me screaming for help. Nearly at the same time a cab driver pulled over and was ready to help me and he continued following the guy from his cab. I stood still then not knowing what to do. The woman was now a block away and still screaming on Broadway and the guy was no longer in sight. I was alone there, trying to play the fast scene over again and wondering what I would have done if he hadn’t released her. It hit me that I was reacting and not thinking and that wasn’t a safe approach. I replayed it enough times to know that I would have done the same thing but I would have planned to stay out of knife range. It bothered me realizing that my intent was to dive into him and try to knock him over. I wasn’t a fighter.

While in medical school I lived across the street from where the infamous “slasher” started his killing spree by stabbing and slashing many people as he walked up first avenue. I lived nearby the location where three teens were executed while kneeling down. One of our doormen was killed on our block while fighting over a parking spot.

With this knowledge and more, I was never more stupid than the time I traveled in a packed subway train. This was a Friday which also meant it was payday. I was traveling from my part time job and I was in fact carrying my pay in my back pocket. The subway car was packed so deep that I was staring at the gum disease of the guy forced to lean over into my space.

Though packed tight, the guy sitting to my left jabbed me with his elbows in a manner that could have hurt me if I didn’t have that heavy jacket. After his jab he leaned toward me and Mr. Gums and said “Give me all your money or I will kill you”.
Mr. Gums didn’t pay attention and I thought it likely that he was part of the deal since he didn’t react. On the other hand, he was a New Yorker.
“I don’t have any money” I lied.
Two more hard jabs then “Money right now or you are dead.”
The subway was stopping at a station and I remained silent. Just as the door was starting to close I jumped and while forcefully pushing people I made it to the door and out. The door closed with my attacker still inside.

I escaped but I later learned that there had just been a spree of killings with people found dead from stabbings in subways and buses. I often reflect on this one wondering how close I had come to getting stabbed. I also wonder if giving the money would have made things safer or worse.

My wife and I moved to Baltimore after I graduated from medical school. We were told the crime was high in Baltimore so we were prepared. Baltimore actually turned out to be quite safe and our hyper vigilance was almost laughably out of place in our new surrounding. We lived on the East side and the danger was predominantly on the West side. Our area was well patrolled and extremely secure.

It’s odd to be taken out of a dangerous environment then find that the constant caution that we took for granted was so draining and not normal as we thought it was.

Writing this now makes me tense just reflecting on all the unnecessary risk I took while growing up. I also realize that this radar is a tool that might be important at some time in my life. I fear for my children though since they have no “street awareness”. While we raised them in a safe environment we also deprived them of skills that they might also need in the future.