I loved the black, BMX bicycle that I’d learned to ride without the training wheels only a few months before, right around my seventh birthday. I was riding it in the park across the street from my apartment building when a boy a little older than me prompted me to stop.
“What school do you go to?” He asked.
“P.S. 26,” I answered. “What school do you go to?”
Before I knew it, he was pulling at my bike’s handlebars. I pulled back. He then slapped my glasses off my face, which distracted me enough to let go of the bike. Off the perpetrator sped on my wheels while I just stood there, crying hysterically. Someone handed my glasses to me. I didn’t stop crying until I got home and told Mom what happened. Mom and I spent the rest of the afternoon, and much of the evening, walking around our neighborhood, hoping to find the perpetrator and my bike. Our lengthy search was unsuccessful. A few weeks later, Grandpa bought me a new bike.
I wasn’t robbed again until I was 12, when a high school-aged boy took my speckled, wool flat cap off my head in front of my middle school. The school day had just ended and many of my classmates watched as the thug flipped me onto my back when I tried to resist. He threatened me with serious bodily harm if I continued to resist. I didn’t. After that incident, Mom refused to let me wear a hat to school for a few weeks.
I had a co-worker who used to joke that you weren’t a true New Yorker until you’d been mugged, so I guess I passed that test well before I’d completed puberty. I grew up in a New York City that was becoming safer by the year, but crime was never far away. Even if you weren’t attacked by a mugger, you knew someone who was. It seemed like every adult I knew had witnessed a chain- or purse-snatching on the subway, had their car radio stolen or their apartment broken into – or some combination thereof. As a matter of fact, part of the reason Mom and I moved to the neighborhood where my bike was stolen was because our previous apartment had been burglarized three times in six years; the last time, the thieves entered through my bedroom by chiseling the window frame out of the wall, leaving a mess and leaving us without a stereo.
Because of crime’s omnipresence in a city of over eight million people, most who grow up in New York City learn how to make themselves less vulnerable to criminals. It starts with The Look. The Look isn’t the same for everyone, but it conveys the same message: leave me alone and don’t mess with me. The Look isn’t a steely gaze or an angry stare; it’s more of a stony, passionless look. The goal is to look as unapproachable as possible. New Yorkers recognize The Look right away; we also recognize those who are trying to fake it. The Look has to come naturally; a person faking The Look makes one even more vulnerable than not having The Look at all.
The Look isn’t enough if you don’t take simple precautions to protect yourself or your belongings. Most crimes are crimes of opportunity: a mugger sees someone or something in a compromising position and pounces. So, you want to leave a mugger as few opportunities as possible. That means wrapping the handles or straps of your bag around your forearm when you’re on the subway and never leaving your bags unattended, always being aware of anyone sitting or standing near your wallet and slipping chains, bracelets, watches and other jewelry underneath your shirt collar or shirt sleeve. It means locking house and car doors at all times, never leaving a car unattended with the engine running and never leaving money or anything of value in plain view in an unattended vehicle. It means always being aware of who’s near you, especially at night, when it’s important to be aware of hidden and/or darkened corners where trouble may lurk.
I’ve lived outside of New York City for a decade, but the simple crime prevention and self preservation lessons I learned growing up haven’t left me, much to the chagrin of some. Not too long ago, a haggard man wearing dirty and tattered clothing tried to get my attention as I was leaving Walgreens. I didn’t look in his direction as he called out to me. Once it became apparent to him that he wasn’t going to be acknowledged, the man started yelling profanities in my direction. I continued to ignore him as I slid into my car and shut the door. One of the first lessons many New Yorkers learn is not to pay any attention to anyone in public who approaches you and appears to want your money, whether it’s a panhandler or someone trying to sell you something. I assumed the gentleman was a panhandler – I’d seen him ask others for money right before I went into Walgreens – so I ignored him. I’ve had friends not from New York City argue with me that some of those trying to get my attention may truly be in need and, thus, are deserving of my time. I argue that I don’t have the time nor the energy to devote to determining who really is in need and who is simply looking to take advantage. Instead, I choose to donate money, food and clothing to the Salvation Army and other organizations that help those who are down on their luck. Panhandlers in New York City rarely show frustration when they’re ignored, because they’re used to it; panhandlers other places aren’t used to being ignored. However, I haven’t abandoned my New York City-style approach.
I employ similar tactics when I’m at a shopping mall and people are trying to get my attention to buy and/or try a new product or to take a survey; those folks aren’t my biggest fans either. But, true to my New York City roots, I don’t engage. I know the vast majority of those seeking my attention aren’t going to harm me and only want a few bucks, at most. But, like so many New Yorkers, I don’t like to have my time wasted, which is why many think we’re rude and brusque, which can be true. That rudeness and brusqueness, while unpleasant at times, is an essential survival tactic in New York City. And, it’s a product of experience; most New Yorkers have been assaulted while being separated from their personal property, like I was as a youth, or witnessed someone being assaulted. We assume the worst unless we get evidence to the contrary. And, even then, we’re still weary.
Today, I was at the airport, dropping off family members; I stood outside of my car as I waited for them to clear up a discrepancy with their tickets. A woman with prominent cheekbones and her hair in a ponytail wandered aimlessly in front of me; she appeared to be confused or looking for someone. After a few minutes, she made eye contact with me and asked if she could use my cell phone, which I’d pulled out and returned to my pocket a moment before. She explained that she left her phone at home and was waiting for someone to bring it back to her before she had to board her flight, but she wanted to let that person know there might not be enough time. I didn’t hesitate to pull out my iPhone and to open the numeric keypad before handing it to her. I watched her carefully as she dialed a local number and made her phone call. I squared my shoulders and slid slightly onto the balls of my feet, just in case I had to make a tackle or chase her down. My eyes went from side to side as I tried to ensure no one was in the immediate vicinity, lest she toss my phone to someone else. The woman ended the call before anyone answered and handed my phone back to me. The person with her phone pulled up behind my car. She thanked me as she walked away.
Who says New Yorkers can’t be nice?Follow @raford3