I was in my usual mind fog.
There was a time when secretly in my head, I’d hum and chant and repeat the same phrases until I’d feel like my brain was in a knot that kept getting tighter and tighter.
Outside my head, in the world of time and matter, I was said to have a listening problem. I was said to have a problem relating. And doctors argued over what could be done for me.
One evening, while I was in this mind fog – I’ll call it that since there was disagreement as to the diagnosis–a chance encounter with a stranger showed me a new way of being in the world.
As I found out later, I’d been zigzagging along New York’s Park Avenue. I was on my way to a dreaded dinner at my least favorite uncle’s when I heard a voice that wasn’t mine and didn’t come from inside me.
“Keep walking!” it hissed in my ear.
I felt the shock of being rudely awakened from my private reverie.
He was very tall, he towered over me, and as I looked up at him, I uncharacteristically made eye contact. Normally, I’d involuntarily turn my gaze away from people’s faces, as if some mysterious force controlled the movement of my head and eyes.
“Why?” I asked, still not comprehending.
“Because,” he said,“there’s a razor at your throat.”
For no more than a nano-second, I felt something cold graze my skin. Then he opened his hand just long enough for me to see a metallic flash. I remember marveling at what skill he had–he’d made his point without actually cutting me.
“Don’t make me hurt you,” he warned.“I’m gonna take you to where no one can see us. Then I’m gonna rob you. Then I’m gonna set you free. But if you try and holler, or even look at me suspicious, I’ll cut up your pretty face so bad, no man’ll look at you ever again.”
As he spoke, my habitually knotted brain snapped to attention. Unaccustomed as I was to the real world’s sharp edges, I felt strange, not at all like myself.
I put my arm around him, as requested. I was too stunned to feel any fear.
We reached the corner of Park and 36th Street, directly across from my uncle’s building. The doorman was looking in our direction. I might make a run for it, I thought… but my captor was too quick for me. Alerted by his ready animal instinct, and sensing the doorman’s eye, he tightened his grip, and with an invisible movement, jabbed my collarbone with the side of his razor. Again, I marveled at his skill.
“Talk to me,” he demanded in a harsh whisper, “make like we’re having a conversation.”
Now, the art of conversation had not been one of my strong points. My mind would go blank, my mouth would feel cottony–it was hard enough talking to relatives. What could I say to this stranger?
But I surprised myself.
I heard myself speaking, bantering actually, in an easy, confident voice that I barely recognized as mine.
“This is one of those things that always happens to other people…” I said.
To which my captor responded, completing my sentence, ”…but never happens to you!”
“Think of what a great story you’ll have…” he continued. To which I said,“Someday I’ll tell my grandchildren about my big, bad mugger.” And he said, “You’ll have such a great story, you’ll want me to mug you all over again!”
We both broke up laughing. And while we were laughing, I felt that he had loosened his grip.
We turned the corner and headed west in the direction of the garment district. By now we were walking arm in arm, the rhythm of our strides were in sync with one another’s.
Suddenly, I remembered–I only had five dollars on me! When I was growing up, a kid on our block was killed by a pissed-off mugger, supposedly for not having enough cash on him. I realized I would have to break the bad news to my captor.
Again, I found myself speaking in a voice that seemed to be coming from somewhere outside myself.
“Your time is worth money. All I have is a cheap watch and five lousy dollars. Not worth your valuable time. The sooner you let me go, the sooner you can move on and find a better prospect.”
I was scared, of course, of what he might do to me. But I was also proud of myself. I’d just spoken up, I’d asserted myself, and I thought I sounded really businesslike.
My captor responded by muttering a string of profanities, which were directed at fate in general, and at his own misjudgment for choosing me. Although he still held me at razor point, I started seeing him as just another plodding soul–I actually felt a pang of empathy for him.
He told me that, yes, I wasn’t worth his trouble, but he would nonetheless have to take me to where he was taking me.
“It’s because I live by my rules,” he said. “Nothing personal, but I got my rules and they save my ass and my biggest rule is no one gets free if there’s a police officer they can run into.”
I looked around and pointed out that there were no police officers within my field of vision. But he would have none of it.
“People’s attention is like a strainer, full of cracks and holes. Everyone’s got their blind spots. And you, pretty lady, you got a blind spot big enough for a whole precinct to hide out in it.”
He told me how he’d followed me earlier, how he’d sized me up.
“You had no idea I was behind you – sure, I was wearing sneakers and I’m good at coming up on people – but, still, I could tell you didn’t know what was going down–I stay alive because I know what people see and what they don’t see.”
“What exactly was I doing that made you single me out?”
“The way you were walking, all crooked and dreamlike. Gotta learn to walk in a straight line, walk fast, look purposeful, and here’s an inside secret– any time you feel like you’re in danger, hold your keys in your hand in front of you.”
In the years to come, I would remember the key trick, courtesy of my mugger.
“I don’t mess with no one holding keys,” he said, “keys can cut someone’s eye out.”
By now, the street was almost empty–which made me start seriously wondering as to his real intention. “I see you’re a professional at what you do,” I said, hoping that this might flatter him. But he went silent on me, as if thinking something to himself.
“I meant that as a compliment,” I continued,“you’re super smart, you’ve got amazing skills…” but, still, he said nothing.
What I said next–I don’t know how I came up with it–was an offhand remark that turned out to be my ultimate being-present-in-the-moment high point–
“What’s a nice guy like you doing in a job like this?”
My captor burst out laughing.
He stomped his feet, slapped his thighs, roared, and struggled to catch his breath. Something had shifted in that moment.
“You’re the nicest person I mugged all day,” he said , still gasping to be able to speak. “I wish all my muggees was nice like you!”
I could have made a getaway then, but now there was no need to. My captor – he was no longer that – had let go of me during his laughing fit.
When we arrived at his chosen spot – an empty lot not far from the river – he announced, “Well, this is it, the place where I conduct my business.”
I reached down into my purse and handed him my wallet. It turned out I didn’t have five dollars–four dollars and change, to be exact. As he took the money, we joked that it’s too bad he didn’t take credit cards.
Next, he removed my watch – at which point he noticed the ring I was wearing. It was an antique cameo that I’d worn since I was little. As he tried to pull it off my finger, he noticed that I was crying.
“Then keep it,” he told me and said I was free to go.
But I didn’t go– at least not yet. We’d been walking in lockstep, our bodies close, his arm draped over my shoulder. He thinks I’m pretty, I thought.
I reached up and kissed him.
I turned to walk away a few moments later, then stopped and looked back over my shoulder. “I wish we’d met under different circumstances,” I told him and meant it.
He waved and smiled and left me with these words–“Don’t get caught by no muggers!”
Later that evening as I was trying to explain why I was late to my uncle – and my uncle accused me of “making up excuses”– I realized that I was somehow different. I didn’t sulk , nor did I get angry. Here was one bully who would no longer get the best of me.
In the days and weeks that followed, I took to heart what I’d learned about body language. Until my mugger pointed it out to me, I’d been clueless to what my body was doing. I enrolled in acting classes and in time would study dance and martial arts. I became acutely aware of my body in space, and by extension my presence in the world. I took ownership of my effect on others and how they behaved toward me.
As a “muggee,” conventional thinking told me I was a victim. But my experience taught me otherwise. Thanks to my mugger, I first experienced the full force of focused awareness–so I know how powerful I can be.
As I work today at assisting others to write about what’s hidden in the cracks in their awareness, I thank the man who mugged me from the bottom of my heart.