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Unlikely change

The streets are quiet in Brooklyn tonight. It’s late and the night is brisk, with gusts of wind that cut right through my jacket. The deli coffee I clasp with both hands cools before I finish half of it, and I consider just how hot it was when the clerk handed it to me. At the time, I thought it was my hands adjusting to something hot, after being out in the cold. But I should have said something to him. Made him make me a fresh pot.

I toss the lukewarm cup and it falls strangely, landing unevenly with a splat in the closest garbage can. I feel my mind start to spin worries into fears and I wonder if taking a walk in the middle of the night was really that good of an idea.

I was mugged once when I was a sophomore at NYU, outside of my Third North dorm on Third Avenue and 11th Street. I like to describe it as a “friendly mugging” and it’s a story that I tell often, the kind you get good at telling?and laughing about?though the man’s sneer still pops up in my head every now and again.

The streets are empty as I sit down on a bench, which during the day is reserved for customers, in front of the Garden Grill on Metropolitan Ave. I remember it fairly well. One moment, everything was totally fine; all of a sudden the situation had become more dangerous.

I recognize a man walking toward me. He is one of the homeless guys who hangs out in my neighborhood. Everything in me tightens. He asks me for a cigarette and I give him one immediately to get him to go away. I look him square in the eyes as he thanks me and leaves.

On the night of my mugging, I was heading out of the deli and about to cross the street to the entrance of my dorm. A tall, largely built black man stopped and asked for change. I brushed him off, avoided eye contact, and tried to move past him. In an instant, I was up against the wall, his hand pushed roughly into my chest. It caught me totally by surprise.

I remember my mind working overtime to make sense of the situation. The streets were crowded and I couldn’t believe that people were just walking by. I considered calling out for help. But didn’t.

From the bench, I watch a lone passenger on a bus wait at a stoplight. He looks tired, and his eyelids flutter as our eyes cross for a moment. The light changes and his head jerks back as the bus accelerates.

“Don’t make me ask you again,” he had said. I had just gone to the ATM but had put the new loose bills into my jacket pocket instead of into my wallet. “I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

He told me he had a knife and without missing a beat I told him that I only had five dollars and opened my wallet to reveal a crumpled five-dollar bill. I told him that it was my only money for dinner that night and he snatched it from my hand and told me to wait.

In retrospect, I’m not really sure when I decided not to give him the money I had just taken out?somewhere around $80. It was just an instinct, almost like I was watching a subconscious piece of myself make decisions. I don’t remember being particularly scared.

He emerged a few moments later with two dollars, which he pressed into my hand and muttered, “Go get yourself a slice of pizza,” before turning and walking away. The friendly mugging.

Sometimes on nights like tonight, walking home, late, alone, deep in my own thoughts, I wonder if something like that will ever happen to me again. I can feel that a little piece inside of me?the same one who told the tall, largely built black man that I only had five dollars, who waited for him outside that deli, who got the change?hopes that it will.

I buy another cup of coffee at the next deli and make sure that it’s piping hot.

- Zachary Stuart-Pontier