New Yorkers are getting soft. Not hunted for years, we’ve lost our native caution toward predators, like baby seals or the dodo. Nowadays, let a model catch a bullet on the No. 6 train and it’s a career move, her pretty face on every tabloid cover and agencies getting in line.
So even after the arm clamped around my neck from behind, my once trusty body-alarm stayed mute. I’d just left my boxing team at the gym-the Printing House-and was hurrying across town for a few pints with an old friend. The headlock didn’t hurt: The arm was padded by a jacket and far from Popeye-strong. I assumed it was someone from the gym clowning-boxer humor tending toward the broad and physical-but as I struggled, the grip tightened and nobody was laughing. Still, I didn’t worry. While it was 10:30 at night, the West Village is Candyland, with Leroy Street its jelly heart. Nothing bad happens in white Manhattan anymore, certainly not in the West Village and especially not on Leroy Street-Leroy of the opulent brownstones and plane trees with leaves like $100 bills. As I tried to free my arms and we lurched sideways into a parked car, it didn’t occur to me to be afraid. People were smoking outside the bar across the street and sitting on their stoops. There was nothing to worry about.
Please consider that: grabbed from behind on a New York City street and not afraid? When I first came to New York in 1984, I was always afraid. New York City was blackouts and Taxi Driver and the Son of Sam. New York was Kitty Genovese screaming for her life while people stared from behind their windows. The reality didn’t disappoint, either. The city hectored me, it hustled me, it taught me to never turn my back. My first night here I ended up in a coffee shop on Times Square, where a cracked-up hooker chased my girlfriend around a table while trying to stroke her shiny blond hair. The Greek counterman ran Crackie out the door with a rolling pin while the other customers laughed.
I didn’t lose my fear as I gained experience. Over the years, the fear refined down to a full-time wariness: security gate shuttered, alarm always blinking. I keep to the dictates of the personal security code, never carrying more than $80 cash and keeping my backpack strapped to a wrist so no one could snatch it on the subway. The fear was one of the reasons I stayed, part of the buzz of being here. I rode the fear, a street-smart New Yorker scanning the scene when I crossed Central Park after midnight just for a thrill.
My wariness wasn’t for show, either. I knew just what would happen if my luck turned bad: Someone would take Alice by the hand and toss her through the Looking Glass. My first apartment was in Brooklyn, on the corner of Myrtle and Clinton. (Years later, I was surprised to see a fat drug dealer from the neighborhood turn up in rap videos with the name Notorious B.I.G.) Being a skinny little white boy on Murder Avenue meant trouble. One afternoon, a large man stepped in front of me on the street with the loud offer of “Knicks tickets!” Since we were a long way from the Garden, I tried to move around him, but his partner grabbed me from behind and they tried to drag me into an alley. In broad daylight. On a crowded street. I managed to break away and cowered in my apartment for a few hours. Manhattan wasn’t much safer. On 13th between Fifth and Sixth, I made the mistake of not crossing the street when I saw a group of teenagers sitting on a stoop. Just as I passed the group, someone slammed into my back. I flipped the boy onto the ground and ran away.
That was in 1994, and the city was changing. Not all of it, of course-I went to a wedding in East New York the day before Leroy Street, and the old instincts immediately returned. Burned-out buildings, weedy lots, roosters in yards-happy days haven’t come for everyone. Chances are, though, that you’ve never felt safer. The streets are clean, the trains run on time, the homeless have been deported (what happened to them, I mean really-euthanasia, prison farms, the Foreign Legion?). My mean Williamsburg streets have become Bedford Campus, where girls wear mini-skirts and boys hold hands with boys. I’ll leave my backpack in a café for an hour while I go out to run errands.
In New York, we’ve lost our survival skills just as some of the old city shadows have started to creep back in. The panhandlers have returned, Ancient Mariners singing their woeful subway songs. The job famine is four years old, and thin wallets lead to all kinds of desperation. My agent got mugged for $400 in front of her Chelsea apartment. Oblivious on her cell phone, she didn’t notice the man sneaking up behind her. Walking by a Lower East Side restaurant, my girlfriend noted the papered-over windows, police barriers, cameras and crowd and assumed “Hollywood.” “Do you know what they’re shooting?” she asked a bystander. “No, lady,” the man said, “a guy got killed in there.”
Back on Leroy, I called to the people on the other side of the street. “Uhn, help?” I said. They just stared. I got one hand onto the man’s shirt and heard it tearing as we continued to wrestle. As I wrenched my body around, a fist started to bludgeon the right side of my face. I saw that there were two-one holding and one hitting. Two to one; now I was afraid. Still, our position against the car worked to my advantage: They couldn’t both reach me. I worked my left hand and landed three short, chopping punches on the face of the boy holding me. I let my gym bag slide down my right arm so I could punch with both hands. In a second they were running, the one who had hit me holding my bag.
I ran after them, still shouting for help. The pair turned onto Bedford Street, then split up, one heading into Sixth and the other-the one with my bag-turning up Carmine toward Bleecker. I heard someone say, “There’s a cop right there!” The man I was chasing suddenly speeded up.
Then I heard yelling behind me. “He dropped your bag! He dropped your bag!”
The police showed up quickly and I liked them immensely. I liked almost everyone: I was high on violence, and the notebooks in my bag were preserved for posterity. I had a lump high on one cheek and a gash over my right eye. Later I would have a headache, but my friend eased the pain by buying every round.
Back at the Printing House, the boxers made me feel vaguely shamed. “You didn’t knock them out?” my trainer asked. “What’s wrong with you?” “I didn’t have good leverage,” I stammered. Our Dominican middleweight took to saying “Leroy Street” and cackling whenever he saw me. One of the women boxers knew exactly who was to blame. “Homo thugs,” she said. Homo thugs? “You know, those guys on the D.L. who come down here and start trouble. I read about it.”
My bruises have faded, but I’ll never feel the same way about Leroy Street. My girlfriend’s father sent us both key-chain canisters of pepper spray, and I make sure the bottle is ready to hand as I walk next to the $10 million brownstones.