Getting Mugged Up in Harlem

Screen shot 2014-12-02 at 2.43.39 PMYesterday, a friend who is a real estate broker in Manhattan notified me of a good deal on an apartment in New York City. “Where is it?”, I inquired.

“…115th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard…” she told me.

I was familiar the neighborhood. About forty years ago, when I was a taxi driver, I had once been mugged there.

It was around four o’clock on a nice sunny weekday afternoon in the Spring of 1976. I was twenty-nine years old and in excellent physical condition. I hadn’t been ON DUTY for long. I had eased behind the wheel of the brand new Checker cab at the garage a couple of hours earlier around two o’clock as I usually did. I had driven over the 59th Street Bridge from Long Island City into Manhattan and had picked up a couple of fares. I think I had about ten bucks in the old wooden box I kept on the front seat next to me and seven or eight dollars in quarters, dimes and nickels in my coin changer.

I found myself at a stop light on a side street off on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. A young man off to my left approached my driver’s side window. It’s always a bit ominous when someone approaches the driver’s side window. Taxi drivers much prefer that passengers who hail cabs and are duly acknowledged by the driver, simply walk over, open one of the two rear doors, get in, sit down and then notify the driver of their preferred destination. That’s the way it happens most of the time. If there is any type of conversation necessary prior to pulling away from the curb, believe me when I tell you, that most taxi drivers would prefer that it be done inside the vehicle, in between the driver and a passenger who is seated in the back seat.

Walking straight up to my rolled-up window the young man asked, “Hey, man–can you take us downtown…?” I only saw one person. My first thought was, “us…who’s us…?”

I thought to myself, “Okay, the partition is locked, this is a brand new cab with pneumatic door locks.”

“Who’s “us”…?” I inquired from behind the rolled up window. The young man put the third finger of his right hand and his thumb into his mouth and whistled loudly. I was impressed. My father used to be able to do that. Although I had tried it many times over the course of my life, I had been unable to duplicate the sound.

Suddenly, as if on cue, off to my right, and off to my left, and from somewhere back behind the cab in my blind spot, three other young men approached the car. The rear doors were still locked. In those days, cabbies always locked the doors when they were above 96th Street or in the outer boroughs.

While I was watching four young men seemingly surround my cab and thinking to myself, “The partition is locked, the doors are locked, I’m secure here…” yet another young man appeared at the front seat passenger position and began knocking on the window and pointing at the little silver door lock for me to open it. “Open the door and let me sit up front,” he suggested in a rather impolite tone.

“Naah, sorry….you’ll have to sit in the back”, I told him, and then I pressed the little button under the dash that unlocked the doors. There was a thumping sound as the door locks all popped open and then the five of them crammed themselves into the backseat like some kind of weird circus act. There were arms and elbows and hands pressed menacingly up against the plexiglass partition, but they were all inside the cab.

“Where to…? I cheerily inquired from the secure and roomy comfort of my front seat.

“115th Street and Lenox Boulevard…”, came from someone who seemed to be in authority.

“That isn’t exactly “downtown,” I remember thinking. When they said they wanted to go “downtown”, I had assumed they wanted to go to Times Square, a considerable distance from the Bronx and I guiltily confess, a destination which would have been a “nice piece of change” for me. But 115th Street and Lenox Avenue it was, and so, with my carload of young men, I pulled away from the intersection and turned left into traffic.

I hadn’t gone far when I had to stop for traffic approaching the Willis Avenue Bridge. Up to that point, I hadn’t turned on the meter, thinking that they were planning on running away and I didn’t want to pick up the tab.

“C’mon, man, let me sit up front,” said a friendly-enough looking young man from amid the ten arms, ten elbows and ten knees gathered together on the rear seat and the two jump-seats. I looked over my right shoulder and addressed him directly through the closed and locked bullet-resistant plexiglass partition, “Naah, sorry…don’t worry…we’ll be there soon…it’s not that far…”

“Look, driver–we’ve got money”, he said, holding up a wad of cash against the partition so that I could see it.

Thinking that they were going to pay for the ride, and knowing it would be seven or eight dollars, I offered them a deal.

“I’ll tell you what. I’ll take you guys down there for five dollars…”

“…Nah, man…it don’t cost no FIVE DOLLARS to go down there!”, someone said, I wasn’t sure who.

Traffic had started again and thinking that they were planning on paying for the trip, I thought, “Oh, yeah, well, I show them!

So I threw the arm on the meter, it started clicking and I started driving….

It wasn’t a long trip. As we neared our destination and got closer and closer the banter in the back seat died down and it got quieter and quieter then as I rounded the park it got very quiet. You could just tell that something was going to happen and it probably wasn’t going to be good. Five people in the back seat were thinking. I, alone on the front seat (except for the wooden box with eight bucks in it), was thinking, too. I was thinking, “They’re probably all going to jump out and run when I get to the destination…”

That had happened a few times before over the year or so I had been driving a cab. Then I had another thought, “I know… when they’re getting out of the cab, I can GUN it, step on the gas, just as they exiting the vehicle. That should send them for a loop….”

But then, I thought, “Do I really want to kill or maim someone for a three-dollar fare?” I decided to just let it go. To chalk it up to being part of the job. I’ll let them run away, it’s no big deal.

Just as I had suspected, as we neared the intersection of 115th and Lenox, someone broke the silence, “Right here is good.” So I stopped the car about fifty yards short of the intersection.

People started getting out.

“The money’s in the THING, man….” someone said, as someone else banged the little cash chute forward with force.

Just as I looked back over my right shoulder to confirm my suspicions that the money was definitely NOT in the thing, I felt my body slide to the left just as I heard the driver’s side door being opened and I felt an elbow around my neck. I was suddenly jerked up out of the car and stood on the pavement standing there, bent over slightly, with someone’s arm around my neck. From this disadvantage point I could easily make out five sets of sneakers. “They are going to beat the crap out of me!”, my brain told me.

“Thanks a lot brain, where were you when I needed you before? Why didn’t you tell me that when I unlocked the doors to let them into the car that I also unlocked my own door, thus allowing myself to be pulled bodily out of the car into the street. Some friend YOU are! Geez!”

But my brain wasn’t listening. All it could think to do now was to tell me to run. I don’t how I did it, but I somehow quickly managed to wrench myself free of the chokehold some guy had on my neck, and I took off running like a scalded dog.

I was always a fast runner. For about twenty yards two guys chased me, but the adrenaline was flowing in my veins. My instinct to survive was stronger than their instinct to kill me. I passed a young woman pushing a baby in a stroller who barely looked up as I sped by. It was as if she had seen this movie a hundred times. In ten long seconds, I heard their footsteps trail off and go silent. I kept running, anyway. After about twenty seconds, I looked over my shoulder and saw there was no one chasing me.

I could see the cab had been driven down to the intersection of 115th Street and Lenox Avenue and it was stopped there with the turn signal flashing. All four doors were open and silhouettes of young men were going all through the car, looking for cash, money, gold coins, jewels, and perhaps a Stradivarius violin or cello. But there was only the old wooden box my friend had given me, the one that he had made as a schoolkid back in the Depression. The box with the eight dollars in it.

I stood there watching them for fifteen or twenty seconds. In a minute or two the intersection was quiet again, except for my cab, which stood there with its four doors open and the turn signal flashing. I felt like the car had fared worse than I had, and as if to show my solidarity with my old yellow metal partner, I started walking toward it.

The woman pushing the baby carriage I had passed earlier walked by me, and without so much as a “Howdy-DO?” or a glance in my direction, continued on her way as if I had been nothing more interesting or unusual than a dead squirrel or a sewer worker.

Walking in the street now, and still breathing heavily, I spotted a dark blue Monroe shock absorber. Someone in the not-too-far-distant past had apparently changed his shocks and left it there for me. How thoughtful.

I picked it up, hefted it in my hand, like Bruce Willis hefted the hammer in his hand in the pawn shop scene in Pulp Fiction. If anyone came anywhere near me, I was determined to administer some shocks of my own to their head.

I hadn’t gone very far when, from out a shadowy doorway of a building on my right, and from somewhere else off to my left, two young men emerged from opposite locations and were suddenly charging toward me. I had no idea whether they were part of the same crew who I had so begrudgingly given a lift to earlier. I dropped that heavy-ass shock absorber and sprinted across two lanes of traffic on Lenox Avenue without even bothering to look to see if I had the light. I’ll take my chances with cars over kids any day.

Crossing Lenox, I saw a Seafood restaurant. I went inside. Business was good. All the stools had men sitting on them with their backs turned to the door. There were no tables and chairs. “Eat at the counter or don’t eat here!”, could have been their motto. One or two people glanced up when I burst in, but neither the owner, nor any of the patrons looked surprised to see me.

I felt like a fresh water fish in a salt water restaurant.

“Can I use your telephone to call the police?–I was just robbed…”, I inquired of the man behind the counter. I was still huffing and puffing somewhat from my great escape. His expression did not change. As he slowly turned and reached for the cash register, one of the male patrons swiveled on his stool to face me. It was a man in a straw hat. “We ain’t gonna let them niggas get you, cab driver—we’ze gonna get you OURSELVES!”

As I was standing there pondering the sad state of race relations in New York, the proprietor handed me a quarter and told me there was a pay phone in the back I could use. I took the money and walked about twenty five feet to the phone.

It was in use.

The would-be caller was dressed in a black suit and rumpled white shirt. A tie with purple and green stripes hung loose around his neck, as if someone had grabbed him by it earlier and dragged him to his present location. He balanced the phone in one hand and a little black book in the other as he struggled to remain standing. He seemed to be recovering from what must surely been a very good party the evening before. He was completely oblivious to my situation but enlisted my help as soon as he saw me. I was happy to finally see a smiling face.

“Can you dial this number for me?”, he asked, struggling to remain upright while handing me the little book. I don’t remember the number but the name of the person he was calling was Doris. I dialed the number and handed him the phone. He talked to her for some time. By the time he was finished my breathing had returned to normal and I called the police and stood just inside the door to wait for them.

After about ten minutes, a patrol car arrived and parked on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. A small crowd gathered around the car. I went outside and spoke to the officer in the passenger side of the car. His window was rolled down.
“Are you the guy who called us?” he wanted to know. He was the first white person I had seen in what seemed like a very long time. I was relieved to see him, but white people can ask some really stupid questions sometimes.

“Yes”, I said. “Can I get in the back seat?” I inquired nervously from the middle of the assembled crowd surrounding the car.

He just looked up at me with this dumb expression on his face and then he said, “We’re here….” as if I hadn’t noticed.

Eventually they took me to the police station where I looked at some mug shots, but I didn’t recognize any of the faces they showed me. Perhaps if they had shown me photographs of sneakers. After an hour or so, they drove me back to the intersection of 115th Street and Lenox Avenue where the man from the garage was waiting with an extra key to the cab, which was still right there on the street where they had conveniently left it.

Of course, my coin changer was gone, the one I had bought which had been just like the one the old grey-haired bus driver with the shiny black shoes had used on the bus in my childhood, that man who rolled his own cigarettes from a pouch in his pocket and smoked them on his break while I sat there on the way home from the movies by myself waiting for five minutes to be taken the last six blocks home.

But the old wooden box was still right there on the seat where I had left it–minus the eight dollars.

So, I got in, locked the doors, started the engine, and, as it was now getting dark, turned on the lights.

Then I rolled off– grateful to be alive–to begin my night.

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