Burglaries and street robberies in New York City have declined by an astounding eighty per cent since 1990, and even lifelong Manhattanites like me have almost forgotten the mixture of anxiety and scary anecdote we all shared back in the seventies and eighties, whatever our address. Leaving a neighborhood bar or coming home from a late movie, you scanned the shadowy sidewalk up ahead and slipped out into the empty car lane if you saw anyone approaching. Street gutters glistened with smashed window glass, and, locking up your VW in a fresh parking space, you left a pleading note on the dashboard: “No drugs, no radio, no nothing.” Neighborhood mayhem back then terrified and shamed us all, and gave out-of-towners another reason to hate New York; if you were off visiting an aunt in Topeka or Missoula and told a neighbor where you came from, you’d get a two-beat pause and then the unvarying “Right in it?” Crime had become another garish New York inconvenience: something else to put up with and try to manage with a bit of cool.Stories abounded. My colleague Philip Hamburger, an instant before his second or perhaps third street mugging, heard the perp voice behind him murmur, “Sorry, Mister, but you’re going down.” Jay, a West Village filmmaker, told me that he was fed up with crime and had armed himself against muggers with extensive karate lessons—and won himself a trip to the E.R. at St. Vincent’s when his chance came up, on Horatio Street, shortly thereafter. An upstairs neighbor in our East Nineties walkup had a better defensive plan: the Insta-Scream. When I heard familiar high-pitched screechings from our street-level vestibule one night, I said, “Oop, that must be Kevin again,” and buzzed him safely in.
A bit before this, perhaps back in the late fifties, Gerald Murphy, the iconic painter and style-setter, heard stories like this and prepared himself (he was in his upper seventies by now) by searching out an ancient but stylish little sword-umbrella left to him years before by his father, the owner of the Fifth Avenue leather shop Mark Cross. Coming home via Central Park late one spring afternoon, Gerald was confronted by five or six lurking teen-agers, who asked him for a light. Unclicking the blade, he cried, “A light! A light—I’ll give you a light!,” and swished it about in the manner of Douglas Fairbanks. The kids, unaware of any gleams of steel in the twilight, laughed wildly, then closed in, until the tip of the blade pinked one of them on the arm. “Yow—a fuckin’ sword!” he cried, and they vanished like squirrels over an embankment.
My wife, Carol, and I somehow missed the early flooding waves of apartment-house break-ins, and we felt almost a sense of belonging the evening we came up the stairs and saw our removed apartment front door neatly propped against an adjacent wall. A bit later, while we were counting our losses, Carol emerged from her closet with a favorite blue dress over her arm. “And what was wrong with this, I’d like to know,” she said indignantly.
Along about this time, our friends Bobbie and Spencer Klaw were at home one Saturday night in their modest brownstone on Charlton Street with three of their four daughters and Bob Schultz, a young son-in-law, when they heard frantic sustained barking arising from the basement just below, from Jessie, a Lab puppy shut away there for house-training. Spencer, rushing to the cellar stairs, encountered a slight man carrying a knife, with a bandanna across his face. “Take it easy,” he said. “I need a hundred dollars.”
Spence, somehow mistaking this insane housebreaking for a prank, said, “I don’t know who you are, but this is really in bad taste.” He snatched off the bandanna, revealing a stranger: an addict in need of a hundred bucks.
There was some jittery wallet- and pocketbook-scrabbling, but the home team could only come up with about sixty-five, combined. “There’s gotta be more, so show me,” the man said, nodding toward Bobbie. She and the crook went up the narrow stairs together, toward the bedrooms, with the man calling back, “I got the lady, so don’t call the cops or nothing.”
Left alone, the living-room Klaws consulted in whispers, telling themselves that they had a big advantage in numbers. “Look, Spence,” Bob Schultz said, “if I stand over beside this lamp you can say something to get his attention and I’ll conk him from behind—O.K.?”
Positions were taken. Bobbie and the man clumped back down. There was a terrifying scuffle, then a frozen tableau but no bloodshed. In final negotiations, the man grabbed Spencer’s watch and his empty wallet but declined proffers of the girls’ piggy banks or Becky’s flute. “Are you sure?” Bobbie said. “It’s a really nice one.” A minute later, he’d put away his knife and slipped out the door.
Oh, yes—the lamp. Telling me about it a week or so later, Spencer said, “Roger, if you’re ever going to hit somebody over the head with a table lamp, remember to unplug it first.” ♦