Twenty-five years ago this week was the last time I was mugged. The mugging did more physical damage to the four muggers than they did to me — my ex-stepfather’s karate training did pay off, I guess. This episode set off a larger and meandering spiritual journey for me that brought me to Christianity, albeit a complicated understanding of it. It came with the pain of thinking about whether I’d ever have a future, was worth saving, and whether anyone else thought that I was worth anything at all.
For whatever the reason, December of ’83 was spent without food in the house. My mother either hadn’t received her welfare check on time or there weren’t enough food stamps to put food in the house. This was after a weekend where I failed to find my father Jimme for the first time in nearly a year. We were in dire straits food-wise again. My mother went to Maurice for money to buy groceries. I’d rather had gone to Alex or Nes for grocery money than to my stepfather. He came to me and gave me twenty dollars to go to the store. Because it was Monday and after 7 pm, my only option was Waldbaum’s on East Prospect Avenue, around the corner from my first crush’s apartment building and near the Metro-North station, a mile and a half walk each way. “Donald, do not lose this money. I don’t want no excuses. I want all my change back. If you have to, catch the bus,” Maurice said to me. I had already missed the last 7 bus going into Mount Vernon, and I knew that by the time I’d finish shopping that I would miss the last 7 for the return. I could’ve also waited for the 40 bus to White Plains, get off at North Columbus and East Lincoln, and walk the eight blocks to 616, though.
After shopping for Great Northern beans and rice and some beef neck bones and spinach, which cost $6.50 by the way, I walked out of Waldbaum’s with the intent of cutting down Park Avenue to East Lincoln and avoiding most of the potential for a mugging. But it seemed that Maurice’s God had other plans for me. I barely got to the corner of Prospect and Park before I was ambushed by four guys, all around my age and size. Part of it was my fault, as that corner was poorly lit and the Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips that held that corner had closed the year before, another casualty of the recent recession. I saw other people around, but none of them came to my aid.
So here it was that I was jumped by a bunch of dumb kids with dumb parents trying to beat me up and take thirteen dollars from me. My first thought was about how stupid these kids were. Didn’t they know that I hardly had any money, that it wasn’t worth the effort to take so little? Weren’t there easier prey, older folk with more money to steal from? That thought quickly passed as I began to defend myself. Apparently I must’ve learned something from my idiot stepfather, because I was able to kick, punch, and bite my way out of the mugging at first. I kicked one person in the balls, bit another’s arm, punched someone else in the jaw. I kept going until someone was able to hold me long enough to reach into my pocket and take the money. Then they took off, running across one of the bridges into the South Side.
Grocery bag torn to shreds, food on the ground, shirttail hanging out, I took off after them, now thinking only about what I’d face at home if I didn’t come in with Maurice’s money. They went east up First Street, turned right up South Fulton, and then left on East Third. With groceries in tow, I just couldn’t keep up. I had lost them by the time I got to East Third and South Columbus. I walked home, thinking of the punishment that awaited me. But then another thought came over me, not one of fear, but one of boldness. I realized that after what I’d gone through with Maurice in the past that he’d already done his worst to me. Short of killing me or putting me in the hospital, there wasn’t anything he could do to me that I hadn’t experienced already. At least I was coming home with food.
It was after 9 by the time I got back from Waldbaum’s and my mugging. Mom was worried, actually worried, while Maurice was just pissed.
“I told you not to lose my money. You’re gonna pay me back every cent you owe me,” he said.
I thought about saying something smart, something like “I owe you? How much do you think you owe me, my Mom, your kids, my family, you stupid asshole?” I wisely kept my mouth shut, saying that I’d get his money for him the next time I saw Jimme.
“You better, or it’s your ass!,” Maurice said.
My mother was more concerned about what happened during the actual fight. I told her about what happened.
“Why didn’t you catch the bus?,” my mother asked.
“Because I didn’t want to spend any more of his money that I had to!,” I said.
“You see someone you know?”
“I think one of them’s named Corey,” I said.
Corey and his older brother lived in the equally impoverished building next door, 630East Lincoln. It was home to drunks, loose women, and semi-suburban drug dealers. Corey’s older brother was in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade with me at Holmes. I hadn’t seen either of them much since elementary school, but I recognized him immediately as the one who said, “Give me the money, muthafucka!” Those were some ugly kids, inside and out.
In an unbelievable turn, my mother took me the next morning to the Mount Vernon Police Station, its juvenile division, to have me press charges, look at mug shots and ID my attackers. Maybe we should’ve gone downstairs and talked to some cops about Maurice as well. It didn’t take me long to ID Corey and his henchmen, all of whom had juvenile records. Before I left, they had hauled Corey into the station for booking. I was glad to see that my fists had done some damage to his face.
I went to school that day with my mother and ended up signing in around sixth period. The first person who came up to me to ask what happened was Craig. He saw me as I was leaving Vice Principal Carapella’s office, on my way to gym. We talked for several minutes about what had happened. He gave me a high-five for how I handled the situation. It was maybe the second or third time in three years that anyone cared to ask me about what was going on with me outside of school. I told some of my other classmates what happened in Geometry class, as Craig had told a few others about our conversation. From my past and future crush to the Italian Club, all of my classmates seemed to care that I was all right. That whole twenty-four-hour period was overwhelming. Fighting off four muggers and chasing them for over a mile, my mother’s response to take me to the police and their tracking down of Corey, to my classmates’ general concern left me emotionally exhausted. I spent most of that evening at 616 asleep.
It would turn out to be the last time that I’d experience a mugging or a fight of any kind other than with my stepfather. Four muggings and robberies in all, at nine and twelve, and two at thirteen. It took about three weeks, but I tracked Jimme down, and, after collecting some money for the holiday season, gave Maurice his thirteen dollars. Within a couple of months, Corey and his gang had all gone to juvenile detention for what they had done to me.
It would also be the last straw for me as far as my identifying myself as a Hebrew-Israelite. I learned more about the human condition between the fifth and sixth of December than I had at any time before the summer before I started college. My classmates had shown a serious sign of maturity upon learning about my mugging. My mother took more initiative on my behalf in taking me to the police than I’d seen her take in years. The police actually cared about my case and didn’t play around in tracking down my assailants. I found that I was able to defend myself, something that I rarely thought possible.
I guess I also learned a small lesson in redemption. The fact that I had even a modicum of support was very different from the way my classmates might’ve treated me if Corey and company had gone after me two years before. Of course, I wouldn’t have been at Waldbaum’s by myself shopping that late in the evening two years before either. I must’ve done something right in middle school and in ninth grade, enough to where I redeemed myself as a decent human being in the eyes of my classmates. Despite this, I didn’t trust it, not completely. I realized that things would get back to normal in a week or two, and I’d go back to my loner role. And while I was happy that my mother came to my aid, I knew that this was a rare event. Expecting my mother to be there to support me was really too much to ask.
Most of all, I was pissed with Maurice and Maurice’s God. Maurice had sold us a bill of goods, and by the end of ’83 I wasn’t buying it anymore. Chanukah was just before my mugging. Yet we didn’t even have candles for the menorah, much less gifts celebrating the holiday. You could’ve argued that since we were among the Lost Tribes that Chanukah didn’t necessarily apply to us. The Lost Tribes didn’t make it back to Judea in time for the days of ancient Greece and Rome. That didn’t matter to me. If we really were Hebrew-Israelites, then we should’ve honored all of the major holidays. That Maurice was begrudging to his own children in putting food on the table, forget about giving them gifts, was enough for me to see that this was a religion for fools. Eating only kosher foods, living the Hebrew-Israelite lifestyle was quite expensive. Even with consistent income from welfare, we still had days without enough food in the house because of the kosher food issue.
Maurice worked, but no one benefited from the fruits of his labor. My stepfather spent more and more time away from 616. I’d see him sometimes at one of the local Chinese restaurants, eating everything they served, most of it as kosher as fried eel. I discovered that he’d knocked up a young Hebrew-Israelite woman within months of my mother becoming pregnant with Sarai. Nosy me also found out in ’82 that he’d been forging my mother’s signature to cash checks in her name. Chemical Bank (now JP Morgan Chase) had to call to verify my mother’s signature, and Maurice was on the verge of being arrested for fraud or forgery. Too bad he wasn’t.
This man was a lying bastard beyond belief. And knowing that made me think that the God that Maurice had brought into our lives was a bastard as well. “How could Yahweh leave us out here with this man, this fool, this evil person?,” I thought over and over again during the holiday season. I wanted God to answer my questions, to explain to me why our lives were so horrible when we worshiped him. Why did we fall into welfare, why did my mother marry Maurice, why was I such a mess? Despite my recent episode of bravery and receipt of support, all I felt in my heart of hearts was conflict, turmoil over my eternal life. I was no longer a Hebrew-Israelite all right. I had no identity, no belief system, no spiritual foundation from which to move forward with my life. I was a stranger in a stranger’s land, even a stranger to myself.
In a post from last December, I talked about Chanukah, Christmas and my fourteenth birthday spent contemplating and planning my own death. Sounds a bit melodramatic — in a parallel universe, I’m probably an actor. But I was serious. It was this little incident, this mugging and how everyone in my life responded to it that pushed me to consider my own worth, to others and to myself. Not my abuse, not my first crush, not even a sham of a religion that my family practiced. A mugging. Go figure.