Do As I Say, Not As I Do

The First Essential Scary Truth


After depositing my stuff at my dorm at 10th Street and Broadway back 21 years ago for my freshmen year matriculation to NYU, my parents took me to the South Street Seaport for lunch and parental advice.  Start a checking account, create a budget for yourself, study hard, don’t try to out hustle the monte dealers etc.  I wasn’t listening too much of what was said, I was way too excited about finally being on my own in New York.  I wanted to ditch Mother and the Old Man and get on with the business of being a New Yorker.  Dad knew I wasn’t paying attention to him, so he waited until Mother went to the bathroom.  He grabbed me by my right forearm.  “Listen to me.  I said listen to me,” he said.


“I am,” I replied.


“Ok then.  Look me in the eye, look me right in the eye,” when he used that Detroit street lingo you knew he was serious.  You never knew, however, if the Old Man was trying to impart a life lesson or give you a betting tip.  The one thing you did do was pay attention, if only so he wouldn’t scream at you in a foreign language.  “If someone mugs you, give them everything they want.  Everything.  Offer your shoes as well.  That should make them happy.”


Odd advice and potentially practical, I thought.  I filed it away for that moment when someone did come up to me with a weapon and demand my money.


It took four years but I was mugged for 90 cents in January of 1991.  Some friends and I were hanging out in the late, lamented Brownies, a venue that would become an important place for up and coming College rock bands to play in the mid to late ‘90’s.  At this point, it was just a new joint in the neighborhood with a small stage, a microphone plugged into a Fender amplifier and cheap beer. Around 2am, it was soon to be my round and I realized I hadn’t gone to an ATM before we walked in.  I wandered down Ave. A to the nearest bank, on the southeast corner of East Fourth Street.  


The Lower East Side was still the Lower East Side back then and I should have known better than to wander down to an ATM in a dangerous neighborhood.   But off I went, slightly boozed up, to get some cash.  A pleasant homeless gentleman in the filthy grey hoodie opened the door for me and followed me inside.  After I had dipped my card and made my selections, he attempted to grab the $40 I withdrew.  I won our grabbing match for the cash and shoved it in my pocket.  My assailant punched me in the chest and stood in front of the glass doors.  “You ain’t getting out of here until I get some money,” he said.


My first reaction was to walk over, slug the guy in the mouth and get the hell out of that ATM vestibule.  I am a big barrel chested guy or Irish and Eastern European decent.  You know, genetically predisposed to working in the fields; so punching me in the chest was simply going to get my attention, nothing more.  Then what the Old Man had said hit me, give him what he wants.  I pulled 90 cents out of my pocket, handed it to him and he opened the door for me.


I was insulted.  I had $40 in my pocket and this bozo settled for 90 cents?  What was I, mugged my a K-Mart Blue Light Special?  I found a cop car four blocks up, told them what had happened, they threw me in the back of the car and drove me back to the ATM where, wouldn’t you know it, the same guy was opening the door for more urban pioneers who didn’t have a clue how violent their concierge was.


The two officers threw him against a car and affected a pat down search of his person.  They threw two knives, a pistol, four vials of crack and three cheap pints of vodka on the sidewalk.  Once handcuffed and in the back of the cruiser, my mugger started hurling threats at me.  “When I get out, you’re f****** dead,” was the mildest thing he said.  I stood their and calmly gave my information to a police officer, silently thanking Buddha I hadn’t swung at the guy.  Finally, when the latest trail of aspersions was hurled at me, one of the cops couldn’t take it anymore.  “Shut the f*** up.  Do you think you’re scarring him?  He’s from Detroit,” he screamed.


The officers and I had struck up a conversation while we drove back to the ATM and they had asked me about my hometown.  At first I felt violated all over, by the police, the mugger.  Jesus, how could these cops tell my assailant anything personal about me, I wondered.  So much for the professionalism of the NYPD.  The mugger asked to speak with me.  His hands were cuffed behind his back so I felt safe enough to approach the window in between the two of us.


“Are you really from Detroit,” he asked.  I nodded.  “Look man, nothing personal,” he said.  “I was just trying to get paid.”


The next day, when the ADA called me, I offered to testify if the case went to trial.  He told me that wouldn’t be necessary.  It turned out the guy was wanted on outstanding drug and attempted murder warrants.  His attorney had already asked if they could plead out on both counts.  The ADA told me he would receive the max: 25 years to Life sentence.


Dad, it turns out, was right – although I would never ever give him the satisfaction of knowing that fact.


Two and a half years later, the Old Man and Mother were visiting the city and we decided to have lunch in Chinatown and the walk across Bowery to the Lower East Side for some of Gus’ Pickles. 


There is an old axiom that states Jews know two things: suffering and where to find good Chinese food.  The three of us had the good Chinese for lunch and were about to find the suffering.  While walking along Canal, two blocks from where the Manhattan Bridge and Bowery collide, we had managed to pick up four young neighborhood toughs.  My father looked every bit the unsophisticated tourist, dressed in a Tigers baseball hat, a ratty button down shirt sleeve shirt, light blue shorts, black socks, sneakers and half his net worth in gold chains, rings and jewelry.  I kept hurrying my parents along, hoping if we could get across Bowery before they were able to close the half a block gap between us, we wouldn’t die. 


We made one light but got hung up at the intersection of Canal and Broadway.  I had just broken in my new boots and now I was going to give them to these four want to be gang bangers all because of my immigrant father.  I was taken completely off guard when he turned to confront the four young men.


“Do you know who I am,” he said.


They stopped and starred at my father, not knowing quite what to make of the little man in front of them.


“Do not f*** with me, I’m from Detroit,” the Old Man said.


The leader of the four gave me a slight nod in what I took as empathy, maybe he had an Old Man who was just as nuts as mine, said something in Chinese and the four walked back to the street they came from.  Mother seemed oblivious to it all.  Dad swore in Yiddish and we continued to make our way to the Lower East Side.


I guess the lesson the Old Man was trying to teach me was do as I say, not as I do.

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