I talked my way out of a guy threatening me with a knife. Maybe it was the alcohol, maybe the girl earlier in the night, maybe the physics, but something gave me the courage. As we both walked away I kept looking back, worried he might come after me, but he never did, and I went to my friend’s place to sleep.
The year must have been 1998 or 1999 because I was close to finishing the lab research part of my thesis. The x-ray observational satellite I was helping build and calibrate was sponsored by the European Space Agency—ESA, Europe’s counterpart to NASA—and I had presented my results in Utrecht.
The results came from years of research and lab work culminating in a few numbers to characterize the physical model my advisor created for these optical components. It took a lot of lonely time in a clean room taking data. We needed to use a clean room because any speck of dust on any part would deteriorate the satellite’s functionality for its entire life. We were launching it into high Earth orbit, meaning we’d have no access to it ever again after launch.
The presentation went well. Since I didn’t get any impossible questions from the big wigs, the major part of my thesis would be to write up what I presented to them, putting me in the home stretch of a long, difficult time in graduate school. I also knew I was going to start a company after graduating, so I was looking forward to the next part of my life.
After the presentation in Utrecht I decided to stay with a friend in Amsterdam, in part to celebrate. He got a master’s degree in Astronomy at Columbia while I studied Physics and we shared an office for a while. We always had great times, I loved his sense of humor, and I knew some of his friends there from an earlier visit.
They took me out to drink the night I got there. My friend lived in a central neighborhood called De Pijp. He was going into business with his science degree. I forget the details about the others, except two women were flight attendants and lived near Central Station. For some reason I was supposed to stay on their couch that night. I don’t remember the details why, but everything was within walking distance. They had a flight the next day and had to leave the drinking early.
I had a lot to celebrate from the professional success and the new life to look forward to. Plus I was seeing one good old friend and a bunch of fun friends from a past trip. They were all ready for a great time. On top of everything else there was one super-hot girl in the group I hadn’t met before. One of the guys was fawning over her.
We ate, drank, and celebrated. At some point near when everyone was ready to end the night, that hot girl said she wanted to keep going out and asked me and me alone to join her. Why? I don’t know. But she was hot and I was drunk and in a good mood so I was inclined to join.
I had to work out a detail with my flight attendant hosts, though. They were cool with me doing what I wanted, but since they needed to sleep before working a transatlantic flight, based on the flight time, if I stayed out later, I had to agree not to knock on their door and wake them up until something like 4am.
So now I had success and a new life to celebrate, plus for whatever reason, the hot girl invited me out to dance. And I had to stay out for hours.
It turns out the club she wanted to go to was her boyfriend’s, so I guess she just wanted a guy to walk her in, nothing as exciting as I could have dreamed of, but I got to drink for free and keep celebrating.
Fast forward to around 3 or 3:30. The club closes. The girl heads home with her boyfriend and I had to walk slowly back to the flight attendants’ place, not to get there too early. I was still in a good mood and had some alcohol in me.
I walked along a street called Damrak, busy during the day and mostly empty at night, though not empty.
At some point I realized some guy was walking next to me. A teenager in a track suit, as I remember. Not too big or imposing. Just the one guy. I remember him seeming nervous. He started talking to me, saying something like “This is my street. If you walk on it you have to pay me.” I didn’t respond. Not anticipating serious trouble and full of pride from the night, I just kept walking.
He continued to talk to me. Since I didn’t respond, he switched languages, trying to get a response from me. So he was mugging me in multiple languages—an odd charm of Europe. At some point something he said made me laugh and he figured out I spoke English.
Then we walked side by side. I could see people within earshot so I still didn’t feel too unsafe. As I walked forward, I saw out of the corner of my eye that he pulled a knife out of his pocket. He was to my right and the knife was in his left hand, by his thigh, held discreetly.
Maybe I should have thought to myself that I should run or yell, but what I actually thought was, “Since his goal is to get money, he doesn’t want to hurt me. He doesn’t yet know that I saw the knife. As long as he doesn’t know I’ve seen it, he won’t use it.” So for a while I walked without looking down, him telling me I have to pay him. My confidence remained high from the night leading to this point. I think I also felt that living in New York made me tougher than average.
After a while of walking with the knife there, he started telling me to look down, which I didn’t do, since I felt safer with him not knowing I saw it.
Eventually either he turned first or I did but we faced each other and he made it obvious he had the knife.
I used to ride bikes a lot back then. Locking a bike in Manhattan is risky because thieves know how to break any lock. The idea in locking a bike in New York City, then, isn’t to make your bike impossible to steal, but to make it harder to steal than most other bikes. I knew that principle from all my riding and locking my bike. It’s like the two guys camping when they see a grizzly bear. When one puts sneakers on, the other says, “You can’t outrun a grizzly bear,” to which he replies, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I only have to outrun you.”
Somehow I had that perspective in my head then.
Facing the guy, now opening brandishing the knife, still very nervous, while I remained calm and confident, I gestured to the distant people and said, “Look at all those people. Any of them would be easier for you to get money from than me. Why don’t you mug them?”
He looked at me like who would say such a thing. He looked like he was trying to figure out what to do. Then he turned and walked away.
I still felt calm, maybe more so now, having solved a big problem. I watched him walk away until I felt he was far enough away that he couldn’t surprise me. Then I continued along the Damrak. I felt nervous he might sneak or run up and stab me in the back so I kept looking back.
Eventually I arrived at my friends’ place, still too early to wake them. I waited outside until they said I could knock. I told them someone had just mugged me. They weren’t sure whether to believe me or not, but they had to catch a flight.
So that’s the story of my talking my way out of a guy mugging me at knife in Amsterdam around 3am one day.
If I remember right, soon after I got back to New York, I went with my ultimate team to compete at Nationals, then a couple weeks later ran the New York City marathon. The following summer I defended my thesis, so the mugging must have happened in 1998, and about a year later my first company got its first funding and I shifted to a new direction as an entrepreneur.
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