Not sure how interesting this post will be to others since it’s not about helping or insight. Just reflecting on my childhood. On the other hand, I suspect people have a morbid fascination about reading about crime and personal stories.
Talking to my sister recently about her comparing this generation growing up and our growing up, she commented on how our childhoods seemed normal to us but that they weren’t by the standards of most people she knew. I hadn’t thought about it, but agreed with her.
I just took for granted that most people got mugged a few times as kids.
Growing up in Philadelphia meant an urban environment. My family’s neighborhoods were residential, but within the city, and bordered some poor and dangerous neighborhoods, maybe a couple blocks away. From junior high on, we took public transportation to inner city public schools, passing through some of those neighborhoods.
When I was very young, actually, for a while we lived in a very economically depressed neighborhood where they distributed welfare food for free, which I posted on before. I loved the taste of the processed white bread, bright yellow mustard, and baloney, which I would now consider more like welfare to corporations unloading their lowest quality factory output for government money they probably lobbied for. I also remember our neighbors up the block having welfare peanut butter so sweet it tasted like candy. We only got peanut-only peanut butter (maybe with salt), not loaded with sugar and hydrogenated oil, so I loved eating theirs.
Anyway, I was mugged or robbed five times I remember. I’m sure there were more times. I think they were all when I was younger than 16 years old.
I was walking from my mom’s house to my dad’s. Two kids started walking, one behind me, one beside me. They told me to give them my watch. As a nerdy kid, I had an early calculator watch. I didn’t give it to them. It was broad daylight. I was probably around 10. The one next to me shoved me onto the grass, away from the street.
A car screeched to a halt, skidding. The men inside—plainclothes cops in an unmarked vehicle that just happened to pass at that moment—jumped out. One assailant dropped down and started crying. The other ran. One cop stayed with me. The other chased down the other kid and brought him back. I don’t remember much else about the incident.
Months later I was subpoenaed to appear as a witness in court. Although I was a victim of a crime, since the cops saw it, the state was prosecuting them, which made me a witness. I don’t remember the outcome of the case.
I was riding a bike with another boy my age. I was probably a few years older than in the last incident. I don’t remember who the other kid was—I think the son of friends of the family who were visiting. Maybe distant relatives.
We were riding in a park, along Wissahickon Creek. As the path approached a bridge over the creek, we slowed down to go around a couple older kids walking the opposite direction—that is, toward us.
As we passed them, they grabbed our handlebars. They were bigger. The guy who grabbed mine got his face into mine. I don’t remember his words, but he basically threatened me to get off the bike. I was scared and I did. At the same time the other guy took the other kid’s bike. Then they both rode off the way we had come from.
We walked back home and told our families what happened. Out of shame for not defending myself, I said that the guy who took my bike had a knife. I remember the father of the other kid saying, “No sense getting cut up over a bike,” which made me feel better. I never told anyone that the guy didn’t have a knife until now. I just felt so ashamed at giving up without a fight.
They called the police, who came to take statements. It’s funny for a police car to park in front of your house. It gets a lot of attention from neighbors.
Another time I was riding my bike home, alone, from the library. I’m pretty sure I was still in grade school. The ride was only a few blocks. As I was riding I noticed maybe five or ten kids riding behind me. I didn’t know why they were following me. At first I didn’t know if they were following me intentionally or were riding nearby. I zig-zagged off and on the sidewalk a few times, which they matched, which showed they were following.
One went in front of me and stopped, with the rest to my side and behind me. I was trapped. The ones in front started talking to me about something. I forget what. Like the first incident, it was broad daylight. Cars were going by a few feet away. I was obviously trapped and I tried to think of how to get the attention of drivers passing ten feet away to help me, but I couldn’t.
At one point I decided to ride away. When I tried to move my bike, two things happened. First, I felt the back wheel stuck on something. When I looked back, I saw one of the kids unscrewing the rear wheel. I saw what was happening. The ones talking to me were distracting me while one kid was removing my wheel.
Second, the guy next to me stuck a wrench in my face, implying he would hit me with it if I didn’t stay still.
I felt more trapped and more helpless. Why couldn’t the drivers see I was obviously being robbed?
Eventually they got the wheel off, as I stood helpless. I thought about the shame of telling my family of not defending myself. Rather than face the shame, I shoved the bike away and said, “Take the bike.” When I got home I said that when I got out of the library my bike was missing from the bike rack where I locked it. I must have said someone cut through the metal rope because my stepfather asked how I knew they cut it, I said, “Because I saw the metal rope cut through,” and he, reasonably, asked where the cut-through metal rope was. I said I left it there, which wouldn’t have made any sense.
Still, they accepted my story. I also didn’t tell anyone about what actually happened until now, again out of shame. Since all these things happened in the 70s, I feel like a different person today, but I’m sure hiding the shame for decades has influenced me in ways I haven’t thought about.
Another time I was with a different friend. We rode our bikes to the Art Museum. I don’t remember the details but I think it was a hot summer day because we were playing in the fountains to cool off. A bunch of kids came up to us and asked if they could try out one of the bikes. We said no. They kept insisting and insisting and insisting, saying they just wanted to try it for a bit and would bring it right back.
I don’t know why but eventually we said, “Okay, you can try the bike.”
One kid got on the bike, rode off, and all the other kids ran away. We were stuck there like idiots, the crowd of kids suddenly gone.
It must have been great fun for them to steal our bike. I don’t remember if they took one bike that day or both.
I think it was that time that my step-father drove us through some of the nearby housing projects to see if whoever took the bikes happened to be riding them. That was really something. Not that we had a particularly nice car, a Honda, but I remember everyone looking at us driving through. One person said loudly, “Candy white people.”
In high school, I was waiting at a bus stop with two friends. There were always big crowds waiting for the bus after school. In fact, we had walked in the opposite direction, toward Broad Street and Olney, from Ogontz and Olney, to catch it before it filled.
Anyway, a group of kids came through the crowd. I felt someone reach in my pocket. My pocket was already empty so they didn’t get anything, but I called loudly, “Why you try to pick my pocket,” in some non-standard grammar. Suddenly a kid had his face in mine, menacing. While I focused on that threat, not knowing what to do, suddenly I got hit in the jaw, almost like I got my lights put out. My friends told me that a different, shorter kid out of my field of view while the one kid distracted me punched me in the jaw.
They all ran away after the one kid punched me. Everything happened so fast I couldn’t do anything about it. My friends sympathized with me and explained there was nothing I could do about it. I still felt pretty bad. I forget if my jaw swelled up.
A few other incidents didn’t involve theft, but were comparably violent.
Once, on the block where they gave out welfare sandwiches, some kids put a firecracker in my pocket and it went off. I must have been six or seven years old. Why did they do it? I have no idea.
Another time on that block, for some reason I decided to walk around barefoot. There was a schoolyard down the block. When I went into it, I stepped on some broken glass. But I had gone far enough in without paying attention to where I’d stepped that I couldn’t get out without getting more broken glass in my feet. I had to walk home painfully, stepping into new shards, bleeding, each step grinding the shards deeper. My mom spent a while with tweezers taking it out.
I remember another time walking with a friend, Edward, on the other side of Germantown Avenue, in East Mount Airy I think, which at the time, in the 70s, was more dangerous, and some kids yelled, “Honkey!” at us. I’m not sure what they wanted to achieve. All the assailants in each of these incidents were black boys. I’m white, if you didn’t already know, so that would explain the choice of words, but not the motivation. I mean, to get the bikes and pick my pockets was to get valuable things. Why to call us honkeys, I don’t know.
When I was nine or ten, I traveled with my dad and two sisters to Israel. At one point near the Syrian border we stopped our car. I forget why but my dad was preoccupied with something—maybe directions or car trouble. Anyway, we were right by the fence that was the border. My sisters and I, by virtue of having had the same grade school teacher in turn, were all into bird watching. We saw a bird on a tree stump in a field on the other side of the fence. We walked through a gate and onto the grass toward the tree stump.
Suddenly my dad bellowed “Stop!” like he never had before. He told us not to move, but to walk back from the grass exactly the way we walked in.
We didn’t speak Hebrew. He did. It turns out a sign in Hebrew said that there were mines in that field. We had walked into a minefield on the border between Israel and Syria.
Years later, when I was in graduate school for physics at Penn, I lived in West Philadelphia. One night I was awakened by three loud gunshots. I’m pretty sure they came from the corner, maybe a hundred yards from my window. I don’t know what came of them. I guess it’s possible it was a car backfiring since I don’t know much about how gunshots sound, but I’m pretty sure they were gunshots.
Later still was when I was mugged at knifepoint in Amsterdam and talked my way out of it.
Results and reflections
Why did I post this? Partly because I think about these things from time to time. My sister bringing up the crime we grew up with is another.
Never having shared some of this before, I expected sharing it would open things up cathartically. Since writing it, I’ve wondered how these incidents affected me. So far in my life I’ve felt like I had a regular childhood. I don’t think anyone has it easy. If you happen to be born a Rockefeller, you still don’t have a life pass to happiness.
Now that I write it, I wonder how many people have been mugged at all, let alone five or more times. Is that common? I don’t know. I just thought it was.
Working on college campuses, I hear the terms white privilege and male privilege. They’re odd terms to think of in this context. I think it was safe to say I could fear for my life with a wrench in my face and a half dozen kids around me. Now that I think of it, one of the kids in incident #1 had a big rock in his hand. It’s hard to remember. It’s been a long time. I guess we could check the police report. Anyway, in each case, I and the other victim when someone else was there were white and the assailants were black. Everyone involve were boys, except the group of kids at the Art Museum must have had some girls in it.
Being mugged, threatened, and sucker punched doesn’t feel privileged. I know I didn’t mug or sucker punch anyone else, nor gang up on them. Anyway, I don’t think I ended up racist or sexist, but I remember, as a kid, noticing how many times I’d been the victim of black on white violent crime. Even then I think I sensed that bigger issues, like economic class, played a bigger role, though our living there suggested we didn’t have much money either.
On another note, when I was in high school I remember being picked on and not defending myself. I wonder if these incidents contributed to me feeling helpless to defend myself. Not sure.
Now I’m curious if psychologists, sociologists, or other -ologists have studied situations like mine and found trends. I’ve carried feeling of shame for a long time, feeling like I should have defended myself, and guilt for lying about the knife and the cut metal rope.
Part of me feels a sense of pride for overcoming adversity. I think our society values people who endured difficulty and rose above it. I’ve put big efforts into achieving things demonstrably solo, like getting a Ph.D., running marathons, starting companies based on my inventions. To get a Ph.D., nobody took my qualifying exams for me and nobody wrote a word of my thesis but me. Nobody took a step of my marathons for me. Nobody came up with my idea for my first invention but me.
Anyway, I’m 2,500 words into a personal, raw post. I could reflect forever. I’ll probably come back to this topic later, now that I’ve opened it up.
I’m curious if people care to share if they’ve been mugged with wrenches, knives, and so on, and, if so, how many times.
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