by C. D. Hermelin
1. Back in May, at around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, a man stopped me on a busy street in the Financial District of New York City. We were under blue scaffolding, partially shaded from the bright, sunny day. He motioned for me to take my headphones out of my ears — a Strokes song was playing — and after I did, he said in a low tone, “Give me your phone and your wallet.”
2. I smiled. I tried to move out of his way. He got into my way again.
3. I asked, “Are you joking?”
4. He poked me in my side. I looked down and saw the barrel of a handgun sticking out of his sweatshirt pocket. We were on a wide stretch of sidewalk made less wide by the construction scaffolding, huddled near the temporary fence. I looked at the three construction crew members who had stopped moving their truck to watch. Across the street, down the block, even in the middle of Pearl Street itself, suit-wearing executives walked by with their own headphones in their ears.
5. I took my wallet out of my back pocket and gave it to him, but it was surprising to me how much time I had to think about this one action. I had time to weigh my options — perhaps I could give him just one of the two things he was asking for, and in that case, my wallet seemed less valuable than my phone. Right after I handed it to him, I remember that I thought: damn, I just bought a new monthly unlimited Metro card.
6. He put my wallet in his sweatshirt pocket, along with the gun. I tried to look him in the eye, but his wraparound sunglasses reflected my worried face. “The phone,” he said.
7. At the time, it seemed like cool logic, systematically argued and decided upon by a sober committee of experts: I should yell, get someone’s attention.
8. I did. I punctuated everything with a swear. “This man has a fucking gun! This man stole my fucking wallet!”
9. The construction crew members watched, suit-wearing executives walked right by.
10. There’s a long history of violence in broad daylight, of humans standing idly by while something horrible happens.
11. The man started to move away from me, keeping his side with the gun barrel pointed towards me. “Shut up. I will shoot you,” he said, rather calmly. I was not calm. Now I took out my own phone. He shook his head as I moved away from him and dialed 911.
12. A shot rang out. Not like in the movies. The three construction workers were watching us like we were.
13. I felt a searing pain in my leg, but the sound of the shot wasn’t deafening. I stayed on the phone, I spoke to the dispatcher. She told me to follow the man at a safe distance. She asked me to describe him. “He’s mid to late 40s, white male, not a lot of hair, heavyset, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt.” She made me repeat it. I interrupted myself to shout my refrain: “He stole my wallet! Stop him! He has a gun!”
14. Then he did a surprising thing: He stopped and threw the wallet at me. For some reason, that did not stop me from continuing the chase.
15. My leg didn’t hurt, which made me more brave. It dawned on me that the reason that the shot sounded quiet and I wasn’t writhing in agony on Pearl Street because the gun wasn’t real. It shot BB pellets.
16. We moved through a disinterested crowd, jogging around the block, three right turns, down a side alley. He turned around and faced me for the first time since he’d shot me, and then ducked into the entrance of an underground parking garage.
17. I didn’t follow him. I related it to the dispatcher, breathless. She told me to get inside my building and assured me that the police were on their way. She kept asking for me to repeat information, and then repeated the information back to me, incredulous. “In the financial district? In Manhattan?”
18. 40 minutes later, the police arrived. In the meantime, I was shaky. I felt strange. I went upstairs and told my boss at the leasing office what happened. She listened to the whole story, and laughed at some points, and apologized for laughing. She made sure I knew where the first aid kit was before she called her boss and told him the story. No, I’m not lying, I could hear her saying. I’m not kidding.
19. I went into the bathroom and looked at my leg, my upper thigh. The BB hadn’t even torn through my jeans, but the impact left a bleeding, nickel-sized circle of broken skin. I sat down and cleaned the impression with rubbing alcohol and Neosporin.
20. I read Bluets by Maggie Nelson while I waited for the police to arrive. I was surprised, when they showed up, how engrossed I was in the text. Diversion tactics.
21. They were apologetic for the delay. They were competent, kind and calm. I can’t remember their names. I do remember that it was the driver, the sergeant’s, last day. “I’ve never heard of something like this happening down here,” he said. I wanted to say, “Crime is up downtown, according to the Village Voice,” but I worried that I didn’t remember the article correctly, partially because I didn’t read the whole thing. Just the headline. If I read every word of every bad and scary thing published about New York City, and then believed it, it would inevitably turn into believing that any and all of those things will happen to me. Fear is only useful in small doses.
22. “This never happens,” he said again, but that didn’t help me feel any better. He sent his partner to go get tapes from the neighborhood’s security cameras. The Financial District is nothing if not well-watched.
23. (And yet.) I kept thinking back to pushing my way upstream, through all of the dark-colored suits filled with people that weren’t helping. In the course of 3 minutes, as we jogged through the Financial District, I hoped someone would see him running and stop him, the man running with a gun, chased by a twenty-something in jeans and a button-up shirt.
24. At the station for Precinct 1, the detectives offered me an ambulance, or, a “guy from MS” which I decided, from context clues, meant “medical services.” My leg didn’t hurt, so I declined. I thought about the last cop show I watched: “Elementary,” the modern, American adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. I can’t be the only person who ever ended up in a police station and pretended like I was in a crime show. I played “helpful confused guy” because that’s what I was and hoped that they would offer answers to my silent questions:
25. Am I safe? Is what I have, my memory of the event and your scribbled notes, enough to get this guy? Should I tweet about this?
26. I clicked through a database of mug shots. The sergeant who was in the middle of his last day told me that, “The right man will pop! out at you.” No one popped. Some of them were dead ringers for stand-up comedians. A lot of the men wore Hawaiian shirts.
27. They took pictures of my wound, which is an awkward position, halfway down my thigh. I had to unbutton my pants for their photo. They held up a business card for scale, and then gave me that business card as a contact.
28. I had blue underwear on.
29. I spent time in the station waiting for someone to come and swab my wallet for fingerprints. A flyer amongst others for protocol changes and police business announced the party for the Sergeant’s last day. I told the policemen that no one took notice of the incident. They shook their heads. One of them said, “typical.” I wanted a small amount of outrage, but instead I got bland acknowledgement. They had accepted that people don’t help other people. That’s maybe why they had become cops.
30. Months later, they still haven’t caught the guy. Or if they have, no one told me. I found an article about the incident that got nearly every detail wrong, which makes me wonder if the one new detail — that a knife and BB gun were found discarded in the area — is true.
31. Whenever I tell people about what happened, they are shocked that no one came running. My roommate is convinced that it would have only taken one person, and then everyone would have leaped into action. I like to think that if I had been around, and this happened to someone else, I would have changed my stride, but it’s impossible to know. And I’d rather not find out. It’s easier to have lofty ideals about yourself when they will probably go untested.
32. At that point, still waiting for the fingerprint specialist, my head had cleared. I thought about the Spiderman movies, which always have a part where New Yorkers rush to help Peter Parker. I know a superhero movie is the least likely thing to be based on fact, but I guess I hoped it could be grounded in some deep-seated truth about a helpful, New York City-based well of human kindness.
33. I traced my finger along my jeans, around the spot on my leg where the BB hit. The BB might still be on Pearl Street, I think, I could go back for it. I was mugged and then shot. But the mugging was reversed in moments, at the whim of my attacker, and the shot wasn’t a real bullet. It’s surreal, like details from a Kafka short story. I was mugged and shot, but I also wasn’t.
34. When the police released me, I went straight to a concert I had won tickets to, an invite-only performance by the National at the Park Avenue Armory. When I arrived, my friend hugged me, and we read our books in line. She stopped reading once in a while to ask me questions. Was I okay? Should we go home? Yes, and no.
35. The concert started. The band was bathed in blue light, swathed in shadows and made small by the cavernous armory, which reminded me of an empty train station. The place lit up with patterned spotlights and fog. The air filled with songs about melancholy at broken hearts and innocence lost. Even though I tried, I couldn’t remember any of their lyrics, so I couldn’t sing along.