The first time I got robbed was by a guy named Fifth Ave Rob. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was getting jumped by a legend. Or perhaps more accurately, I was helping him become a legend—I was likely one of the first conquests of this Park Slope-street-Genghis Khan of the early 2000s. I believe I was early on in Rob’s ascension to neighborhood bully because his tactics were unrefined when I first met him. In fact, he didn’t rob me at all, but simply punched me in the head.
I don’t want to give Fifth Ave Rob that much credit, because his blow was glancing, and was more frightening than painful. I also don’t want to give myself too much credit— I was hardly a budding Jackie Chan and more lucky that he went for my friend first. Jackson and I had been walking down Sixth Avenue from from his house one fall afternoon, on our way somewhere to do something. We never reached out destination, though, because we crossed paths with Rob first.
(I know what you’re thinking: You got punched by Fifth Ave Rob on Sixth Ave? Yes, as I mentioned, these were the early days and perhaps Rob was still honing his child-punching craft on the more deserted Sixth Ave at this point.)
I don’t want to give fate too much credit, either, because Rob had to make an effort to get to us. We were on the north side of Sixth Avenue, while Rob and two of his associates were on the south side. Without warning or reason, Rob crossed the street and, once he was within striking distance of Jackson, asked him “What the fuck are you lookin’ at, cracker?” before unleashing a right hook to his head.
I think we were 12 years old. I say this because we were old enough to walk around by ourselves, but not old enough to know what the word “cracker” meant. I had no idea why he would refer to us this way, and it seemed like an odd time to discuss Russian ballet. Yes, the only context in which I understood the word “cracker” back then was in reference to “The Nutcracker.” I really had no concept of what he was talking about, but I didn’t have much time to think about it because Jackson had run off in one direction and Rob stood between me and that escape route.
“The fuck are you still doing here?” he asked me, not politely, and took a swing. His knuckles made contact with my temple but it wasn’t direct enough to do anything more than shock me into turning and hauling ass to the corner of Seventh Street, rounding the corner and absconding to Fifth Avenue, which as I mentioned later became Rob’s main territory. I met back up with Jackson at his house so we could cry about it.
Before that day, Sixth Avenue had always seemed like the safe choice to me. It’s a residential avenue, lined with brownstone buildings and the occasional unassuming storefront. But after my first encounter with Rob (it would not be my last), I realized that nothing was sacred, there was no haven outside of my own home and that even in a “nice” neighborhood like Park Slope, I could be subject to violence if I wasn’t careful. Or even if I was. Such is the nature of things.
The first time I was truly robbed — as in, I got my shit took — was on a subway platform in Flatbush. I was 14.
My high school, Midwood, sat on the dividing line of two very different neighborhoods. On one side, to the west, there were Hasidic Jews who did not look at you and huddled together as they walked. On the other, just a few blocks east, was the Junction.
The Junction was a crossroads: Flatbush Avenue, a main artery of the borough, intersected with Nostrand Avenue here, but there are a number of semi-major streets that all come together nearby as well, a veritable clusterfuck. The 2 and 5 trains terminated at the Junction, and a number of other bus lines ran through it too. Back in my day, there was a Golden Krust and a McDonald’s and a bunch of other stores that ranged from no-name to shitty. It was always crowded and rarely pleasant, but it was convenient to school from the subway and didn’t require taking a bus to a train like the commute through the Jewish neighborhood required.
Because so many modes of public transportation came through the Junction, it was something of a stopover for people from all over —maybe they took the B44 or the B6 to the subway, or vice versa. As a result, kids from various schools besides my semi-prestigious institution would roll through there at the same time we would every day. Kids from Madison, Erasmus, Hudde, Murrow, Lincoln — they might all come through the Junction between 2 and 5 p.m., or really any time at all. As you know from me mentioning this backstory in the first place, not all of those kids were nice.
So I stayed after school one day with my girlfriend at the time and another friend. They wanted to shop for jeans at a store in the Junction, some place that specialized in pants or denim or something. The reasons why we had to go to that store, at that time, escape me now. But after twiddling my thumbs for awhile while they tried on pants, we went down into the Flatbush Ave train station through a lesser-used entrance that brought us down to the very end of the platform.
We walked down the platform towards the middle, over where the main turnstiles and the little box where a sad MTA employee usually sat with his head in his hands were. A train eased into the station, the way it always did when arriving at the last stop. Everything was normal, until suddenly it wasn’t.
Someone stepped in front of me and stood there, unmoving. I thought this was fairly rude and annoying but went to step around him. Another kid seemed to appear out of nowhere, perhaps behind him? and blocked my path again. I started to recognize a pattern, though I didn’t panic yet. I took another step and yet another one blocked my path. This took me from about the middle of the platform to near the end, by the tracks. Eventually, someone stepped around the wall of people that had been built in front of me and threw a punch.
Suddenly there felt like an infinite number of people jumping on me, pushing me back against the wall, raining blows on me. It was a pack of kids, mostly my age, maybe younger, ganging up on me. The smaller ones went into my pockets, grabbing my little blue brick of a Nokia phone, my wallet, my MetroCard. The medium-sized ones held my arms back and pinned me against the wall. The bigger ones hit me. One kid swung with an umbrella and made the only brutalizing contact out of all of them — he cut the bridge of my nose, dragging the metal tip within centimeters of my eyes.
As I struggled against this mass of chaos, the train finished pulling into the station. As my girlfriend and friend screamed for help, people got off the train and walked past, either oblivious to the pleas or unwilling to get mixed up in some Junction bullshit. No one stopped, and soon the platform emptied out. This all took about 15 or 20 seconds, and by that time the gang had its fill of me and took off running. As I stared down the platform in disbelief, a straggler ran past and punched me in the back of the head, laughing.
I ended up going to the police station and filling a nonsense report. I remember coming out of the bathroom, my hands balled in fists of rage, as a detective entered the hallway. “Whoa there, killer,” he said, trying to assuage me, smiling.
Later, as I told him about the final insult — the punch to the back of my head as I stood there in shock — he offered some advice. “Next time you’re up against a group like that, get your hands on just one. Just the one. And take it all out on him. Squeeze his fucking eyes out if you have to.”
That one stayed with me for a long time. The helplessness, the embarrassment, the rage. The false memory of grabbing the last kid and putting my thumbs through his eyeballs is as real to me as the blood that ran down my nose and onto the subway tile floor.
Another time at the Junction, I was standing with my friend on the street, having just purchased a couple of Cokes. A group walked up to us, and one guy said “Let me get a sip?” Unthinking, or maybe unconsciously understanding what the alternative might be, we handed them over. My friend even gave up his straw. I still remember watching them turn and walk away, the straw flung unceremoniously over a shoulder. It fluttered in the wind and landed at our feet.
A guy pulled a knife on me on the train. It was late at night on the F. I gave him all the money in my wallet, showing him the barren insides, and shook until the train reached the next step, at which point he jumped out of the car and ran.
One day, waiting for the F on the elevated train platform on Avenue I, I was approached. I was probably about 16 at this point, and though I was bigger than I used to be, and did not part my hair to aggressively to the side any longer, I still occasionally took the F home from school if I was by myself. To get to the F, you jumped on a bus in the Jewish part of the neighborhood and rode it past Ocean Parkway. It took longer than going through the Junction, but it was safer. Calmer. And there is an odd serenity to an elevated train platform in the afternoon, about as close to peace as you’ll find in one of the most hectic places on earth.
So it was probably about 3 p.m. and this dude, who approached, and I are the only two on the platform. The air was warm and the sun was bright, and I could just start to feel the manufactured rustle of wind that an oncoming train kicks up upon arrival. I wouldn’t have long to wait, but as I saw the guy — a kid, really — I could feel time slow down. He was about my height, about my weight, but he was black. At this point, I had become terrified of kids my age who were black approaching me with purpose on the subway platform. It was a frustrating prejudice to have but it was impossible to dismiss. I steeled myself.
“Ayo. Let me get a dollar?” he asked. This greeting was becoming a mantra for would-be robbers across the borough. I heard it all the time walking through the Junction, and up 9th Street on my way to the Monument to get stoned with my friends, and of course, on the train. “Let me get a dollar?” is a common foot-in-the-door technique, except usually the threats escalate rapidly from there until some kind of confrontation explodes. So I was no stranger to what “a dollar” actually meant. It meant hand over your shit or prepare to get rocked.
“Nah, man,” I said in a voice that held a lot less menace than I wanted it to. No matter how many times I practiced my tough guy routine at home — in the mirror, on my bed, silently to myself as I walked down the hallway and out my door and into the world — I never had the easy confidence and swagger that I hoped might protect me in some situations. If you come off like a bitch, you’re gonna get treated like one, so I tried my hardest to be cool. My voice always betrayed me, though. It wavered, it quivered. The adrenaline rushed so quickly through every fiber of me that I knew I wouldn’t be able to say another word. I was afraid.
“Aight,” he said, and walked away, down the platform and towards the oncoming train. That was it. I had stood my ground. I had triumphed without having to throw a punch — though a part of me still pulsed with anger and energy as I boarded the train. I had still never avenged myself for the beating at the Junction years earlier, and I wanted a shot. I wanted my tough guy routine to translate to real world toughness. I almost wished he had tried something. Almost.
That was my last run-in with someone who might have wanted to take my money and do me harm, though clearly he wasn’t too stuck on the idea. I had confrontations with people, sure, but I never had to face off with the stakes so high again. Either I continued to grow up and look less like an easy target, or Brooklyn changed, or I got smarter about how I walked and where I walked and when I walked where I did, or a combination of the above. But I also got lucky.
One night I was in Prospect Park with my usual group of friends, which ranged to as many as nine dudes who all wanted to smoke pot and go to the diner. We were on a grassy hill in the meadow, the street lights burning orange and the rest of the park an unknowable dark blur, when my mom called and told me to come home for some reason. I think it was dinner.
I was pissed because I was high and not interested in pretending otherwise, though I knew I would try to play it cool around my mom and sister and whoever else was home. So I said goodbye and took off for the 3rd Street exit to walk home.
A few minutes later, as I’ve been told, three guys walked up to my crew and started, for lack of a better term, hanging out. “Oh, y’all smokin’? We smoke too,” and shit like that. Just two ships passing way, way too closely in the night in Prospect Park. Ships should not pass so close, because usually one of those ships is trying to rob the other.
And sure enough, after a few minutes, one of the guys shouted “Now!” and the three pulled on some ski masks. I am serious. They pulled the masks on after they walked up. Then they took out guns and pointed them at my friends.
“Run your pockets.”
Ah yes, the running of the pockets. Yet another cliche that people had adopted when robbing you. So pockets were run: mostly wallets, cash and cards taken. It was a pretty decent heist, as robbing a handful of young stoners in a park goes.
Jackson was there. Jackson did not have his things taken, was allowed to keep his belongings. That’s because one of the assailants was Fifth Ave Rob. It’s not that Rob remembered Jackson from back when he was a Sixth Ave sucker puncher. He had gotten to know Jackson through some other people over the years, however, and had come to a kind of understanding with him over another beef involving Jackson’s younger brother. So Rob did not rob Jackson. But he took everyone else’s stuff.
Like I said. Sometimes, you’re just lucky.