I pulled my woolen hat down over my ears to protect them from the frigid December air. It was only 7 p.m. but already pitch dark.
I hadn’t seen my friend Kris in several years. We had attended college together in Cleveland. Now, by coincidence, we both lived in Chicago. She had invited me to her Christmas party. I looked forward to seeing her and several other college friends who now lived here.
I turned onto Kris’s street. She lived eight blocks further down.
The houses were set far back from the street. Christmas lights adorned many of them. Both sides of the street were jammed with parked cars. There were no other people in sight, and no streetlights.
I walked quickly.
I heard a noise behind me and turned to look. An African-American man in his 20s was walking behind me, and we made eye contact. He wore a hood. I recognized him from the train.
Though I felt a bit of apprehension, I did not want to entertain that feeling, because it seemed rooted in prejudice. I continued on my way.
Suddenly he was close behind me, and then walking beside me. We were the only two people on this long, dark street. He did not pass me, but stayed beside me as we walked.
I clutched my backpack more tightly.
Finally he spoke: “I saw the way you were lookin’ at me.”
I replied, “I don’t know what you mean.”
“I said I saw the way you were lookin’ at me back there. It wasn’t very nice. I didn’t do anything to you.”
“I know you didn’t do anything. I just heard a noise and looked, that’s all.”
We continued walking throughout this conversation.
He asked, “What’re you, stupid?”
“You know what you’re gettin’ ready to do?”
“Give me all your stuff.”
I kept walking, in silence now. As afraid as I was, I also felt a stubborn defiance. It was not right for him to rob me, and I had no intention of letting it happen.
Throughout our confrontation, I surveyed the parked cars in case there might be another human being in any of them. We were on the left side of the street, and I was on the young man’s left, so I could scan the cars without his being aware. I believed that he would probably abandon this attempted robbery if there were other people around.
“I’m not messin’ around, you fool. Give me all your stuff.”
“Hey, I’m not looking for any trouble here.”
“Give me all your stuff, unless you want to get hurt.”
Just then I noticed two parked vehicles with people in them. The two vehicles were facing us, and we were rapidly approaching them.
The first was a minivan with a woman in the driver’s seat, a man in the passenger seat, and an adolescent girl in the back seat. The second was a small car, parked immediately behind the minivan, with a man in the driver’s seat and a woman in the passenger seat.
All five people were watching us.
I was careful not to give the young man any indication that the people were there.
As we passed the minivan, I broke into a sudden sprint and ran between the two inhabited vehicles and stood in the street, on the other side of the car.
The move had caught my tormentor by surprise. And he had now seen the five witnesses.
He stood, frustrated, on the sidewalk.
I didn’t think I could beat him in a physical struggle, or outrun him. He was taller, stronger, and more athletic than I. So my strategy now was to keep a vehicle between us at all times and hope that one of these five people would call the police. I had no back-up plan. I did not own a cell phone.
He began to walk clockwise around the car. I walked too, so that the car was always between us. We circled the car, each holding the other’s gaze, hard and intense.
After several revolutions, I altered my path to form a figure “8” around the car and minivan, and he followed.
The five people in the two vehicles watched in silence.
After we made several figures of 8 around the car and minivan, he suddenly stopped and so did I.
Each of us was positioned next to the car. He was on the street and I was on the curb. He extended his hand over the top of the car and said, “Shake my hand.” I did not offer my hand. We stood still and stared at each other.
Both doors of the car suddenly opened and the man and woman exited quickly, each holding multiple bags of groceries. They hurried away toward one of the houses on the other side of the street. I only saw this peripherally, because the two of us were frozen, staring at each other. The man and woman had come within inches of my attacker and me respectively. I said nothing as the young couple rushed to safety. Somehow their exit from the scene seemed to happen within a fraction of a second, yet also in slow motion.
I darted back to the minivan. People were my only hope of safety.
I noticed that the woman in the minivan was now talking on her cell phone.
The young man followed me and we now walked clockwise around the minivan as the family watched us.
Now he too noticed the woman talking on the phone. He looked at me with hate. He punctured the silence with a simple declaration: “You’re going to pay.”
As we circled the minivan, I thought it strange that here were three people only a few feet away from me, yet they were safe and I was not.
I felt like an animal being hunted. I feared for my life. Yet for some reason the thought of simply surrendering my backpack had long since disappeared.
He began to curse. He walked faster and so did I. Now we were jogging. And now running. And now sprinting.
When he caught me, we were in front of the minivan.
In his rage he threw me down against the hood. As my body slammed onto the hood, I looked through the windshield at the three people who, in turn, looked at me. Suddenly I was sure that the guy must have a knife. Through my terror, I prepared to fight and I thought I might die very soon.
Incredibly, I suddenly heard a siren and saw flashing lights and now two policemen were saying something (I don’t remember what) to us and separating us.
Suddenly cool, the young man said, “This guy’s bothering me.”
One of the policemen asked me, “Is that true?”
I was now on my hands and knees in the middle of the street, shaking with terror and rage. In this moment, I was more animal than human being.
More police cars were appearing with lights flashing. Interested residents were stepping out onto their porches to observe the spectacle.
Somehow I managed to answer the police officer: “No sir.”
* * * *
Several long hours later, at the precinct, the state’s attorney told me that a series of muggings had taken place in the neighborhood. Therefore, police officers had been patrolling the area on this particular night. That’s why they had responded so quickly after the woman’s 911 call.
* * * *
I do not recount this story with pride; for it does not speak well of me.
If I had fought off the mugger, I could tell this story as a brave man.
If I had simply given him my backpack rather than risk my life for a few replaceable possessions, I could tell this story as a wise man.
But running? What kind of man runs away when he is being mugged? The image is almost comical.
Yet there it is. That’s what I did. I cannot go back and change it now. All I can do is tell you the truth, and let you think what you will.
You may wonder what you would do under such circumstances.
I hope that you never have to find out.
Ranjit Souri (email@example.com) manages a theater school and teaches writing classes in Chicago.