Remembering My First Mugging
The racial/ethnic language in this piece is precisely what was used at the time. My apologies in advance if it offends anyone, especially my Italian cousins and black nephews.
In the aftermath of the Judge Brett Kavanaugh hearing on Thursday, there was a good deal of discussion about how much victims of a traumatic experience are expected to remember.
Although I have been seriously threatened on two occasions – kids, don't hitchhike – I have never been sexually assaulted. I have, however, been mugged. When I stopped to question what I remember about that incident, the answer was "everything." Although I was only nine years old at the time, I can corroborate my story. Prey to the unknowable logic of motherhood, my mom chose to paste the newspaper account of this, my first official mugging, in her scrapbook. I was in the fourth grade at the time.
Dad Avenges $3 Robbery
Three 11-year-old boys were arrested by the detective father of a 9-year-old boy whom the trio stopped on the street and robbed of $3 yesterday in front of 55 Myrtle Avenue.
As the Newark Evening News told the tale, I was returning home from the grocery store where I "had gone on an errand" – a quaint notion – when the three boys stopped me. One boy held his hands over my eyes while the other boys rifled my pockets. The trio then fled. I reported the incident to my father, "Detective William Cashill of the Youth Aid Bureau," and then we "toured the neighborhood" until I pointed out the boys. The three confessed and were released to their parents' custody. End of story.
Not quite. The truth, as always, was a bit more complicated. The three "older" boys were black. I did not resist when the one kid put his hands over my eyes because I thought the hands belonged to a friend of mine from the block. "Earl," I joked, "is that you?"
When some other hands grabbed me and started rifling my pockets, I realized it was not Earl, and this was not a goof. I turned to look, and even today I can see what I saw: the boys running away, the building they ran by, the exact spot where I was when they took my money.
At the time, I worried as much about my parents thinking me careless as about the crime itself. Three dollars may have been the most money I was ever entrusted with, the equivalent of about $25 today. I trudged home, crestfallen, and told my tale of woe to my mother, who prided herself on being no one's fool. Her first instinct was to challenge my story. Only when satisfied that I was on the level did she explode. I remember her very words. That day marked the first time I ever heard her use "black."
Lest the reader think my mother a racist, allow me to share one other story. Just a few months prior, my Cub Scout den mother invited us all to bring a new kid to the next meeting at her house. I brought my good friend Albert, a classmate since kindergarten.
All seemed to go well enough until meeting's end. Just as I was leaving, the den mother took me aside and dressed me down for bringing a colored kid. I didn't tell Albert, but I did tell my mother. Enraged, she picked up the phone, called the den mother, and roasted her royally. I remember her words that day, too. It was the first time I ever heard my mother say "guinea."
Politically incorrect she may have been, but my mother did have a rough sense of justice and was prepared to enforce it. Albert went on to become one of Cub Pack 115's most decorated scouts.
On the day of the mugging, we didn't tour the neighborhood, as reported, but went straight to the nearby Roseville Avenue School. I remember the principal as a heavyset white woman who assured us that none of her boys would ever do such a thing.
She suggested we go look at the Eighth Street School a half mile away. My father quietly reminded her that the crime took place about one hundred feet from her school's playground, that the boys in question were colored, and that her school had myriad colored boys from which to choose. "Well, you can look," she sniffed.
As we left the office, my father said, "The trouble with Jews is that they believe the coloreds can do no wrong." This was the first and only time I heard my father offer an opinion about Jews.
My father and I went from class to class. I remember how queasy I felt walking into each classroom. Other than race and the back of one boy's distinctive rayon shirt, I had no way to ID the perps. If I failed, I feared my father would disbelieve me. As we entered the last unvisited classroom, a goofy-looking kid in the first row pulled a book up in front of his face and held it there, shaking. He looked guilty.
"Dad," I said hopefully, "I think this kid might be one of them." When my father asked him to come up front, he blurted out, "I didn't take that boy's three dollars." As cops will tell you, crime rarely attracts the best and brightest. The kid quickly ratted out his buddies. It turned out that the rayon shirt I had identified was rayon only on the back. The front was a quilted pattern. I remember what it looked like. I remember feeling vindicated.
To this day, I remember the mugging as if it happened yesterday. But I had an advantage over the good Dr. Ford. I had not had even "one beer."