How to Rob (or Not): When Muggers Ruled the Streets
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
“Entrapment” is such a dirty word. But late at night during a character-defining moment of subway solitude, is there really another name for it?
By Eugene S. Robinson
We’re in the middle of a hashtag explosion. Birthed by a raft of almost exclusively white women — #crosswalkcathy, #bbqbecky, #permitpatty — not just content on letting the law work its wonders, they’re compelled by the powers invested in them by their inalienable rights as protectors of crosswalks, barbeques and permits, mostly to call the cops. And mostly on non-white citizens.
While not as appreciated for their efforts as they might think they deserve to be, it is a symptom of the age that not only are their predations caught on video but following Warhol’s dictum regarding future celebrity: they’re “famous” — for about 15 minutes. But back in 1970’s New York City, when the murder rate per capita had climbed to 21.96 per 100,000 and police forces were being cut, there was a real attempt at a real solution.
Enter the then-30-something, 5’2”, 110-pound New York City police detective Mary Glatzle.
Also known as Muggable Mary, you could read about her adventures of urban derring-do on the daily in the New York Post. Appearing alternately as old women; old, blind women; and old, blind women on crutches, Mary’s job was to appear, as the name suggests, muggable. An endeavor that in the swelter of financial collapse, the infamous 1977 Blackout, a city in the serious grips of a heroin crisis saw her getting mugged during one shift five times.
These weren’t snatch-and-grab robberies either. Mary had faced down bats, guns and knives — real crime. Backed by a team of six other cops, they marked a very public attempt by the city administration to actually, really do something about crime. Which while it had leaked into pop culture at the time via movies — most notably Taxi Driver, The Warriors about street gangs, and Death Wish — was nothing compared to what it was like on the streets themselves.
I dropped my wallet in my coat’s left breast pocket in the hopes that it might prevent an errant knife from reaching my heart.
A random glance on the subway could just as easily devolve into a scuffle, or worse. And if I left the house as a teenager in this stew of psychoses and returned later than expected, my mother had a routine: First she’d call the city morgue, and then feeling a bit more optimistic, Central Booking.
She wasn’t the only one either. She and my stepfather rode the subway to work, I rode it to school, and later we’d convene over dinner and compare war stories. Unbeknownst to them, I had also started carrying a knife. And a heavy weighted sap, sort of a modified blackjack. More than that, I dropped my wallet in my coat’s left breast pocket in the hopes that it might prevent an errant knife from reaching my heart. The struggle was very, very real, and was very much about keeping as much distance between you and other New Yorkers. While they might be friends, after the Kitty Genovese killing and the public playing out of the bystander effect where collections of individuals found themselves unmotivated to help because they assumed everyone else would, they were unreliable friends at best.
So we kept our distance and rode the subways just hoping to make it out and back in one piece.
I’d developed what I thought was a genius counter-strategy too. Since bad guys were most often motivated by crimes of greed, they’d gather to where the greater number of people were. But I was also an adventure seeker and since no one sane — in my mind, most muggers were somewhat sane even if not totally smart — would ride the last cars of the subway, I routinely did so. Which meant that while waiting for the incoming train, I’d have to cop the bench furthest from any other possible collection of humans. Most of whom wouldn’t be caught dead in the last car, or if they were could most definitely be counted on to be dead.
So I waited for the now-defunct D-Train back to Brooklyn one night after swim practice. I sat on the last bench, right in front of what would soon be the last car on the next subway to pull into the station. That was when I saw her: an old lady. Crookedly leaning on a cane and making her way toward … the bench on which I was sitting.
…[S]he pulled her handbag to her lap, opened it up and started counting her CASH.
She walked alone, and her cane was not white so I assumed she could see and I’m very sure that what she saw was a muscular, Black teenager sitting by himself on a bench. Eyes red from forgetting his goggles at swim practice — and looking at her as she watched me.
I assumed she’d pull up shy of me and stand. I was prepared to let her have the bench since it was rare that an old white woman got this close to me anyway. But before I could move she sat next to me. And then a move that not a single other New Yorker in their right mind would have ever done even if Jesus Christ was sitting on the bench next to them: She pulled her handbag to her lap, opened it up and started counting her cash.
It would have been much more perfect if I had had the newspaper open in front of me as she did this, but I didn’t and didn’t really need one to know that I had come face to purse with Muggable Mary. I also knew at this point that my best bet was to get away from her as fast as I could without getting murdered by six of New York’s finest. No fast moves. No talk. No stumbling.
Stand, walk away and by the time I got closer to the center section where humans had gathered, I turned to look at her and shook my head, slowly and from side to side. Accidents happen and not being one of them was job number one. The train pulled in. I got on. Believing for the first time that there probably was something to all of that safety in numbers stuff. Just barely, but sometimes that’s all you need.