When a Philosopher Gets Mugged - OZY | A Modern Media Company

When a Philosopher Gets Mugged

When a Philosopher Gets Mugged

By Eugene S. Robinson



Because if a philosopher is mugged in the park and there’s no one around, he might not make a sound.

By Eugene S. Robinson

“Where you from?” I stood way too close to him and probably talked way too loud. But I’m from New York, and that’s my way.

“Orange.” Mike was quiet, contemplative and rabbinical, with the beard to match.

“New Jersey?” Most New Yorkers don’t consider Jersey part of New York, but as we were in California, Jersey was much closer to NYC than California and I was excited.

“No. Orange, California.” This is the first conversation I remember having with my freshman-year roommate. Based on our applications, it should have been clear that while one of us was the real deal, the other was a dilettante.

While I had wrestled, Mike was a wrestler, of the state champ variety. While I was into philosophy, he was a philosopher. Regardless, we got on like a house on fire. So much so that, at the end of freshman year, we decided to meet up in New York at the end of the summer and drive back to California with two other classmates.

The kid took a drag on the joint and passed it back to Mike. They talked about other things. Then, a pause, and strangeness ensued.

To get to New York, Mike decided to go the hobo route and hitchhike, on freight trains.

Like I said: the real deal.

And because God loves fools and romantics, Mike made it. Yes, there were near misses and almost hits, but he was neither bent nor broken while riding the rails. This despite his sporting an expensive watch given to him by his father as a graduation present.

Mike caught the trains without falling beneath them. He was chased but not caught by rail yard cops. And he wasn’t robbed by any of the other roughnecks who still travel across the country by train.

I got to New York via American Airlines.

When Mike reached NYC, a place he had never been to, it was as though he had stumbled on a third rail. The city thrilled him. Fired by the spirit of adventure, he headed out during the days to find whatever fortune sent his way.

It was 1981 and the city had just endured what The New York Times called the “worst year of crime in city history.” The murder rate in 1980 was 4.7 percent higher than the year before, with 1,814 people killed. Robberies were also through the roof.

None of that fazed Mike. “I’m going to Central Park today,” he announced.

My mother flipped out when she found out. “You let that boy who’s never been to New York before go ‘wandering’ around?” she berated me. “Lord, I hope we’re not having to call his parents when he turns up dead.”

Not if, you’ll note. When.

So when Mike didn’t show up at the agreed-upon time, I got nervous. Eventually, he did show up. What had taken him so long? Had he gotten lost? In the city or just in thought?

“I got mugged,” he said.

Cue the flip out when my mother heard.

“I’m OK,” he said. “No worries.” The story as it unspooled was a doozy. Mike had wandered into Central Park, near Columbus Circle. It had been a balmy summer day, and he walked through the park digging the Frisbee players, the joggers, the kids in strollers, all of them with a certain kind of New York cool.

“Hey, you want some weed?”

The question came from a kid about Mike’s own age, 19. “I don’t know how he knew I might,” Mike said, and I laughed, my mother at this point having gone to bed. See, Mike looked for all the world like a hippie, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for the dealer to assume he’d be interested.


From left: Mike, our classmates and me, right before the drive back to Cali.

“So we climbed the rocks, sort of up into the woods.…” The New Yorker in me was dying by that point. I’m the same New Yorker whose mother had advised him when he was young to not go anywhere with anyone because “there was this boy in my neighborhood who did and they cut his penis off!

Mike’s mother had had no such helpful advice for him, and so off he wandered into the brush with the kid, who, as luck would have it, actually did have some weed. He gave Mike the joint and lit it and they smoked in quiet while looking out at the park.

Eventually the kid spoke. “I been hanging out in the park the whole day,” he said. And then sadly, almost sorrowfully, he pulled a knife on Mike. He didn’t brandish it, more just held it in the palm of his outstretched hand.

“I was going to rob somebody,” he said. Mike just sat there, waiting for what felt like the inevitable. “C’mon, gimme,” the kid said.

Mike passed over his wallet. The kid nodded silently at Mike’s wrist, and Mike handed his watch over too.

The kid took a drag on the joint and passed it back to Mike. They talked about other things. Then, a pause, and strangeness ensued.

“I can’t do it.” The kid, his face a rictus of regret, bent his head and repeated, “I can’t do it. You’re a nice guy. Here, take it.” He shoved the wallet and watch in Mike’s direction.



“No, you keep them.” Mike was refusing his own stuff. A battle ensued. The dealer pushed Mike’s stuff at Mike; Mike pushed it back, saying between puffs of a soon-to-be-dusted joint, “If case you need them.”

Then a solution, reached by mutual agreement: The kid would keep the cash, outside of subway fare, since Mike needed to get back to Brooklyn. And Mike would keep the watch as it was a gift from his father.

They sat and talked until it started to get dark, then bid each other adieu. Mike eventually got his Ph.D. in philosophy. No idea what became of the kid. But, as I’m fond of reminding my mother, they both still have their penises, so there is that.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories