Why you should care
Moments of carelessness need not lead to lives of regret.
I was street smart. Years of wandering through some of the more untamed streets of New York — as a gang worker with the New York City Youth Board and as a reporter for several daily newspapers — had given me an instinctive sense of when to make a move or when to duck. You watch for cues. Avoid dark building entrances. Study rows of parked cars that might be hiding would-be assailants. Act like you belong.
I perfected the vaguely pissed-off scowl and the ready-to-rumble body language required to navigate some of those dark corridors. No friendly smiles for passing strangers. Stay alert, never look afraid.
I even took a course in “street fighting” taught by the famous Charles Nelson. My stepson and I together learned Nelson’s “Mongolian wrestling techniques,” designed not for finesse but simply to maim and cripple would-be attackers. All of this seemed to work fine until one night in June 1986 when I crossed paths with a seasoned street robber with a potentially lethal technique. Call him the Choke-Hold Bandit.
By then, I’d seen my share of violence. During the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, thugs operated brazenly in New York. Vacant-eyed felons walked around at night, sizing up passersby for ease of victimization. Many of my Lower East Side neighbors were, despite the state’s strict Sullivan Act gun control law, packin’ heat.
I heard a commotion and started to swivel, when a paralyzing weight landed on my shoulders.
On my rounds as a reporter and gang worker, I often found myself wandering through some of the most dangerous streets in the city. I have seen two men die violently in front of me, one a small-time drug dealer who was shot between the eyes by an unhappy client in front of my building on East 4th Street, the other a man in Queens who made the mistake of fending off a knife-wielding attacker with a karate kick (he bled to death on a sidewalk after the attacker slashed his tibial artery). I have been close enough to numerous freshly murdered victims to reach out and touch them.
So maybe it was my body language. Maybe it was because, being the only white guy around, the felons thought I might be a cop. Or maybe it was because I wasn’t just some ordinary citizen who had stumbled into danger. I was a role player. A reporter. A “youth worker.”
Whatever it was, I got by — until that night in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
My wife, Robbin, and I had come to Brooklyn from Manhattan in search of low rent and space. We found it in a brownstone on Hancock Street, where, for two-thirds of what we were paying for a studio in Manhattan, we got two floors with bay windows and 12-foot ceilings.
Bedford-Stuyvesant has been a neighborhood of ups and downs, rich and poor for more than a century. Right now, it’s in a gentrification phase, they say. In 1986, though, it was a community under stress.
But we’d been at a party in Manhattan, and we took the A train to our usual stop at Fulton Street and Nostrand Avenue. We stopped off to scour for snacks at a convenience store on Nostrand, then we headed home, a block and a half away.
We were talking about the party we had just attended and didn’t notice the three men who had turned onto our block behind us. Robbin turned around and said something like, “Who are those men?” I heard a commotion and started to swivel, when a paralyzing weight landed on my shoulders. A very large person was squeezing my neck in the crook of his elbow. As I struggled to get away, I saw another man holding my wife by both arms as she kicked at his shins and cried for help.
I reached out to rescue her, swinging wildly at her captor and missing by a mile. I struggled some more and then blacked out.
I awoke a few minutes later, half draped across a parked car. Robbin was there, looking at me with concern. She said that the big guy and another man had worked me over, ripping off my back pocket to get my wallet and taking whatever else they could find.
The cops arrived a few minutes later, and they took Robbin in a squad car to search the neighborhood. No luck.
We finally got home at about 11 o’clock. The robbers had gotten $10 and some credit cards, but my keys were missing. We pictured the trio coming back that night to burglarize our apartment. I was already in a state of hyperactive paranoia. I found a baseball bat and sat on the couch near the door, hoping that the robbers would show up. I paced the room, picturing myself beating them bloody. Robbin gave me a look and then went to bed.
Vengeance was to be ours the next day, though. It seems that the 6-foot-4 bruiser who had choked me out had tried the choke-hold gambit on another Bedford-Stuyvesant victim, and the police had gotten there in time to apprehend him. Robbin and I — and a bevy of other choke-hold victims — were summoned to the precinct to view a lineup.
Robbin, one of a handful of people who’d ever gotten a good look at the bruiser in action, picked him out. It seemed that for months he’d been fine-tuning the choke hold, pressing on the carotid artery until blood stopped flowing to the brain, knocking people out with a minimum of violence. He had even used the technique to creep up on moviegoers, putting them to sleep in their seats and slipping out with their wallets, detectives said. Best of all for the perpetrator, there were rarely witnesses to identify him because he snuck up from behind.
Six months after the robbery, Robbin and I moved to California. We stayed in touch with the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, and Robbin was supposed to fly back to New York for the trial. Then we got word that the mugger was taking a plea. We sort of put the whole thing out of our minds. It wasn’t one of our fondest memories.
Today, the DA’s office doesn’t have much information on the case at hand. His rap sheet indicates that he actually served six years for that string of choke-hold attacks. Not much, you might think, for a series of vicious attacks. “Seven years is maximum for a second-degree assault — and less with the plea,” a source at the DA’s office said, apologetically. “No disrespect to you, but we had 300 homicides that year.”
Since then, his prison stints, and more robbery and assault charges, have continued. More victims sent to dreamland, I’d guess. He’s currently at Green Haven Correctional Facility, admitted in 2004, eligible for parole in 2022.
A few days after the robbery, I spoke to my stepson. He listened sympathetically. He asked about my state of mind (I was as wired as a trolley car for the next month or so), and then he reminded me of our sessions with Charlie Nelson.
“There are things you could have done,” he said.
In one class, Charlie had actually introduced that very scenario — being choked from behind. “So what are you supposed to do?” I asked. “Turn sideways so the pressure from the guy’s arm rotates off of your artery and windpipe,” he said. “Then go for his balls.”
Ah, why didn’t I think of that?