Why you should care
Because strangers sometimes are dangers.
Thirteen was a strange age. Just old enough to see the spread of possible futures rolling out in front of you, but still young enough to completely miss the fact that the future is promised to no one.
I had graduated from unassisted trips on my local Flatbush, Brooklyn, bus line to a basic primer on the subway, and subsequent subway riding, in 1975: Don’t stand near the edge of the platform when the train is coming in, don’t talk to strangers and don’t go anywhere with anybody. That and enough money to buy subway tokens was all I had and all I needed for the city to open itself to me, beyond Brooklyn, like something I had been waiting for my whole life.
Which is how it happened that I decided I had wanted to see Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. In a different story for a different day, I had made the mistake of dragging my parents to a double viewing of A Clockwork Orange and Deliverance, which, if you know the movies, equals about three hours of cinematic depictions of various forms of rape. Men raping women. Men raping men. Not the kinds of films that you want to be watching with your 13-year-old son. The experience was so tense that I decided, as a result of being a big fan of the book, to see at least the one film again.
It was playing at a theater in the far West Village, and I had train fare, a Sunday afternoon off and parents who trusted me. But trust or not, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.
And worse news: Now he’s 17 seats away. Then 10. Then six. I didn’t want to wait for the inevitable.
“I’m going to the movies.”
“OK. Be careful.”
And off I went, knowing damn well that if I had said “to the movies in Lower Manhattan,” I would have heard a very definable NO. Which was why I didn’t mention it.
Got to the train. It was a Sunday and the streets were fairly clear. It was a fall day, and walking the few blocks to the theater, I felt impressively adult. Bought my ticket and felt even more so. Found probably the best seat in the very empty house and scooted in for a tension-free film-viewing experience.
Fifteen or 20 minutes into the movie, people had started to filter in, but ultimately it was never more than about six, or maybe seven. Eating some popcorn, I was enjoying myself. But not so much that I didn’t notice a flash from off and to my right. Flash. Then nothing. Then 30 seconds later, another flash. Twenty flashes later, I finally had to look: It was the light from the screen reflecting off the glasses of a guy who was sitting about 20 seats away from me.
I was a city kid, and in city terms this was unqualified bad news. And worse news: Now he’s 17 seats away. Then 10. Then six. I didn’t want to wait for the inevitable. I had a creep on my hands. I had to get away from the creep.
So I decided to get as far away from him as possible. I picked the last seat in the top row of the balcony. Knowing what I now know about lunatics, it’s very plain to see that this would be construed as nothing but an invitation. Being 13, I didn’t figure out my miscalculation until he came and stood right behind me.
… [H]e saw me and now I saw his face was not blank anymore. It’s angry.
I don’t know how much time had passed, because I wasn’t watching the movie anymore. He stood there for what felt like a long minute before taking a seat nearby so he could watch me. I couldn’t relax now. Now I was tuned up, and in my state I figured the only way to get away was to hide. I went down to the concession stand, stood there for a bit and thought it through. He’ll know I’m nervous and think I left and will hit the streets looking for me. So instead of leaving the theater, I decided to hide in the theater.
Specifically, in the bathroom.
Where I waited just long enough for the colossal badness of this decision to strike me full force, so I decided to bolt. No movie is worth getting killed over. So I was out of the bathroom and on the streets and addled from a combination of fear and unfamiliarity. Instead of walking to the subway, I accidentally took a wrong turn and found myself in what I would now recognize as the Leather District, the ramshackle West Side Highway crippled and crumbling across the street.
As I tried to get my bearings, about half a block back I saw him following me and gaining fast. He was about 6 feet tall. No idea how much he weighed, but he was a grown adult man. His face? Blank but focused. I didn’t run since I knew to run invites being chased. And fortunately in front of me I saw a subway, and I dropped down the stairs only to discover that because it was Sunday there was no one in the booth to buy a token from.
I headed up the other side, across the street, and saw him disappear down the stairs I had just gone down. Across the street was another entrance with, I hoped, someone in the booth. And there was, and after buying a token I hit the stairs down to the platform. But it was uptown, and I needed to go downtown. Coming back up, I saw him buying a token and he saw me and now I saw his face was not blank anymore. It’s angry.
I slipped down the downtown side and moved down the platform. I figured he could follow me because he was following a blue down jacket with a gray hoodie underneath. Little Gray Riding Hood. I took off the down jacket and bundled it under my arm as a train came in, and I saw him looking in every door and watching who got on the other ones.
Another train came in, and now that there were two trains, I was watching him seethe.
I slipped onto the express train back to Brooklyn and didn’t relax until I got into the Prospect Park station, where I put my coat back on and told no one this story until I told my kids. Right around the time my oldest one turned 13.