What is a mayor’s job? Ensuring freedom from fear, Myron Magnet says:
For New Yorkers of my generation, a keynote of our youth was fear. Deserted streets at night felt as ominous as a film noir, and if footsteps echoed behind you, they rang with menace. As you neared your apartment building’s entrance, your heart pounded as you fumbled to get your key at the ready, so you could unlock the front door and slam it behind you, before an unseen mugger could run up and push into the lobby behind you, as happened once to me — and I still don’t want to talk about it. This typical mugger’s trick befell one of my Morningside Heights neighbors, a bank computer programmer, much less lucky than I: his assailant didn’t just rob but also killed him.
Home, when you got there, was a mini-fortress. We had triple locks on our doors, and we were expert in the competing merits of the different varieties — the deadbolt, the Segal (though debates raged on the most pick-proof cylinder), and the top-of-the-line Fox Police Lock, with its four-foot steel bar wedging the door shut from a steel-lined hole in the floor. We had steel accordion-grates over any window that opened onto a fire escape. The fire department deemed them illegal, but our fear of death by fire was nil compared with our fear of death by housebreaker — all the more so, for me, when I found an inexplicable hatchet one morning on my seventh-floor fire escape. Still, all the locks in the world availed naught for a friend of mine mugged at gunpoint late one night on the Upper West Side. The robber emptied his wallet, saw from his ID that he lived just up Broadway, forced him to march there and unlock his door, tied him up, and stole everything he could bundle into the sheets stolen from his victim’s bed.
Late one night, unsettling sounds drew me to my apartment window. In the street below, a large black man fiercely swung a length of two-by-four at another, much smaller white man. Thwack! “Why are you doing this to me?” the victim cried. Thwack! “Why are you doing this to me?” The police came minutes after I called them, but a lot of damage can happen in a minute. Some years later, returning from the action thrills of the newest James Bond movie, I saw the flash of police-car lights and a crowd in the street outside my building, too thick to see what was happening. Entering my apartment, I found my wife and her sister with chairs drawn up to the dining-room window, watching spellbound as a rubber-gloved forensic cop bagged evidence, while the janitor of the building across the street hosed away the blood of a man just shot to death by the drug dealer he’d tried to cheat.
A New York–born friend says that for him, the emblem of those days was the drug gang he’d pass on his daily walk across the scraggly dust bowl that neglected Central Park had become. He’d give the dealers a hard, law-and-order stare as he strode by, as if to say, “You can’t do this in my park.” But they would return a stare so murderously malevolent that they soon cowed him into dropping his eyes as he passed. It’s their park now, he concluded ruefully. On the street, too, and especially on the subway, we all studiously avoided eye contact. Who knew? — some maniac or monster might interpret a look as a challenge and answer with a knife or a box cutter. As for the dirt-caked, tangle-bearded homeless people — mostly deinstitutionalized or never-institutionalized madmen — they might be harmless, but one of them would push somebody in front of a subway regularly enough that you couldn’t be sure. So they’d make the adrenaline flow.
When taking a walk, you knew to carry as little cash as you might need, but not so little that a mugger, enraged at the paucity of his take, would punish you with violence. The official police message was: Never resist, never talk back, or else the robber might decide that he had to hurt you. It was easy pickings for the thieves, while the law-abiding felt like eunuchs. Reader, you cannot imagine the secret, guilty glee of New Yorkers when four young men tried to mug a skinny nerd on the subway in 1984, and, saying that he had five dollars for each of them, Bernhard Goetz stood up, reached into his pocket — for his gun — and shot them all.
So you can picture my incredulity when I read a New York Times story reporting that young New Yorkers now don’t know what a mugging is.