It certainly wasn’t THE mistake; there were probably a number of those, but the first thing I did wrong was have the cab driver drop me off three blocks from my apartment, instead of right at the front door, especially knowing that neighborhood’s reputation. I must have felt like walking a bit. It was five in the morning after a long Sunday night and I was drunk. Most of the time drunk means you’re stumbling about, a bit stupider than when you began the night but, sometimes, when you’ve been drunk long enough, when you’ve started early in the night and kept it up, somehow teetering on the line between life-of-the-party and asshole-of-the-evening, you manage a kind of comfort with the drunk, a sort of calm-in-the-storm. It’s hard to imagine but some part of your mind gets used to the world from inside the bottle, maybe the way veterans, having seen too much of the shit, can just nod their heads at the most atrocious things and whisper, ‘FUBAR,’ and just know they must go on. I prefer to think of it like musical theater, all optimism, the way the drunk character in the play can magically stand up and exhibit textbook choreography, dancing down the pavement, toes tapping on benches, where even the stumbling has style. So I was when I got out of the cab on the Avenue Gran Via, a notoriously seedy street in Madrid, clad in Tyler Durden’s three-quarter length, red-leather Jacket. Some girl has kissed me that night, and I was grinning a silly grin. I’m sure it wasn’t the grin the mugger saw.
I had been this way many times before. Most night’s I would walk down this alley, away from my apartment, heading to Gran Via to pick up a cab and start my night. I usually stopped in a little place that made me ham and cheese sandwiches. The waitress there was attractive, and would smile at my broken Spanish and pour me extra Sangria without charge. At this hour there weren’t many people around, just a few homeless, and I whistled a bit, whistling the sort of too-chipper melody, I suppose, only a fancy foreigner might find appropriate in such a dark little alley.
A little man approached me, the kind of character who would be best played by a swarthier version of the big-eyed, creepy fellow in Casablanca, who gets shot within the first couple of scenes for trying to smuggle some important German papers. At the time, he instantly reminded me of Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, Igor, all bent over, face lined with craving. He held his hands out, humbly asking for anything I could spare. His Spanish was worse than mine, and he was probably one of the recent migrants from Northern Africa who filter into Europe through Spain. Coupled with hand gestures for what I think was ‘sandwich’ or ‘bread,’ and something to do with his mouth, he kept pace with me, pleading a little, saying how hungry he was.
Now a days, in San Francisco, where any walk through the streets means requests for change, I’m hardened, but at that hour, in that town, I felt a little sorry for him, and handed him some of what I had. It was hardly anything, just some of the bigger coins I had left-over. And it’s not as though I felt he needed to be particularly grateful or anything, but the way he seemed to sneer at the coins I gave him, it just didn’t seem to fit the natural order of beggar and giver. It wasn’t much that I gave him, but it was enough to buy food. “Sorry, Sorry, really, that’s all I have for giving,” was all I could say in Spanish, and he pleaded further, but slowed his pace, receding back into the scene as I carried on down the alleyway.
I’ve always been a bit suspicious of people when I’m out in the big world, having grown up in a city whose idea of crime usually involves accountants, but I swear that little guy was keeping up with me. I knew he was hoping to beg more, well, that’s an awful way to put it. I knew he wanted more money. Who knows if he was really hungry, but he was persistent. He appeared again at my side. Again, he was hungry. It wasn’t enough. He lowered his hand, marking a mark of height in the air, and said something that sounded like ‘daughter.‘ I apologized and apologized. I knew I had a couple of the smaller coins left in my pockets, smaller ones that weren’t even worth the giving, but I just wanted to be home, and his weathered, sad face, his broken Spanish, the way he sort of hobbled after me, more in show than because of any real physical malady, I just didn’t want to be bothered by him anymore. The truth is he just wasn’t at all that likeable, not even in a pitiable way. Maybe pain and suffering are ugly, and maybe I was just uncaring to that, but something in his nature or presentation, it didn’t say ‘poor me,’ it was just sort of pathetic, almost slinking. He was, I am sorry to say, the way some old furniture is beloved and worth the mending, and some is just that-crappy-old-chair. Some stains, some dirt, carry memories, and others are just dirt, and you toss the chair, throw it out, with no sentiment, glad to be rid of it. I apologized, shaking my head, and walked on with purpose. He stopped, and sunk away, eyes burning a hole in the back of my leather jacket.
Just a couple of blocks from my apartment, I heard footsteps. Fucking footsteps. Even then, without any time for reflection, even as the suspicion turned to fear, my mind jerked in revulsion at the cliché and monstrous irony of hearing menacing footsteps behind me. The scared, nervous voice in my head, the sensible one muffled by the booze, it was yelling out. This is the scene where the woman walks through the poorly lit parking garage, or the scene where the reporter in the thriller, having just learned of the CIA’s corruption, quickens his pace. All of the shots are of feet, fast paced, in rhythm. First it’s the victim’s, short and quick, then the dark, determined, clip-clopping of the pursuer’s. I couldn’t believe I was hearing footsteps behind me. I was terrified.
I turned, just in time for him to grab me, the little man, his face now twisted in desperation. His right hand was holding onto my left wrist, tight. His left hand, his left was holding a knife. He stuck the knife against my stomach, against the leather of my red jacket, holding the sharp point against the leather. “Money!” he shouted in Spanish, “Give me! Give me the money!”
“I don’t have any! I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I lied, not even realizing it was a lie, pulling my arm back as he gripped tighter, as he poked a little harder into me with the short knife. I dug around in my pocket with my free right hand, making a gesture, showing him the few meager coins I had left, his head shaking, jerking, disapproving. In my head, we argued for minutes. In my memory, my Spanish was fluid and clear, and I conjured sentences, and I struggled, unable to pull away, unable to even realize any specific danger, only to feel that everything was dangerous, the way some pain is everywhere at once.
I was wearing a money belt. It had everything in it. Idiot tourists, on their first trips abroad, they buy these things to keep their money safe, out of sight, out of their backpacks and their wallets. They tie them against their stomachs where no pickpocket will think to pick. They feel safe, adapted, prepared. The danger is handled, they think, their heads all caught up in some small brochure-scenario, never realizing the simple truth that things they don’t carry can’t be stolen. I was that idiot. I had everything in there, credit cards, traveler’s checks, passport, student ID and enough cash to feed any need.
The little man was nervous, was panicking, and was starting to shift his attention from his hand gripping mine to the hand holding the knife. His left hand came at me, and he pawed at me with it, frustrated, reaching in my jacket, clawing at my shirt pockets, still holding the knife loosely. He must have known just where to look, because he suddenly took hold of my shirt and wrenched it up, out of my pants. He was going for the money belt I was wearing. It wasn’t there.
That general suspicion that I had, that naive, close-minded, picket-fence insecurity instilled in me by a safe, wary, conservative town, hadn’t trusted the belt entirely. A week earlier, seeing all the other students I knew pulling up their shirts every time they went to buy something, I had decided the whole thing was too obvious. I had started tucking the belt below my waist, fitting it just under the belt-line of my pants, where no-one could see it unless they really had a mind to dig.
When he jerked up on my shirt, his eyes focused at my waist, surely expecting a prize, I froze, certain, certain of nothing, afraid of everything. I still had the dozen or so small coins in my right hand. Without thinking, I threw my left arm out hard, the arm he was still holding onto, throwing his balance off, and simultaneously threw all of the coins at him, half, I suppose, to distract him, half, maybe as a kind of meager, dim-witted assault. All of the motions, being pulled to the side, the coins at his face, it was just enough, he was off of me, and I turned, running. I ran, ran those couple of blocks to my apartment in the dark, my feet pounding into the pavement like hooves, my whole body a machine of speed and desperation, an animal in terror. I never looked back.
Upstairs, outside the little apartment where I was living for the semester, I made a commotion, voice trembling, shouting, and then trembling again. My Spanish “father,” answered the door, and seemed not to recognize the obvious fear in my eyes. He was a daft guy, the head of the “family,” which consisted of he, a middle-aged, unemployed man, his mother, sweet, parrot voiced, and senile, and four cats who had a tendency to stare. He was a silly man, I thought, overweight and under-experienced. We had had lots of pointless arguments, and were generally ill suited, but just then, I wanted him to save me. I tried to explain, but could only muster a few, basic terms, my fluid Spanish now lost. With a mix of incongruent words, as though painting a scene like a child with all the wrong colors, I tried to tell him I had been mugged. “Man…knife,” I started out. “Money. He wants money. The man with the knife wants money.” It was enough. He understood.
We sat there for a moment, me still panting, shaking, him considering, I could see, the situation deeply. “Lo siento, Tomas…lo siento,” he said, “I’m sorry.” He paused, and looked up. “Quieres leche?”
I stopped, as though hearing a piece of glass shatter, my mind cracking from the absurdity. “Milk? Do I want milk? NO! No quiero leche! Quiero fucking justice! Quiero revenge and goddam, oh, goddamit, I don’t know. Fuck!” I screamed back at him, venting all the rage, all the simple, plain fright and vulnerability I felt. A man, a knife, my God, and how I had ran! Fucking milk!?
“Lo siento, Tomas,” he said, apologizing again, not for the silly offer of milk, but for my fear. He was genuinely sorry for me, and concerned, and I saw the sincerity in his face as he got up to go back to bed, leaving me be, and I knew I didn’t need to apologize for being so ungrateful.
I spent the rest of the night in my own head, no longer afraid, but helpless, my mind retracing every move, cursing my stupidity, cursing the little-man’s very being in the world. I reenacted the scene, over and over, inserting new triumphs where I had been afraid, and vengeance where I had ran. I pictured karate classes, and the weeks ahead where I would turn the tables, where I would repeat the dark-alley walk, again and again, this time perusing him like some vigilante whose thirst for revenge can never be satisfied. I shuffled about in bed, limbs restless, eventually getting up and pacing about. My safe, small world was breached. The simple things were useless.
Finally, giving up on sleep, I went back into the now quiet kitchen. I leaned against the wall and watched a bit of the morning’s light creep in through the windows, watched in brighten up the alley below, filling in the dark spaces. My eyes traced back along that alley, over the stains, over the dirt, my mind grappling at the meaning of Spanish signs in this and that shop window, trying to understand, to make sense of the place. Exhausted, I settled in a chair, leaning against the window, looking out. I reached over for a cup, and poured myself a glass of milk.