I must have been seven or eight, I think. I recalled this the other night and wanted to write it down but forgot about it until driving down Fifth Avenue in a friend’s car a few days later. Driving along the long stone wall along Central Park the forgotten incident flashed through my brain again.
I don’t remember much else about that day, except that, apparently, we had gone to the city by bus, from Queens. Maybe we drove in my father’s car and the Long Island teenagers my father took to the Jewish Museum had come by bus. I don’t recall if my sister and mother were there, but why wouldn’t they have been? This was more than fifty years ago.
After visiting the museum we were waiting on Fifth Avenue for the rented school bus to take us back to Long Island. This was decades before everybody had a phone in their pocket. My father, the director of the Nassau-Suffolk region of Young Judaea, a national Zionist youth movement (my father was fond, in those days, of imitating Arab leaders who referred to citizens of the Jewish State as “Is-rah-ale-eee Aggressors”) had a group of restless kids from the rural counties east of Queens lined up on Fifth Avenue. At some point he sent me up Fifth Avenue to see if the bus was coming. I walked off northwards on a mission.
About a block or so into my quest I was approached by three or four black kids about my age, maybe a year or two older. They moved in a group toward the wall and, being a suburban kid with no instincts about these kind of things, I veered in the wrong direction. I quickly found myself trapped between the kids and the wall. They demanded my money. I didn’t have any money, outside of a few coins that were in my pocket, mostly pennies. They took the change. It was less than a quarter’s worth. It may have been 8 or 9 cents, which, in those days, could buy you a candy bar and a few chunks of Bazooka gum.
They demanded to look through my pockets. I was wearing some kind of jacket and produced what was in the pockets. Outside of some tissues, which I always carry, there’s wasn’t much. There was some kind of small, flat box that slid open. Inside the box was a tiny pad and the ends of a few pencils, small enough to fit into the box. Even at that age I felt desperate if I didn’t have something to draw with on my person. The would-be muggers examined the box in disgust, pencils stubs falling to the cobblestones by the bench along the long stone wall. I recall one of them bent to pick up a pencil and hand it back to me. After the robbery they headed south, toward my father and the teenagers waiting for their ride.
From a short distance away I watched my father intercept them. “Get up on the goddamned bench!” he commanded, and they obediently hopped up on to the bench along the park wall. When I got closer he called out to me, as though I was a stranger, “hey, kid, did these boys take anything from you?” I shook my head, then noted the few trifles (they’d left me my box with the drawing stuff in it). My assailants coughed up some muddy coins, which my father handed to me when I reached him.
I remember him chuckling afterwards. “They probably thought I was an undercover cop,” he said. It didn’t occur to me at the time that he was an adult man, over six feet tall, and they were a small band of children, prowling the wealthy strip by the park, looking for some coins to buy candy. I certainly don’t condone what the tiny predators were out there doing, but, I have to say, they were pretty decent about the whole thing, as far as that went. As far as I can recall, it was the only time I saw my father act the tough guy in public. It was more usual to see him acting this way, against the wall, back to the shelf with the toaster on it, firing live ammunition at me and my sister over the dinner table.