Fun fact: a switchblade against your throat is a really fast way to sober up.
I live uptown in a peaceful little nook of Washington Heights. We are not the tourist destination of New York City, we’re not even on the double decker tour bus map. Seriously, those maps curve off at 135th St, there’s some water, and then boom, Yankee Stadium. We are that geographically irrelevant. So the people in my neighborhood actually live there. I know my neighbors. I know the shop owners in the area and they know me. It’s crazy, but people do things in my neighborhood like say, “good morning.” I love my safe quiet corner of this island.
A few years back, my husband went out town and I’d have the place to myself for a week. That first night he was away I made plans to do whatever the hell I wanted. I met up with friends for a few of liters of vodka.
At the end of the night, I poured myself out of a cab and teetered to the front door of my building. I noticed a man walking behind me and since there’s not a damn thing to do in my neighborhood, he was likely a neighbor I hadn’t met yet.
I did the polite neighborly thing and held the door for him. He smiled warmly and thanked me and I wandered over to the mailboxes. While crouched down, doing the one-eye drunk thing trying to get the damn key into the hole, I suddenly felt the weight of someone on my back and cold metal against my neck. It was my neighbor, or as it turned out, some stranger I willingly invited into my building. As he pressed me against the wall and tugged at my purse, I thought you’re barkin up the wrong tree, I never carry cash. My wallet had a smattering of gift cards from the previous Christmas and whopping eleven dollars.
I had lived in the city for fifteen years at that point and expected eventually I’d get mugged. It can happen to anyone, but physically I’m not a small human being so I envisioned being like those women you see on elevator footage who flip their attacker over onto the ground. Makes perfect sense because I have absolutely zero training in martial arts. Instead, I was completely submissive and handed over everything.
I spent the night at the local precinct where a small army of cops questioned me. I could tell they knew I had been drinking, so I felt like this was my fault. Eventually around 6am they said I was free to go and drove me home.
In the coming weeks, I replaced my purse and my wallet. My phone, my driver’s license, insurance card, credit card, debit card, bought new stamps, lipstick, chapstick, travel toothbrush, sunglasses, started fresh with the punch card from my favorite coffee place, new Metrocard, new work ID. The whole thing cost me much more than the $11 that guy got away with. It changed my relationship, my husband now wanted to know where I was and if I was safe. I felt like he was treating me like a child, but he was just so scared it would happen again. I now looked over my shoulder, never fully at ease. It cost me my sense of trust in my neighborhood, in my home.
A year passed, I got home one night and found an envelope shoved under my front door. Inside was a rotted weather-beaten driver’s license. I could barely make it out, the address was completely worn away, but the face on that license was mine. And the note inside said, Sarah Sweeney if you still live here, call us at this number.
I freaked out, pacing my living room trying to think of why someone would contact me like this. If there’s a Mugger Playbook this was the ultimate long game! He got his initial $11 and Old Navy gift card and now he’s checking my address to get $11 more dollars and perchance a gift card to… Banana?
But, I called the number because I mean, c’mon.
A middle aged sounding guy picked-up.
Hi, um, you left my driver’s license?
He handed the phone to someone else in the room and this confident tiny voice got on, “Hello?! Are you Sarah Sweeney? I’m Danielle! Me and my sister found your purse in the woods!! It was gross we left it there, but we have your wallet! Are you OK? Is it really you?!”
I could tell she was jumping up and down as she spoke.
She and her younger sister made a proper excavation project of my wallet, carefully unfolding wet receipts and bits of paper that endured the elements for the last year, drying them, and piecing together the clues to find me and return my wallet and everything inside. I was completely awestruck. They were giving me a sense of relief. They were giving me closure.
I asked her, “how can I repay you?”
“Hang on!” She pulled the phone away and conferenced with her sister; I then pulled the phone away from my ear because all I heard was the piercing sound of “ICE CREAM!!!!!”
Twenty minutes later, I was at their door. I handed over a bag of ice cream, half a dozen flavors. And these two little girls handed over my wallet and a renewed sense of humanity.
[I told this story on 8/25/16 at The Moth in Harlem’s National Black Theater.]