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It happened so fast. As it does. I was returning to my hotel after watching the Super Bowl with friends on Sunday night. I was in New York City at a rather non-descript sports bar called “Reade Street Pub”. As American football fans know, after a first half drubbing, a power outage during the opening moments of the second half seemed to electrify, pun intended, the struggling 49’ers and defused the leading Baltimore Ravens. In the end, they couldn’t muster quite enough skill or time to win but it was certainly an entertaining way to spend my first evening in New York.
On the way back to the hotel, I decided to take the train after a brief search for a cab. It was near freezing temperatures and a subway entrance appeared like an oasis before me. I took the E train from around Canal St. – I’m not sure – uptown planning to get off around 34th St, my hotel, the Affinia, was just across from Madison Square Garden on 7th Ave. As happens too often when I’m travelling in New York, I missed my stop, not realizing it until around 49th Street. No problem, I was now well within striking distance, I would just walk from there.
I guess it was just short of midnight, early by New York standards. There were plenty of people on the sidewalks and many of the souvenir shops, restaurants and bars were still open, some just coming to life. I walked briskly down 7th Avenue down a very wide sidewalk. I was feeling good, despite the cold, to be in the fresh air with a clear sense of direction, no mean feat, and with still toasty though bare hands.
I’m guessing I was around 38th Street, a relatively dark stretch, most of the storefronts were really office buildings with low illumination. I was walking on the curb side of the side walk – a habit learned from long ago, you’re less likely to be accosted by beggars and other less savory types with a clear escape route – or so the theory goes.
I soon noticed in my peripheral vision three dark shapes approaching up the right side of the sidewalk, talking loudly and laughing. Two of the shapes were rather large, one tall and thin, the other tall and stocky. The third, judging by the pitch of his voice and his smaller stature was a young teenager. As was also well ingrained, when walking in New York, I didn’t look at them directly but carried on down my “lane” as if they didn’t exist, keeping up my brisk pace.
Without warning, the tall slender figure broke away from the group and was suddenly directly in my path, leaning forward, his left hand in the pocket of his hoody, his eyes attempting to bear maliciously into me, “Give me your money!” My first reaction was disbelief as I stepped back, “Is he joking?” I said to myself. Something about my expression must have caused him to say almost immediately “I ain’t playing, give me all your money!” I stepped slightly to the left as his momentum continued forward, we touched for the briefest of moments, my forearm against his right arm. I was surprisingly relaxed but at the same time acutely aware of his hidden left hand, it was clearly for effect – or did it actually hold a knife or a gun, nagged me for both the shortest and longest time. Amazing how the mind seems to slow time and grab onto the minutest of detail.
After his insistence that “I’m not playing!”, I heard a voice say “I’m not playing!” and realized that it was mine. My teacher has often talked about the importance of contact, the mantra “I know my opponent, but my opponent doesn’t know me” now rings hauntingly in my mind. Even though the briefest moment of contact, it was clear that my young hoodlum “friend” was an empty suit, if he wasn’t packing a knife or a gun, or without help from his mates, it wasn’t going to be a contest.
And then, it was over as quickly as it started, the whole episode probably lasted less than ten seconds. He thought the better of it and walked away with his buddies. I thought briefly about pursuit but quickly decided that was a stupid idea, still bothered about whether he was carrying a weapon, not to mention not knowing how his friends were equipped. And so, I continued down the street, welcoming a return to more crowded sidewalks and a flood of light.
Later, in the safety and comfort of my hotel room as I replayed the events of the evening, I had a strange thought – social media interactions are so much different. In the social media world my would-be assailant and I would have been decorated with the appropriate tags, for me “consultant”, “social media”, “martial artist” and for my attacker “convicted felon”, “repeat offender”, “wise guy”, etc (okay perhaps not that obvious). The chances that we would have ended up “on the same street”, figuratively speaking, would have been much less. And of course, if not from his profile, then from his messaging it probably would have been clear that we were unlikely to be friends. This is what we call “digital body language” reading people, assessing their likely interests and their desire to connect by the digital records they leave.
Soon, Google glasses and similar technology will be available that will allow us to use facial recognition among other things to assess the likelihood that a random passerby will attempt to mug you, factoring in their digital records – an interesting thought. In the meantime, I’m going to stay out of “dark chatrooms”…