My reflection in the bathroom mirror before going to the hospital. — Photo by Diego Cupolo
When people ask me if Bushwick is safe I always reply: “It’s like any urban area, if you’re smart and pay attention to your surroundings you’ll be fine.”
Unfortunately, a couple of weeks ago I didn’t follow my own advice, ending up with eight staples in my head because someone really wanted to steal my crappy mountain bike.
It started with a phone call. I was riding my bike home a few minutes past midnight on a quiet weekday night and dismounted to take the call. An old friend was on the line so I walked my bike the remaining three blocks to my apartment on Grove Street as we rambled about our usual nonsense. I turned onto my block and strolled along the tree-lined street, bordered by some of Bushwick’s oldest houses and several community gardens. It’s a nice neighborhood full of families and people that work. Other than the occasional birthday party, nothing much ever happens here.
Soon enough, I arrived at the front gate to my building and slowly opened the metal door, clinching the cell phone between my shoulder and my ear and holding the bike with my right hand. The front tire was already through the gate when a rhinoceros of a man grabbed the handlebars and said, “Drop the bike!”
He had a deep voice and his eyes were open wide, staring at me through the darkness, waiting for a response. His cool disposition made two things obvious: he has done this before and he expected a quick defeat, figuring his large build was intimidating enough to make me run down the street with piss dripping down my legs. But I wasn’t going to let go so easy, at least not until there was a flash of a gun or a knife. So, with one hand on still holding the handlebars, I simply said, “No.”
Before the “o” sound could finish escaping my mouth the man swung a black plastic bag at me, hitting my head with something hard … something really hard. The hits kept coming, “Whap! Whap! Whap! Whap!” and all I could do was duck down and turn my face away from the blows. I spent the first ten seconds of the attack trying to decide whether it was actually happening or not — was it all just a bad movie? No — the pain was real, and I instinctively yelled, “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!” with every strike that hit the back of my head.
After the initial shock wore off, I spotted two guys watching the whole thing unfold from a stoop across the street. I’m still not sure how I managed to do this, but I started pulling the bike and the large man into the street, inching slowly toward the pair of silent spectators – all while the blows kept coming, “Whap! Whap! Whap! Whap!”
He must have hit me at least 20 times before I yelled for help, but the guys across the street didn’t respond. A few people in my building heard me screaming and looked out their windows to find the large man hitting me like a windmill in the middle of the street. Several 911 calls were being made at the same moment I was reaching the opposite sidewalk. But my situation began looking grim by that point — one blow knocked out the left lens of my glasses and a trickle of blood began dripping down the right lens. Was I hurt? I couldn’t tell – all I knew was that each “Whap!” hurt less and less.
I finally got within 10 feet of the two guys on the stoop and they still did not say a word. Sure, I didn’t expect them to come save me from the vicious attacker, but I would have expected them to at least call the cops or tell him to stop. Puzzled by their reluctance to act, I looked up at them and shouted, “Why are you standing there? How can you just watch this? Do something!!!” But, like zombies, they just stood up, turned around, and went inside their building, leaving me alone with the mugger — who, by the way, kept slugging away.
For whatever reason, letting go of the bike was not an option, even though I could barely see through my half-broken, blood-covered glasses (I’m blind without them). I was alone after being abandoned by the two guys on the stoop but I still wouldn’t give up, no matter how bad a beating I was getting. With few choices left, I went to my last resort and started pleading with the guy, I guess to mess with his head? “Stop doing this … you’re fucking ridiculous … this bike isn’t worth shit … you know the cops are coming soon!”
Nothing worked, and the hits kept coming, though he had slowed down, possibly due to fatigue. How much of this was I going to endure? This guy really wasn’t letting go. Fed up with the situation I stood up straight and caught the black bag, along with whatever was in it, and snatched it away from the attacker. Bloody and furious, I looked him straight in the eyes like a madman and threw the bag to the ground. He then took off down the street as I yelled, “You’re a fucking asshole, you’re a piece of shit!” He just gave a demeaning cackle as he jogged away.
It was then that I finally let go of the bike and roared the biggest roar of my life, shaking the humid air on my quiet residential street: “WHY WON”T ANYBODY IN THIS FUCKING NEIGHBORHOOD HELP ME!!!!!!!!!!”
Breathing heavily and regaining a grip on reality, I stared down at my white T-shirt to find it was covered in blood. The act of tilting my head downward caused a waterfall of blood to run from my right temple onto the concrete below, creating a pool of purple at my feet. “That motherfucker got me good,” I thought.
At that moment, when the attacker was out of sight, a group of people from my building came out, half-stunned, frightened by the bloody scene in front of their home. They helped me find the missing left lens to my glasses and brought me plenty of water and paper towels as I paced around in nervous-breakdown fashion. “Sit down … relax … how are you feeling?” they asked.
The cops arrived surprisingly fast, probably passing my attacker on the way, but did not help much afterwards. They found the attack weapon on the sidewalk: it was an umbrella in a plastic bag. That’s right — I was beaten with a damn umbrella, not a real weapon but a cylinder of waterproof cloth and metal wires.
I couldn’t identify the man since I was trying to dodge the blows the whole time, all I saw were those big white eyes and that black plastic bag swinging at my head. Without a description the cops said they couldn’t do much and told me to get in the ambulance that had just pulled up to my place.
As one of the millions of uninsured Americans, I refused the ambulance because of the cost and also because they were going to take me to Woodhull, a place I’ve always been told to avoid. Instead, I opted to take a cab to Bellevue in Manhattan, but only because the medics told me I had three gashes on my head that needed stitches immediately. Two of my neighbors were nice enough to accompany me on the journey.
Four hours and eight staples later, my financial worries were calmed by a hospital social worker who enrolled me into Bellevue’s crime victims program, a fund that covers crime-related medical bills for uninsured people like me. He went over the details with me, saying it might take up to six months to get my bills covered, as a middle-aged man in the stretcher next to mine complained of chest pain after overdosing on cocaine.
I got back home with the sunrise and took a quick shower before getting some much-needed sleep. As I washed the crusty blood out of my hair — the tub water turned orange — I wondered how I was going to explain this mess to friends and family. Before going to bed I made sure to write a “Thank You” note for the neighbors that helped me and stuck it on the front door.
The following days were filled with paperwork, outrageous medical bills and uncooperative police officers. In order to get my crime victim’s reimbursement from Bellevue I need an incident report number from the 83rd precinct but, to this day, they claim they do not have the report. It’s funny to be on the “victim” side of a crime for once — cops treat you just as if you were the criminal. I have now learned their lack of respect is applied to all beings.
But the worst part about the incident is the shadow it has put over my neighborhood and the preconceived notions it feeds. Most reactions to my story have been upsetting, to say the least:
“Was he black?”
“When are you going to get out of that shit hole?”
“You should carry a knife or a gun with you at all times.”
Basically, I shouldn’t have been walking around after midnight and talking on my cell phone like a neon target for petty street thieves. That’s all. Blaming incidents on race or carrying weapons will only cause more severe problems. Crime can happen anywhere and I still believe I live in a great neighborhood – it’s going to take a lot more than an umbrella beating to change my perception.
After the incident, all the people in my building worked together to make the street safer, installing new exterior lights and asking the landlord for security cameras. I feel this terrible event brought my community together and improved the quality of life over here on Grove Street.
You’ve heard this assault story before, perhaps too many times before, but I wanted to tell it anyway because it is the actions and inactions of the people in this story that allow such routine crimes to occur without repercussions – directly supporting violence in our streets. A change in attitude is all that’s needed to put an end to this. Without the help of our neighbors we’re on our own.