By Jeff Hodges
In 1973, when I was in college, I rented an apartment on East 7th street between Avenues C and D in Alphabet City. Like most of my decisions in those days, this one was based on a combination of arrogance and stupidity: I had seen a film called The Street of the Flower Boxes which depicted East 7th St. as an oasis of community solidarity in a wasteland of poverty and violent crime.
From the New York Times February 19, 1973: The film’s merits aside, its implications are, at the very least, questionable. Viewers not familiar with the Lower East Side could very well relax and feel assured that the area’s problems have been solved with flower boxes. The reality would hardly encourage relaxation.
The apartment cost $100 a month. My first night there I heard a man cry out in the backyard and the unmistakable sound of metal hitting bone. The next morning I was overtaken in the hallway by the super in pursuit of an intruder. On the street, I saw a man with a tire iron fighting another man with a crowbar, and a crowd placing bets on the outcome.
Undaunted, I attended my classes at NYU and drove a cab at night. None of my classmates came to visit, but I chalked that up to a suburban mindset.
I wasn’t immune to violent encounters. One night on the subway, I was attacked by a group of kids who sliced up my jacket with razor blades and practiced their kung-fu on me from 34th St. to 14th St. Coming home from school I was accosted by two teens with a knife whose ineptitude was so obvious that I smacked one of them with my books and took off down the street. After a couple of blocks I turned around and walked back and this time they were wielding a long piece of metal like a battering ram. I decided to call the cops for a ride home.
I congratulated myself for not having parted with any cash in these encounters. But one night in Tompkins Square Park a couple of guys grabbed me, put a knife to my throat, took out my wallet, extracted a five dollar bill, and handed back my wallet—all without a word from any of us.
I recounted this to the guys who ran the corner bodega. They told me I was crazy to walk around without a blade. They sold me a Buck knife and turned it into a street weapon by loosening the blade until it snapped open with a flick of the wrist. Then they took me in the back and showed me how to use it.
Apparently you don’t dance around like in West Side Story. You slash the face and punch the torso. Slash and Punch. We practiced for a while until they felt I had a semblance of the operation.
After rehearsing in front of the mirror for a couple of weeks I had it down pat. The knife was in my pocket the night a guy stole my cab. My cab was unlocked with the engine running when I went upstairs to my apartment. When I came back down it was gone.
But a minute later it reappeared. My hand went to my back pocket, but the thief came out beaming and thanked me for the opportunity to drive around the block, saying he always wanted to see what it was like to drive a cab. I extended my felicitations and was happy to find the cigar box with my cash still on the floor.
I only had to take the knife out once. I was walking in Times Square when I passed a hooker struggling with a package.
“You got a knife, honey?” she asked.
I reached into my back pocket and with a flick of the wrist I opened the blade and handed it to her. She put it to use, and returned it with a smile.
In those troubled times, it was good to be prepared.