A Personal Essay
by Lynne Weiss
Shortly before my son began his first semester of college in New York City in 2011, we used our family cell phone plan to get our first smart phones. We tend to be late adopters, but at that point, smart phones were still enough of a luxury item that signs in the Boston subway system warned people to keep their smart phones concealed to avoid having them grabbed when trains pulled into a station.
Our son—our only child—kept in close touch after he left for college. He knew how much we missed him! Even so, I was pleasantly surprised to get a call one sunny afternoon several weeks into his first semester as I walked from the subway to my house.
“Guess where I am?”
Of course I had no idea. I was getting used to having no idea where he was, because he was away at college now, living in another city. And of course he didn’t really want me to guess. He wanted to tell me that he was on his way to visit my grandparents’ graves in Queens.
I had only been to my grandparents’ graves twice myself, and while I knew the name of the cemetery where they were buried, I didn’t know exactly where it was. My father’s parents had grown up in Queens, but my father grew up further out on Long Island. I myself had grown up in a number of places, none of them near New York City.
Another thing: my grandparents were Jewish, and while my father was raised in Judaism, his family was minimally observant, and he had converted to Christianity and married my mother, a Protestant farm girl from Maine, shortly after he turned 21. I was raised Protestant, though I’d often observed certain Jewish holidays—especially Rosh Hashanah and Passover—with friends. I’d taken my son to many of these events as he was growing up, and so I was delighted that he had decided to take a Jewish Studies course during his first semester of college.
On the phone that day, he explained that he was going to the Jewish cemetery as part of a project for that class. He had taken a subway to the end of the line and then caught a bus and he was now walking from where he’d gotten off the bus to the cemetery.
“The neighborhood sure has changed,” he remarked. “Here I am, walking to a Jewish cemetery, and I haven’t seen a single white person since I got off the bus.”
I was about to remark that this transition was similar to what had happened in Roxbury, a Boston neighborhood, when I heard a sort of a thump, and a shout, and the sound of running on the phone.
“Russell?” I called into the phone. “Russell?” I called again, but there was no answer. I shouted into the phone over and over, until suddenly the phone went dead, and the sunny October day seemed to flatten and warp as I realized I had just heard my son being mugged. Shaking and disoriented, I called my husband in his office. “Find the number of the Montefiore Cemetery office on your computer while I call the NYPD,” I said, but the police dispatcher asked me a lot of questions I couldn’t answer. I knew the name of the cemetery, but I didn’t know how many entrances there were, or what street my son was walking on when he was mugged. All I knew was what I had heard—the thump, the sound of running feet, the yelling—and what I feared—that my son was lying broken and bleeding on an unknown street and I could do nothing to help him.
My husband called back. “The office is about to close,” he said. “The guy working there walked out to the entrance but he said he didn’t see anything.”
“Oh, god,” I said, and found the cemetery on a map of Queens. I imagined driving down to Queens that afternoon with my husband, prowling the cemetery’s perimeter, searching for our son.
And then—about an hour after the mugging, my phone rang. The caller ID said Queens NY. I answered, and was relieved to hear Russell’s voice.
“I’m fine,” he said, and he told me that indeed a “kid,” just one kid, had run past him and grabbed his phone.
“I learned that it’s stupid to walk down the street talking on an iPhone,” he said, and then told me that he had chased the mugger for about a mile. “I think he was about 14 or 15,” he said from his advanced perspective of 19 (he had taken a gap year before starting college).
His tone implied that anyone that young was likely to be harmless, but I was thinking about guns. He went on to say that he couldn’t talk at length because he was calling me on the phone a “nice man” who was standing at the bus stop had allowed him to use so he could call me and tell me he was okay—he knew I would be worried—and said he would call me again when he was back in his dorm room in Manhattan.
An hour of hell, but there was a happy ending. Or so I thought. Little did I know that my son had recently read a Facebook post about a guy who invited his young mugger to have dinner with him and got the return of his wallet, and even more important, the satisfaction of making a human connection. So I was stunned when he called again and told me that thanks to Find My Phone on his laptop, he could see what building his phone was in. He said he was going to go to that building to try to talk to his mugger and buy his phone back.
“No,” I said. “Not a good idea.”
“How are we ever going to overcome racism if we don’t break out of our stereotypical ways of responding to these types of events?” he asked, and told me about the article, which described a social worker taking a young mugger out to dinner in a local diner and then pointing out, when the check comes, that he has no money to pay the bill because the mugger has his wallet. “I think this kid mugging me was his way of trying to make a human connection,” he said. I silently cursed all the idealistic books we’d read to him, all the MLK Day observances we’d attended, all the marches we’d marched, and all the earnest discussions about principles and justice, but what I said was that while the article was inspiring, there was a difference between a social worker in his thirties in his own neighborhood and a nineteen-year-old in an unfamiliar neighborhood in an unfamiliar city.
“Obviously, the kid needs money,” he argued. “It would be easier for me to give him the money he wants, and get my phone back than for me to have to get a new phone and import all my contacts.”
We argued about whether or not he should go back to Queens until I said, “If you insist on going, I’ll go with you.” I hoped that the prospect of being accompanied by his mother would deter him, but it did not.
“That would be great!” he said brightly.
I did not look forward to a trip on the cheap bus and a potentially dangerous trek out to Queens, but I got him to promise he would do nothing until we spoke again.
Later that night, as I contemplated bus schedules on my computer, my cell phone buzzed and I saw Queens NY on the caller ID. It was the same ID I’d seen when Russell called to tell me he was okay, so when the man on the other end said, “Sorry, I must have the wrong number,” I quickly said, “I think you loaned your phone to my son after he was mugged so he could call me. Thanks for doing that.”
The man sounded confused for a moment, and then he said, “Oh, right. The kid from Boston.” He asked me if I was in Boston and I said I was, and then he told me he had gone to Boston College for a year and hated it. “Boston’s a really racist city,” he said, and told me about being followed and harassed. I said I was sorry those things had happened to him, and stopped myself from saying I hoped things had changed. They had and they hadn’t.
I told him about my son’s plan to try to find his mugger and buy his phone.
“Your son chased that kid,” he said, and even though I couldn’t see him, I sensed him shaking his head as though to say, ‘what a fool.’ “He doesn’t belong in this neighborhood,” he said. “Tell him not to come back.”
I thanked him for his advice, and we hung up, and when I spoke to my son later, I told him what the man had said.
“Yeah,” he said, “I know,” and then he said he’d told some of his classmates about the mugging. “One of my friends is from that part of Queens, and she told me I shouldn’t be walking around there, either.” He said she told him that the next time he wanted to visit his grandparents’ graves he should tell her, and she would pick him up at the subway and drive him to the cemetery. Then he added that the SIM card must have been removed from the phone because it wasn’t showing up on Find My Phone anymore. There was a note of defeat in his voice. Contrary to what he hoped, the kid who had taken his phone didn’t want to have dinner or break down stereotypes, at least, not that week, but I’m grateful to a black man who loaned his phone to a white boy so he could let his worried mom know that he was okay, and who took the time to offer his advice, even if to him I was only a wrong number.
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Lynne Weiss writes and edits high school history and social science materials for the educational publishing industry. She lives outside Boston where she does her part to advance and protect civil liberties and respect for all peoples as a Quaker and a community activist. She loves local theater, music, and art, whether in the Boston area or while traveling to other places. She earned her MFA from UMass Amherst and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of literary journals and sites, including Black Warrior Review, Change Seven, The Common, PANK, Ploughshares, and Wild Musette. She has won residencies and awards from various organizations, including Glimmer Train, Massachusetts Cultural Council, The Millay Colony, Vermont Studio Center, and Yaddo. https://lynneweiss.org/