Published• Wed, May 22, 2013
By Thom Nickels
Open the newspaper or watch the news everyday and what happens? You are greeted by another bizarre crime story. The stories that get to me are the ones that involve home invasions. It is hard to imagine the horror of having someone break into your home to steal, do you harm, or worse.
This is not to downplay conventional muggings and attacks in the city or, worse yet, on the street where you live. Some seven months ago, for instance, a neighbor of mine was unlocking her door when a youth—in a hooded sweatshirt, of course—came up behind her, pushed her off the step, and stole her purse. In another incident, a neighbor a few blocks away was walking along Albert Street when he was jumped.
Unfortunately, there are no crime repellents like those preventative mosquito bite sprays to ward off criminals, but there are some things that ordinary citizens can do to try to thwart or even scare away potential criminals.
One thing that’s gotten some play in recent times is acting crazy. Imagine a thug sneaking up behind you with the intent to throw you to the ground, when all of a sudden you begin to shout "Praise the Lord!", drool at the mouth, or lapse into a few facial twitches. As Steve Martin once said, "If you get mugged, throw up on your money."
Of course, acting crazy in a world where almost everyone already acts crazy to some degree can be a problem. As citizens of the 21st century, we have grown increasingly tolerant of untoward and bizarre behavior, from seeing men and women pushing and living in shopping carts, covered head to toe in tattoos, or even having fights in public with their significant others. For me, one supremely crazy incident stands out: On the Market Street El some months ago, I spotted a man walking from car to car with a sign around his neck promising to perform sexual services for one dollar. The man in question walked with a limp, had one eye, carried a walking stick, and smelled like four-day-old flounder. People on the El rubbed their eyes and looked twice: Was what they were seeing really real? Could it be? Yes, it was all too real.
Chances are a thug or mugger doesn’t care how crazy you act. People nowadays, as we read, kill for the sport of it. So we need something more than acting crazy to scare the bad seed away.
We might consider how we appear in public, since muggers do not select victims by age, race or gender but by the way they behave in public. If you are walking along a dark, deserted city street with your head hanging down and looking at the sidewalk, a mugger might see that as a sign of weakness. It is much better to hold your head high and to walk at a healthy pace. Writer Vernon Coleman believes that "the way you dress, walk and behave can determine whether or not you become a victim of crime." For women this means not to carry a huge purse; for men, avoid knapsacks and backpacks (unless you are about to take a trip to the moon).
Knowing karate might be a good defense trick, but it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to take karate lessons. Pepper spray is good; ditto for tear gas, a vial of lye, hot coffee, scalding water, etc.
One can carry weapons like a Swiss Army knife, a switchblade, or even a pistol, but if a thug catches you unaware, these things will prove fruitless. It’s almost as if "If it’s your time, it’s your time." Of course, running fast can be an asset. Getting into a fight with or challenging a mugger is foolish because he may have sleazy friends hiding in a small alley. When I was a boy I was the victim of a fat bully who lived on my street. The bully loved to chase me but could never catch me because he was so fat, but what he did do was hide in the bushes and jump out in front of me like a jackrabbit. Then, because of his immense weight, he’d sit on my chest and hold me to the ground until he felt ready to let me go—until my father taught me how to bring my legs up behind him, grasp his neck and then push his body backwards until his weight was off me for good.
One can reason with a criminal, of course, if that seems appropriate. One time, years ago in Center City a man demanded a certain amount of money from me while he had me cornered in a niche between two buildings. I didn’t know what to do. Yelling didn’t seem appropriate; throwing a punch didn’t feel right either, so I just told him in a Silence of the Lambs inspired voice (read: very serious with a demented quality) that I was a karate black belt and I could really injure him severely if he did not let me go. I repeated the threat until I began to believe it, and sure enough in a few minutes the guy backed off and I was free to leave the small niche.
Another time when a thief ripped the gold Orthodox cross from around my neck, I told him that he had to give it back because the cross was given to me by my mother on her deathbed, and that with the gift came my mother’s warning that whoever stole this cross from me would be burdened with a terrible curse. I only had to say this three times before the culprit, looking quite pale, handed me the cross, after which he denied ever having tried to steal anything.
All of us have had flying dreams in which we can will ourselves off the earth and then up and over the heads of the people around us, sometimes going way above the rooftops so that the city below appears smaller and smaller. If you’re like me, you have had dreams in which you escape a thug by willing yourself into the air, floating like a red balloon to a place far away. If only we could make dreams reality.
I’m thinking especially of those two gay guys who were attacked by thugs in Manhattan after a sporting event. The two men were walking along West 32nd Street when five Knicks fans attacked them while uttering antigay slurs. The men were beaten up pretty badly and needed medical treatment. They were attacked simply because they were gay, something that used to happen a lot years ago, years before half the world and twelve U.S. states went on to legalize same-sex marriage. This is a throwback to the 1950s in that it is hard to imagine how being gay can still be an issue for some people. I took some solace in the fact that people who have this kind of intense hatred of gays are usually dealing with some deep-seated sexual repression issues: They want to hate or attack that which they find objectionable within themselves.
I’m still disturbed about the murder of Fishtown resident Michael Hagan last year near 4th and Lombard Streets in the early morning weekend hours. The killer has not been caught—it was probably a lone guy in a hooded sweatshirt—despite a $50,000 reward and posters all over Septa trains and buses asking people if they know anything about the crime. One hopes for justice in this case, but as the Philly murders keep piling up, the older murder cases get buried in new ones. As time goes by, the older cases become less relevant.
Another murder that shook me was the killing of the DJ on South Street who lived in an apartment inside an ice cream store. The poor guy was just going into his apartment, which happened to be inside the store, when the thug or thugs thought he was the manager.
Then of course there was the gruesome Caleb McGillvary "Kai hatchet man" murder. This homeless "home free" bum achieved his fifteen minutes of fame when he supposedly saved a woman’s life with a hatchet, but then turned around and took another human life with the very same tool.
People applauded "cool Kai" on a late night TV talk show because he seemed so funny when describing how he "smashed" the woman’s attacker. To the giggling masses he seemed like a new kind of cult hero, despite the fact that most were blind to the psychosis lying dormant behind his heroic rescue. That psychosis, of course, is the fact that anyone who describes a killing (justified or not) with such smiling enthusiasm and glee, is not somebody who can be trusted or who you’d ever want to call a friend.
This kitten was found on fire near a park in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Thugs set fire to "Justin," and ran. Justin's ears had to be removed.