Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Day I Nearly Got Mugged in Manhattan


During my first stay in New York City in the summer of 1987, I decided to have tea at the Waldorf-Astoria on Park Avenue. So what’s so great about having tea at this hotel?

Actually it wasn’t tea I was after. I wanted to see and listen to the grand piano that Cole Porter used to play in the Cocktail Terrace. I was not quite clear on whether he actually used to own the piano, but he did play it from time to time because, rich composer that he was, he lived at the Waldorf. I’d love to live at the Waldorf. Not being a rich composer, I figured the nearest I could get to feeling like one was by ordering a cup of tea, an expensive one, and sipping it in the luxe atmosphere of the Waldorf lobby. I envisioned myself enjoying the overpriced beverage and communing with the ghost of the composer of “Night and Day” and “Begin the Beguine”.

I decided to dress right for this momentous occasion. Normally my attire of choice when touring Manhattan was a T-shirt, jeans and a well-worn pair of running shoes. Not for me the oppressive-looking Wall Street get-up. It didn’t make sense to me to wear a woolen jacket in the height of summer. However, it was my impression that the doormen of the Waldorf might sniff at my casual wear, so I decided to do a Brooks Brothers and donned a jacket, tie, dark pants and Florsheim shoes. I did not realize that, in aspect, I presented myself to the world of Gotham as quite possibly a well-off Japanese tourist.

Off I rode the A-train from Lefferts Boulevard in Queens and emerged into the cacophony of Times Square. It was about 3 in the afternoon. The Waldorf was many blocks away, but walking in Manhattan, even in leather shoes, is so distracting and pleasurable that distances don’t matter in the city, especially if you had the time and energy to traverse them.

I went up Broadway and cut a right through the Diamond District on 47th street. For those who have not been to New York, jewelry shops specializing in high-quality diamonds lined this thoroughfare, hence the name. Most of the shops were owned and operated by Hasidic Jews. You see them walking around in their black top hats, dark curly beards flowing from their pale faces. They cut quite an exotic sight, especially for first-time New York visitors.

Up I went through this street, occasionally pausing to examine through thick plate-glass windows the obviously high-priced merchandise. I was certainly aware that there was a lot of unseen high-powered commerce being conducted at the moment that I was windowshopping, multi-million dollar transactions conducted in secret, heavily fortified cubicles in the buildings all around me. It was a world that I knew I would never be privy to.

Anyway, leisurely traipsing to my destination, I felt a nudge on my right rib. I turned to look at the source of this sensation. A young man in a shirt and jeans had sidled alongside me and I heard him say, in a low voice, “Don’t say anything, give me your wallet.” He had his right hand wrapped around an object. A gun? A knife? I didn’t know. It could just have been just his fingers shaped like a gun. What I did realize in an instant was that I was about to undergo that quintessentially unfortunate New York experience: a mugging.

In a moment like this, one could react in any number of ways. First, one could do as instructed, and surrender one’s wallet. Second, one could panic and run off and risk being shot at. Third, one could pretend that one did not hear him or did not understand what he was saying. I did the last.

I looked at my would-be mugger and gave him my best puzzled look.

“Huh?” said I.

“I said give my your wallet,” hissed the ruffian.

Again I gave him a bewildered look, unconsciously lowering my upper lip while simultaneously extruding my two front teeth and reducing my eyelids to mere slits to exaggerate my already genetically Oriental face, and in my best Mickey Rooney impression ( his Japanese landlord character in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”), I said: “Huuuuhhh?”

The guy stopped in his tracks, gave me a disgusted look, and muttered: “You don’t understand!”

At that precise moment, I quickly crossed to the other side of the street and walked as fast as I could, leaving him transfixed on the sidewalk. I took a quick look back at him and caught him giving me a dismissive wave of the hand, as if to say: “ Ah, useless no-English Asian tourist!”.

I never stopped walking until I reached the Waldorf and had sat down to order tea. My nerves were tingling. I didn’t want to think what that guy could have done to me. I wasn’t about to lose my tea-money. And I was thankful that, offensive as this may sound, the mugger, who was white, thought that I was an ignorant Asian and decided to let me go.

As it turned out, there was no pianist that afternoon to play Cole Porter’s piano. I didn’t ask to play, since I knew I won’t be allowed to, unless I was Cole Porter.

I stared at the piano. It was a scuffed, sad-looking, mahogany affair. Still, I willed myself to feel excited over it because, OMG!, Cole Porter used to tinkle those keys, among other things.

I looked around. I noticed some guests wearing T-shirts and trainers.

Yes, I felt the luxury. Tea was five dollars (remember, this was 1987).

I started humming a Cole Porter tune:

I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, baby, I'm the bottom you're the top!