As an NYU student in the early 90s, I spent plenty of time waiting for trains at West 4 St station. It was even less of a pretty sight then — panhandlers and the stench of piss were everywhere. Younger readers and newcomers to NYC probably don’t remember these bad old days — economic recession, murder (2,200 annually versus around 600 now), crack, drive-by shootings, aggressive beggars, race riots, trash everywhere, and a general sense that anything could happen to you walking down the street and nobody would care if it did.
On the other hand, we didn’t have a single Starbucks back then, so I guess it wasn’t all bad.
One night around 10:30, I was waiting for an A train to Washington Heights, which at the time was one of the city’s largest open-air drug markets — heroin al fresco served daily. I was heading up there to drop off a paper at a professor’s home before the deadline of 11pm. (Yeah, I was a pretty hardcore procrastinator even then.) I was more than a bit worried about heading up to this neighborhood that I knew only by reputation, especially at night, but I had to get the paper in.
A guy my age dressed entirely in camouflage approached and demanded money — all of it.”I don’t have anything,” I said.”Don’t make me search you,” he replied.
Of course, I was terrified but I also didn’t want to give him the few bucks and credit cards I had in my wallet. What could I do?”Here,” I said as offered him a bottle of Snapple juice I’d brought along for the long subway ride uptown. “That’s all I’ve got.”
He took the drink and walked away. I was still in a state of shock and it wasn’t until the train had arrived and I was on it that I’d realized I probably should have gone up to the token booth and tried to get a cop. How hard would it have been for them to find a kid dressed in military fatigues chugging a Snapple?
And it wasn’t until much later that I reflected on the irony of nearly being mugged in relatively safe Greenwich Village — just a block away from my dorm — while worrying about the dangers awaiting me uptown in dangerous Washington Heights.
I slipped the paper under my professor’s door and hurried back on the train. His neighborhood was tree-lined and quiet, not at all like West 4th St and Sixth Avenue. I don’t remember what I got on the paper, but I think I got a B+ in the class.