He had a knife.
True, he was laughably unsteady and incoherent in his demands — almost as wobbly as I was in that moment.
But he had a knife.
I shared the story with a local friend the next day, and she explained that such encounters were known, at least among Los Angelenos, as friendly muggings — those from which you can usually walk away unscathed without relinquishing much of value.
But however much his hand shook and his focus wavered, he hadn’t fumbled the knife.
It had been more than 20 years since I’d visited Los Angeles’ China Town, and I didn’t know when I’d have another opportunity. But I stayed later than was wise. Darkness caught me as I pushed the loaded Big south through overflowing sidewalk encampments.
Much about LA had changed in the intervening decades.
Take any large sample of people. Any. A few might be saintly. One or two might be well and truly evil. The rest? Odds are, the rest are like me and, perhaps, you, neither saint nor devil 99.999 percent of the time, but capable of the full range of human behavior when tested to the 0.001-percent extreme.
My mugger? It was not homelessness that defined him, although that’s the catchall most would assign, but the simple, fragile, fallible humanity he and I share.
Despite the knife.
I had about $80 in cash on me and handed it over, but I balked at surrendering anything else, save the dozen or so eclipse glasses — always within reach — I also volunteered.
I’d like to tell you that the glasses inspired a conversation and, eventually, some meaningful connection. But, no, that did not happen.
And I wish I could write that my clever calculation worked — that he was so distracted by the incongruity of eclipse glasses amid a mugging, I had ample time to slip away. But that did not happen, either.
Oh, he was befuddled by the gesture — as was I — and I did slip away, but there was no such calculation.
Only stubborn habit.
The day before, I’d ridden 35 miles through scenic hills north of LA with a peloton of young cyclists.
The night after, I slept in the home of three female grad-school students.
Well, I saw many things on LA’s streets I immediately wished I hadn’t.
And I was saddened by the oppressive despair that too often surrounded me.
But I did not feel unsafe.
And so, The Big and I will be back.
Sans cash, of course, but with lots more eclipse glasses.
(Image: Eclipse glasses in happier times. Thanks for the share, Penni.)