As a mid-20s Manhattanite who leads a hectic life reliant on long hours, late evenings, and public transportation, I’ve often considered what would happen if I ever found myself in a threatening situation. Standing more than six feet tall in my favorite wedges, with fiery red hair and freckly arms, I’ve thought of myself less as a meek target and more as a ginger Amazon. Be warned, potential attackers: this chick is a former figure skater, a regular yogi, and a long-distance runner.
That being said, I have strict rules I follow to keep myself out of harm’s way. I hail cabs after midnight in unfamiliar neighborhoods, travel in groups after dark when possible, and avoid dark alleys and vacant subway platforms. I was schooled in the merits of natural surveillance: the “eyes on the street” theory that the more bystanders there are, the less opportunity there is for a crime to take place in a public space. Even if I was not equipped to defend myself, I imagined that in a heavily populated city like New York, my fellow citizens would help rescue me.
My faith was shaken last week at the 96th Street subway station. It was a Wednesday evening around 11:45 p.m. and I was heading downtown on the subway from a friend’s apartment. I was traveling solo, but accompanied by Kanye and Jay-Z on my iTunes and plenty of other MTA customers. As I transferred from the local to the express train across the platform (no more than a couple of feet away), I felt the cord of my headphones being yanked from my person. I turned to see a lanky teenager in a red T-shirt, no more than 18, jerking my iPhone from my pocket with my headphones. He seized my phone and bolted down the platform.
Stunned and feeling helpless, I shrieked, “Help! He’s got my phone!”
Not one person in the crowd of onlookers responded. Before I even knew what I was doing, I sprinted after him, letting out screams along the way in an attempt to get some civilian backup. I chased him to the top of the stairs where he darted off just as a 30-something man, a well-coiffed grad student-type, descended.
“Did that boy leave the station?” I asked frantically.
“No, he didn’t go out the turnstile. He’s still here,” the man responded.
“Why didn’t you stop him?!” I screamed in exasperation, continuing my pursuit.
I caught up to my assailant, alone in the stairwell leading to the uptown trains.
“Give me back my phone!” I shouted.
He paused, taking a moment to assess me.
“Give me back my phone!” I demanded, more firmly this time.
On my way back to my downtown platform, I stopped an MTA employee who saw the whole thing.
“That man stole my phone and I chased him down and got it back. He’s still here though,” I explained.
“Okay, thanks” said the MTA Employee shrugging me off.
I was in disbelief. Certainly he would do something or call someone. But he seemed neither surprised by the incident nor spurred to action. Other passengers were equally blasé.
“That guy took your phone?” an older woman asked me.
“Yeah! And I ran after him and got it back!” I said triumphantly.
“You shouldn’t have your phone out. I keep mine in my purse,” she scolded.
My phone wasn’t “out.” And my purse could have just as easily been taken. But that didn’t matter. It was clear I didn’t have friends in this crowd, and just as they hadn’t been there to help me, they weren’t going to praise me for my act of heroism either.
Neither did my real friends. As soon as I got home, I called my friend whose home I had been en route from.
“You chased him down?!” she yelled. “For your phone?! He could have had a knife or a gun! Did you think about that?”
I hadn’t. But I did think about how things might have turned out differently had I been more tired, or had a few drinks, or had been wearing my wedges instead of gym sneakers. Maybe not quite as well. I considered how I had followed all my safety “rules” and exceeded my expectations in the courage department. It was my fellow human beings who had let me down. In my moment of crisis, no one had done anything to help me.
I was alarmed to find a strikingly similar story from less than a year ago, when a 26-year-old woman riding uptown from her job in Midtown, had her purse snatched. As she fought to retrieve it, her mugger stabbed her in the torso and fled with her bag. I was relieved the same fate didn’t befall me, but was interested in how similar our experiences were in terms of the people around us. The woman described the 20 witnesses as just “staring” at her.
“I said, ‘I just got stabbed! Call 911! Does anyone know what I should do?’ They just stared at me,” she reported.
I was very lucky to get my phone back unharmed. And while I feel silly for risking my life for a replaceable gadget, my takeaway from that evening was not fear, it was a renewed self-confidence. Should I have been recast as a bystander observing the theft, I would like to believe I would have stepped in to help. But now I know for sure; when placed in a fight or flight situation, I can be my own hero.
Ed. Note: We realized after publishing that the original title of this post — “I Found Off My Attacker And Won” — was misleading and changed it accordingly. Our apologies.