The mugger demands $20 in exchange for my cell phone, which I handed him after helpfully dialing a number for him. That was before I knew he was a mugger, when I thought he was a man in distress. That was before he dropped his plaintive tone and said, with a dash of menace, “This is how it’s going to work …”
Now, I look around the pitch-black park. I felt like a rugged Russian soldier just a few minutes ago, but the mugger recognized me for the chorus boy I in fact am. I could leave my phone and run up the hill. The marching on the moon has made me exceptionally fit on hills. But would a Russian soldier run?
He’s waiting for his $20. He’s wearing a brightly patterned hoodie, and, from what I can make out, he looks like 30 Rock’s Tracy Morgan, only stouter and broader, and he’s not trying to make me laugh. I’m hemming and hawing, and reaching into the pockets of my specially bought marching outfit, which luckily looks a lot like black sweats, pretending not to find anything. We are paid in cash, so I have about $80 in my pockets. “I don’t have any money. Can’t you see I was …” I pause, thinking, Marching in an opera? Pretending to be a Russian soldier in War and Peace? No, I can’t say that. “Can’t you see I was … working out at the gym?”
He looks me up and down and believes me. I offer him the $12 in my right pocket, not the $70 in my left. “I’m not robbing you,” he says, and offers to go home with me so I can get the other $8 I apparently owe him for my phone. This seems so silly that I summon a fraction of Cossack here. I stand erect, as Sasha always instructs us, with my feet together, toes slightly apart, and say, “That’s not going to happen. Keep the phone.” Then I kroo gom (about-face) and begin walking away. Really, almost a shagom marsh (ready, march) movement, and then nearly a goose step, with my arms stiff at my sides, fists with thumbs behind seams, back ramrod-straight. This is more fear than training. My mugger doesn’t quite know what to make of it, so he just accepts the $12, calls after me that he doesn’t want my phone, and tosses it to me.
It’s worse at the police station, which is where the responding officer has taken me. “What were you doing in the park at 11 p.m.?” the officer asks in his thick Bronx accent.
“I was on my way home from work,” I say.
“I thought you said you worked here at the college.”
“On my way back from being in Manhattan,” I correct myself. He’s going to ask. He is going to ask why I was in Manhattan. I wonder if I should lie. He looks me up and down. I’m going to have to say, “I’m a supernumerary at the Metropolitan Opera.” He’s going say, “A super what? A super-duper fairy?”
When I describe the interaction I had with “Tracy Morgan” and casually refer to him as “the mugger” or “the robber,” the officer corrects me. Technically, he was neither, he explains. “He asked to use your phone. And you gave it to him.” Then he says, “It might have been larceny,” more to the other cop in the room, on a bench against the wall, than to me. He demonstrates. He takes my cell phone off the table: “This is larceny.” Then he puts it back and takes it again and raises his fist as if he’s going to hit me: “This is robbery.” He looks over at the cop on the bench. “The difference is the threat of physical force if you don’t let me take it.” The other cop smiles. “So, legally, he was right: he wasn’t robbing you. Besides, if he says it’s not robbery, then it’s not. That’s the rule.” They both laugh. That’s right, everyone, have a good time.
I’m asked to look at a bunch of photos to identify my “attacker.” Only, by now, another detective has downgraded my experience to “extortion” and commented that he’s worried a defense attorney will call it “aggressive panhandling.” So now I can’t even claim the glory of being mugged. Rather, I simply went along with an “aggressive panhandle.” It’s not that the police aren’t going to pursue it, but they’ll do so with a certain ironic distance.
I was so proud of myself for marching well just 30 minutes ago, and suddenly it seems less serious in this real world of real dangers, like aggressive panhandling. I’m ashamed of myself. I know that if this detective knew what I was doing—what put me in that park at that hour—he’d give me a look, snap his police book shut, and stop wasting his time. He’d like the mugger more than he likes me, I can tell. So would the men in the regiment, most of whom are muscular and no-nonsense, like the mugger and the police. When they don’t look like tiny chorus boys, that is.