West Side Rag reported yesterday on the arrest of an 13-year-old African-American “‘ringleader'” of a group of teens who had mugged other neighborhood kids and harassed a street kiosk vendor. My oldest son has been mugged twice, once getting his phone taken, and as a kid I was mugged numerous times and even beaten up in my own lobby on East 96th Street.
So this news was not unwelcome.
But here’s the problem.
In 1979, a group of white teens out of school because of a snow day in January were looking for fun on the Upper East Side. They came across a beautiful, surprisingly clean Bentley parked on the south side of East 70th Street, just west of Lexington Avenue. Overlooking the car across the street were stately brownstones and one in particular, with a bay window on the third floor.
One of the teens decided to throw slush on the car and, before long, all six teens did so. Giggles. Knowing looks. More slush. This was fun!
But one teen’s slush ball had a bit too much ice, and when he threw it at the glass covering the license plate (this was a Bentley, after all), the glass broke. He looked up at the others and pulled his shoulders up into his scarf, barely containing a guffaw. Another teen, for fun, tried turning the passenger side door handle, but it wouldn’t budge, so he forcibly wrenched it 90 degrees, causing the chrome fixture to scrape the black paint of the door.
Just then there was a shout, and one teen broke into a sprint toward Park Avenue. Another teen broke off, and then the others followed suit. One started to run but was slower and was looking around. He had brought his younger brother and didn’t want to get separated from him. This older brother found himself suddenly grabbed by the back of the collar.
It was the man from the bay window. The man who owned the Bentley. And he had a crowbar.
The man started to hit the boy with the crowbar on the legs. The boy broke away and made it to 69th Street and Lexington, but a crowd of onlookers formed a circle to stop him from escaping. The boy looked up into the face of a middle-aged black man, who had his arms spread, holding the boy in his spot so the Bentley owner could catch up. One of the boy’s friends returned and grabbed onto the crowbar with the man on the other end of it.
“Run!” the returning teen yelled to his friend, but his friend froze in place.
The teen released the crowbar and ran off. The crowd and the man held the boy.
The police arrived. Two of them. Blue suits.
There was a discussion between the owner and the cops. The boy was silent, like a lamb before the slaughter. He heard bits and pieces of sentences. The words, “…attempted grand larceny…” were among them. Ostensibly because trying to open the car–valued at more than one thousand dollars–with the door handle made it look like we were trying to steal it.
The man decided to handle this on his own.
The boy and man walked back from 69th toward 70th Street. Along that 100-foot stretch of pavement, on the west side of Lexington between 69th and 70th, the boy and man talked. The man planned to call the boy’s parents. This would not go over well, but at least it wouldn’t be reported in the news that a Trinity School sophomore was arrested for attempted grand larceny. They didn’t have iPhones then of course, but a Bentley was a site more expensive than a piece of plastic you put to your ear.
“Sir,” the boy started. “If you have a store or anything…any place where I can work, I will work off the cost of the damage to your car.”
The man stopped walking.
“You know,” he said. “That was exactly the right thing to say.” There was a pause. “I was in a reform school for six months when I was 17, and it nearly ruined my life. I don’t want someone else to go through that.” Another pause. “I’m not going to call your parents. I want this to be a lesson.”
They walked a few more feet, and I said goodbye. Eager to get home and find out where my younger brother had run off to.
Have you ever read Les Miserables?
What will become of this 13-year-old African-American boy, marked for life as a criminal, arrested yesterday?
All because he is black and I was white.
And because of one man’s grace.