Excerpt: "The Birthday Party"

A Memoir of Survival by Stanley Alpert

She got off the train with me at Union Square, which was her stop, too. As we walked down Fourth Avenue in the direction of my house, I made small talk, and mentioned the new Entenmann's chocolate chip cookies that had recently come out, larger and with more chips. At the corner of 13th Street and Fourth Avenue, I asked her, "Do you mind waiting a minute while I go in to the deli to look for some?"

"No problem," she replied cheerily, a warm smile on her lips.

They only had the old ones and if I had just been satisfied with that, I could have been home in my apartment a few minutes later, happy and warm, eating chocolate chip cookies and sipping hot ginger tea.

But I didn't get to where I am in life by settling for second best. Lisa suggested, "There's a place on University, in the direction of my house."

It was already past 10:30 at night, and on such a bitterly cold night, the streets were mostly deserted. At University, that place was closed, and she mentioned an A&P on Sixth Avenue, near where she lived. I said, "Well, I suppose I should be a gentleman and walk you all the way home."

She responded, "Sure, sure, all you want is those cookies."

Not quite true, but I really couldn't argue. At the A & P Supermarket they had what I wanted, and I bought her a box of cookies, too (Chips Ahoy for her). As we left the store, two loose items rested in my hands: the cookies, and a thick book on the Vietnam War called "A Bright Shining Lie" that I'd meant to read on the train.

I walked her a block to the corner of Sixth Avenue and Tenth Street, and outside her nineteenth century three-story building, I asked, "Would you like to go out for a cup of tea?"

"I would love to," she said. "But it's close to eleven o'clock already. Better do it on another night." She glided her business card into my hand and I gave her mine. We said goodnight, and through the little glass window I watched her slim figure climb the building's stairs. Mission accomplished, I slid the body engine back into gear and started rolling up the street in the direction of home.

They may have followed behind me in the Lexus.

I moved down 10th Street toward Fifth Avenue, and although the wind and the chill blew right through me, I was very happy. I had had a fine day observing my friend argue and getting ready for my birthday. The success with the girl from the IRT made me a fisherman headed back to port with a full load of fresh catch. The next day was my birthday and seven of us were going to go see one of my favorite artists at the Bottom Line. There was a definite skip in my step.

I was so preoccupied with feeling good I didn't notice that because it was late and so very cold, there was not another soul on the street. The Village was usually packed with people, which lent an element of safety. This night, though, was dead, and I was oblivious. While in Brooklyn I had learned to crane my head every which way, prepared to run for my life at the sign of danger, in 1998 Manhattan I never even thought about turning around. Cold waves of shimmering darkness rose off the streets as a gray sidewalk reflected the street lamps and a struggling moon.

As I approached Fifth Avenue on 10th Street, less than a block from Lisa P. Marantz, without warning I felt a tug on my right elbow from behind. I teetered back to my right. He had come from out of nowhere, but now facing me was a short, stocky, black male, and out from under his long coat he pointed at me the thick round barrel of a large automatic machine pistol. The hand did not let go of my elbow.

"Don't say a word. Just get in the f-n' car, mother f-er."

The shock and the grab from behind forced the book and the cookies out of my hand and they tumbled to the concrete, not to be seen again.

There was another shadowy figure behind me. I couldn't see if he had a gun. He pressed up behind and rammed against my back. "Move, move," cried the second assailant. He and the first gunman twisted me to the right and heaved me toward the gutter. They then shoved me through the roadway to a point about thirty feet back, where a brand new black Lexus shining in the dim light of the street lamps lay in wait, double-parked on the far side of the street. Thrilled with their hunt, breath expanding and contracting in rapid fire, the assailants hustled me to the left side of the car with demonic glee.

Stabs of fear shot through my heart as they swept me toward the car. It came in such a rush that I had no time to think or absorb. But I was no dummy. There had been many times, growing up in New York, when I had been threatened by thugs with every kind of weapon shy of a gun. I knew what to do. Sometimes I stayed and fought. Other times I turned and ran. Other times I gave them what they wanted. I certainly knew how to let off a bloodcurdling scream if that made any sense. This time, though, they wanted not money, but me. This time, they had not knives, but guns. This time, screaming was pointless, as not only were the streets devoid of humans, but there was not even a single car racing by that I could hurl my body in front of and pray that he stopped in time. If I ripped my arm loose from the grasp of stocky pistolman the first, and sprinted down the asphalt, it was a fifty-fifty bet as to whether the gun would rat-tat-tat behind me and penetrate my spine in a wild splaying that would leave my life forever stunted on the corner of West 10th Street and Fifth Avenue. Maybe they wouldn't have fired. Maybe if they fired, they wouldn't have hit the mark. Maybe I would have been home drinking ginger tea by 11:15 waiting to see what the local news had to say about tomorrow's weather. Maybe, maybe, maybe, coulda, woulda, shoulda. Conventional wisdom holds that you should never get in the car with the robbers, because if you do you'll never be heard from again. Very nice in theory, but at that moment, with a fat, black-barreled automatic machine pistol sticking out from under the coat and a second mugger who might be similarly armed, there was no real choice. I couldn't argue with that kind of firepower and I couldn't take the chance.

The second male to sneak up behind me ran slightly ahead of us and opened the rear left side door.

"Get in the car," he cried. They pushed me in. Inside, a third black male, a massive, menacing presence, sat in the front passenger seat, waiting for the other two to bring in the prey. He turned to face me and pointed a large semi-automatic revolver in my face. Someone slammed the door behind me and the second assailant took his place in the driver's seat, while the little gunman with the big pistol eased in on the right side beside me and clicked the door shut tight. The car began to roll.

I was trapped. A prisoner, five blocks from home.