I do this crazy thing that people marvel at when they see me doing it: I read while I’m walking. On my way to a bus or Luas stop (the Luas is a tram system in Dublin City), or to the shops or the library or wherever, out comes whatever book I’m reading and I’ll get a few pages in. It’s terrible really; as a supposed writer, I guess I should be smelling the proverbial roses along the way, observing life’s rich pageantry, instead of sticking my nose in a book, but there you go.
How do I do this without getting run over by a bus or dropping down an open manhole? I hear you ask. Well, first and foremost, the routes I follow are well-worn tracks I’m familiar with; I know when to look up when I arrive at a road I need to cross and I don’t read while crossing it. Secondly, I tend to briefly glance up from the book I’m reading and scan the next ten yards or so ahead of me every thirty seconds in order to avoid stepping into a pothole or dog shit or whatever. Lastly, despite generally poor eyesight, I have excellent peripheral vision, which allows me to ‘see’ things or people coming at me from up to a 90 degree angle, left and right, to the direction I’m walking in.
So, reading while walking is crazy? In the grand scheme of things, I suppose I’d have to agree, but personally, I don’t think so. In fact, I have seen others do this; not many, but some. What is crazy is something else I used to do at the time of this particular story. This was when I used to work in the big bad corporate world of overseas development aid programming, wear a suit and tie and travel each day to and from an office with a briefcase (whenever I wasn’t abroad somewhere). How I didn’t have more sense I don’t know, but I used to put my whole life in that briefcase: wallet, keys to the house, mobile (cell) phone, etc., etc.
Anyway, on the night in question, a Tuesday night that involved me grabbing a bite to eat in town after work and attending my regular Albedo One/Writers’ Workshop meeting, I was walking home around midnight from the Luas stop nearest my house. Just before I hit the main road that led down to my place, a young man popped out of the bushes to ask for a light. I was reading The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter and totally involved with the characters and story. I looked up, said ‘no, sorry’, and went back to reading the book as I walked on.
I turned left onto the main road, passed Ryan’s Pub and nodded a greeting to a neighbour who was standing outside the pub having a cigarette. He made some joke about watching where I was going, I said something back and kept on walking. It was as I was nearing the next pub along the road that I heard someone run up behind me (peripheral vision not much use here). Perhaps it was the few drinks I’d had at the workshop or the fact that I was engrossed in my book, but I remained unconcerned. In some dark recess of my brain was the thought that this person rapidly gaining on me was the neighbour I’d just spoken to; he’s a joker and I fully expected him to grab me or something, pretending to mug me.
The expected grab came and I was spun around to face not my neighbour, but the young man who had asked for a light a few minutes ago. Obviously, the sight of a man in suit and tie, carrying a briefcase, and lost in the dark, mysterious world of Angela Carter had proved too good an opportunity to turn down.
‘Gimme the fuckin’ briefcase,’ he shouted.
Nobody can ever know in advance how they are going to react to a situation like this and I certainly couldn’t have predicted the next couple of minutes. The thing is, not only did I have my wallet, phone and keys in my briefcase, but also a half dozen CDs I’d purchased before my workshop, a couple of newly bought books, and copies of my latest attempt at a short story all workshopped and everything by my fellow writers. The briefcase was fat and heavy with booty.
‘Fuck off,’ I roared back at him. I wasn’t going to let this bollocks take what was mine.
What may have lent bravery to my words was the sight of the knife he was brandishing. It was an electric carving knife, with serrated edge and a rounded end to it, i.e., no point. Now I’m sure he could have inflicted damage with it, but the image of this toe-rag searching for a socket on the main road to plug in his knife and carving tender slices off me like a turkey struck me as faintly ridiculous.
‘Gimme the fuckin’ briefcase and you won’t get hurt,’ he shouted at me.
The strange thing is, the arm he had grabbed was the one that held Angela Carter. My briefcase arm was free to swing up at his head and land a haymaker. But this never occurred to me. So what ensued was a bizarre shuffling dance by the roadside, now briefly devoid of the slightest of traffic, as the mugger hung onto my arm and we shouted obscenities at each other.
Our tug of war seemed to last an age, but my moment came when he decided, for no good reason, to shift his grip. As soon as he let go, I dashed down the road towards the turnoff to my street. I’m sure I must have been travelling at speed, but my legs felt like rubber and the pavement like molasses. The width of my briefcase must have hinted at rewards to rival the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, because my mugger was not prepared to give up just yet; I could hear him racing after me.
However, as I neared the turnoff, I glanced back and saw that he had disappeared. Off back to his spot in the bushes, no doubt. I barrelled into the house, waking my wife, and babbling about what had just happened. It was then that I noticed I still had my thumb in the book, marking the page I was on.
I rang the police, practically shouting the events down the line. There was no point in them visiting me as nothing had been taken, but they would patrol the vicinity in case the mugger was lying in wait for his next victim. The funny thing is, and maybe it’s because the bastard didn’t get anything from me, that night, when I finally hit the hay, I slept like a baby.
I’m sorry that you had to deal with reprehensible act, John. However, that was one hell of a blog post. The fact that your thumb was still in the book marking your page is a punchline so rich, that it’s only believable because it actually happened.
I have had my own experience(s) of this type (a lot more common in LA than people think) and will say that facing two drugged up gang bangers with GUNS is a bit different than facing off with a guy with an electric carving knife. I salute your bravery (although your wife and loved ones may not agree) and have often thought that muggers are perhaps the most cowardly people in the world.
They are cowardly for three main reasons (although I’m sure there are more):
1). They use a weapon (particularly guns). Any weasel can be threatening with a gun. If a mugger tried to take my money by stepping up to me and demanding it WITHOUT a weapon (especially a gun), I could almost respect them. At least then, I would have the opportunity to fight them for it (and I would). And if they kicked my arsh and got the money, well, at least they DID something to get it.
2). They generally attack people as a duo or group, which is even more pathetic. How cowardly and weak do you have to be to attack someone when you’ve got more than one person on your side, AND weapons too?
3). But the greatest cowardice of all is that they’re afraid to face the day-to-day grind that we hard-working, law-abiding citizens do every day to EARN our keep. They are fearful of what it takes to make an honest dollar. So they steal from others like the rats they are.
At the very least, you have some fodder for your writings. And perhaps, some gratitude, that your attacker was such a poor sop that all he could come up with for a weapon was a dull, electric knife. 🙂
I think the reason my thumb was still marking the page was my hand just froze in that position for the duration. 🙂
I’ve had guns pointed at me on a few occasions as well, but this was in Africa when I used to do all that travelling malarkey. Very frightening when you consider that it’s genuinely a 50/50 thing whether or not they shoot you, irrespective or them getting anything off you. But that’s the subject of another blog.
Interesting to see your breakdown of reasons for their cowardice. I can’t ever see number 1 happening. 🙂
I had one experience of your second reason in Mozambique, when five of us were surrounded by about a dozen guys waving machine guns. It was a real Killing Fields moment. I don’t drink whiskey, but I can tell you, when we got out of that jam and back to the guesthouse where we were staying, I sank a few glasses.
And don’t get me started on reason 3.
Yikes. I don’t envy your Mozambique experience. I once got lost in Mombasa, Kenya after a late night out. A bit harrowing, actually. And something I’ll never forget.
Glad that we’re both still around to discuss it from behind the safety of our keyboards. 😉
Wow, I didn’t think something like that could happen in your post code…
Well it’s certainly not a war zone, but muggings and burglaries do happen. 🙂