My story begins in the west elevator of 211 E. 18th Street. I shared a top-floor apartment with Lynea, a travel agent also in her twenties. The six-story building had an elevator on each side of the lobby. On an April Monday after work, a black teenager slipped behind me as I turned my key to open the lobby door. The guy carried a delivery package and pushed the glass door open when the lock turned.
When we were in the building, I sensed his hesitation. He needed to know if I would walk across the lobby to the left or the right. I went to the left elevator and he followed. I pressed the Up button, the door opened, and we both got on. As soon as the elevator door closed, the two of us were locked in a small, soon to be dangerous space. He backed against the panel of buttons, and in one motion his right hand pulled a switchblade out of nowhere.
Of all nights, where the hell was Gus? The Cuban superintendent usually hung around the lobby to greet tenants as they came home. Since his wife left, Gus liked to make small talk and hint to the single women that he’d like a home-cooked meal.
I stupidly let a stranger follow me into the building. I stupidly did not turn around and walk back on to 18th Street. I never saw the kid outside. In fact, I only saw people walking closer to Second Avenue. Where did he come from? And, where the hell was Gus?
I stood in the elevator with an addict in need of a fix, that much I knew. I read those Daily News stories about women stabbed to death in basements or pushed off rooftops for a few dollars. I may have been stupid, but I had to stay smart enough not to be killed. Gus was probably shooting up in his basement apartment and getting high in his own druggie world.
— Give me your money.
I looked at his dark skin, bloody-red eyes, white teeth, and determined expression. Werewolf, I thought. His knife looked keenly sharp. I did not want to see my blood on the blade. He pushed the tip into the shoulder strap of my bag and asked for money again.
— Okay, okay. Just don’t cut my purse.
My hands trembled to slide the zipper open. I haggled for the bag on Orchard Street the day before. I’ve had the bag one day and this punk is looking to cut the strap. My left hand fished around at the bottom. I pulled up my wallet. I fumbled to open the bill section and took out some fives and a few singles.
— Is that all you got? He grabbed the wallet.
— There’s a twenty in there. I’ll find it.
He pushed the wallet back into my hand. I found the twenty dollar bill in the secret compartment. My insurance money for emergencies came right to the fore. In an elevator at knifepoint, I had the unexpected need for twenty dollars. Good advice from my mother, I thought. Always have extra money tucked away, she said, money you only use when absolutely necessary.
— Here. That’s all I have.
He grabbed the wallet again and opened the change pocket. The nickels and dimes were of no interest. My thoughts scrambled as he pushed the wallet toward me and pressed the Open Door button. As he stepped into the lobby, his left hand pressed all of the buttons and the door closed. I stood alone shaking and wimpering. I felt the upward motion of the car. What next? My mind tried to sort things out. The car came to a stop somewhere between the lobby and the 6th floor. The door opened and I faced the two men and a woman who called for the elevator.
— I’ve been robbed.
My hands shook and the loose change began to jump. Maybe from their own fright, nickels and dimes fell to the floor. One of the men walked me out of the elevator. They talked in concerned voices and took me to their apartment. I didn’t know them, never saw them before. The scenes were blurry, but I knew that the kid was gone and I was mostly okay.
— I’m calling the police. Would you like a drink?
— Yes. Yes, I would. I was on my way up when a kid got in the elevator. I thought he was making a delivery.
I sat on the living room couch and starred back over the last few minutes. Fright and surprise began to creep in as an afterthought. Most of all, surprise that I came away unharmed.
— You better let Gus know, too.
* * *