We were drunk, and it was dark. True story.
Clinging to a bottle one summer night in college, I was with my girlfriend, talking as we did until the whiskey ran out. Her cat, Bella, was outside on the porch of her second-floor apartment with us. We were nearly done with finals. Our bellies were full. And we were tired, her from spending the afternoon cleaning out her car and other chores, me from drinking. Everything was as it should have been.
Except for the man rushing up the stairs toward us. He must have thought he had struck gold: two drunk, swaying college students, wallets, keys and cellphones splayed out around them. He stopped just shy of the landing where Amy and I sat, looked at me through the slit in the T-shirt covering his face, and said, “Give me your fucking money.” Another T-shirt covered his outstretched arm, which seemed to hold a gun.
In Savannah, Georgia, this was a fairly common experience for the white college student. Though, to be honest, I’d only heard stories. Friends of friends would tell stories of late-night encounters where they were stripped of their wallets and phones. One year, in a drunken response to the mugger, a student said no and was shot dead. Jumped, mugged – I’d never been on the receiving end.
I put my arm in front of Amy. I’ve got this.
“Man, her and I are broke. Look,” I showed him the Camel Light Amy and I had been passing between us. I offered him the last drag.
“Nah, I only smoke menthols,” he said.
Fair enough, good sir, but I should kick you.
That was my initial thought: kick him square in the chest and hope he tumbles all the way down the stairs. Maybe I thought about offering him some whiskey, though it was likely we’d finished all of it by that point of the night. I’d instantly accepted the circumstances. There was not a wave of panic — thank you, Evan Williams — so I carried on, much to the chagrin and disapproval of Amy, as if I’d known this man, this mugger, for years.
“What’s going on?” I asked chummily. His posture shrunk.
He removed the T-shirts from his face and hand to reveal a large branch broken lengthwise to resemble the barrel of a gun. You’ve got to be kidding. Before removing the stick from his hands I inspected it, then tossed it over the balcony. It landed in the lot, far from where we sat — my first mugging had been botched.
“My name’s Ken,” I said, extending my hand. He shook it.
“Dre,” he said. “Was trying to get to my girl’s house, but I don’t have no money. Yeah, bruh. Sorry about that, and scaring your girl here.”
He apologized some more, asked for money, the type of pandering you hear sitting outside of the Greyhound station late at night.
“A fake hold-up, though? Come on, man. Want some whiskey?”
“Don’t drink. Y’all smoke? I got bud.”
“We’re good, but thanks for asking,” I said and reached for the bottle beside me. It was near empty. I drank what was left. “You know, mugging someone, even with a stick, carries serious repercussions in this, our fair Red State of Georgia. Not to mention, everyone’s heavily drunk and armed. Making it to jail would be no short of luck.”
“I know. Been to Chatham County detention.”
“Me, too! And others.”
“Where else? What for?”
“Jersey. But really, both times were minor, overnight things. I’m sure yours are more exciting.”
“Minor possession charges. My boy’s been in for a while. Caught a gun charge.”
“That’s a bad rap.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said and sucked through his teeth.
We carried on a one-up session for twenty minutes, comparing incarcerations, the food (plastic pancakes and sporks? Yeah, me too), people and atmospheres (metal benches? Nah, we had ceramic tables and bunks) of the facilities we stayed in. He claimed to bench press more than I could. I said the only exercise I got at the moment was through lifting a drink. He’d done more collective time than I had, which was fine — he could win that round.
He still needed that ride so I offered one to a nearby gas station. I had him sit in the back — in hindsight, a horrible idea. Amy sat next to me glancing over her shoulder every few seconds in fear. We drove, passing cops and red traffic lights and a fog that seemed to hug the roads leading out of town, like an indifferent blanket of Southern hospitality.
When we pulled over at the darkened Shell station, Dre awkwardly said bye before exiting the grey, showroom-floor-clean Honda Fit. I never saw him around town after that.
Amy was shaken as we drove home. It had been an experience for the both of us, one that left us silent for most of the ride back.
We’re going to need more whiskey.
We stopped at her apartment, home at last. Perhaps to double-check that he had really gone and relieved that the situation had come to an end, she glanced in the back seat. She found nothing but a $50 bill, folded once longways.
After my first hold-up that wasn’t, our mugger had left a tip.
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Kenneth R. Rosen writes and works for the New York Times.
Ben Bertin is a cartoonist, designer, and organizer. He lives and works in Chicago.