Tudor City had become my evening sanctuary. Several times a week I’d grab my iPod and a good cigar and begin my walk east to the charming eleven building enclave resting above East 42nd street. The quiet peacefulness was the perfect balance to the Buddhist dharma talks I’d listen to - downloaded from an iTunes podcast. My walking pace was deliberately slow and meditative, looking up at the buildings and sometimes out toward the East River, left hand in my pocket, right hand regularly grabbing at my stogie.
As I turned East on 43rd street I noticed a young black man walking out from behind a construction wall. He walked quickly to catch up to me, and then walked deliberately slow. I noticed he was wearing a “Brooklyn B” knit cap with baggie pants and pristine sneakers. I didn’t want to hurry my walk, because I didn’t want him to think I was racially profiling. Then I thought I heard the young man behind me say, “Hey” – a little louder than a whisper. I paid no mind to it and kept walking toward the north end park.
I turned and saw the black shine of a gun. I threw my hands up in the air and turned back around, figuring he wouldn’t want me to see him.
“Put your fucking hands down and keep walking.”
I immediately thought of my older brother out West; how often he had gotten me out of some major fixes. There was nothing neither he nor the lady walking her dog could do for me now. I tried to make eye contact with her, but she was busy on her cell phone. Would I ever see my girlfriend again? I told myself this was not the time to get sentimental. I wasn’t sure if he still had his gun drawn on me as we walked toward the staircase leading down to UN Plaza and First Avenue. I slowly powered down my iPod.
“Keep your hands where I can see them.”
“I’m just shutting off my iPod so I can hear you.”
“Keep moving toward the stairs and do not turn around.”
A rat scurried over a black mountain range of garbage. He was freer than I. And all the lives in the brightly yellow colored windows were carrying on their nightly routines as I thought of making a fast break down the stairs. I had my doubts he was a good shot. Would he kill me? Should I call his bluff? My mind was moving too quickly to decipher anything.
By the lightness of my right pocket, I realized I had left my wallet at home. I was in for trouble for sure. I never left my apartment without my wallet, but as I walked toward Tudor City, I thought it useless to turn back for it. I had no need for it. I wasn’t about to buy anything. How would he react when he knew I didn’t have my wallet with me. I had begun to think the worst. What if he wounds me, or leaves me for dead, and I have no identification on me? These thoughts soon turned to self pity as I approached the stairway. Tears welled in my eyes for a second as I decided to rely on my faith as I descended the stairs. I counted each step down and took deep breaths. I was trying to forget that a man with a gun was following me. Staying locked in the moment was critical, I thought: No need to panic or have my mind drift. This was where my spiritual practice could really come in handy if I only trusted my intuition.
My ego had begun to war with my spirituality. Racist thoughts of blacks and crime began to spring up in my head. This was all so typical I thought. This was the stereotype lived out in full. But then, my better half grabbed me by the arm, shook me and asked me how many young black men wearing baggy pants I had passed that day? I had to admit it was many, and not a one was a threat to my safety. This situation had nothing to do with black or white, but it had everything to do with desperation. Desperation and violence has no face or color. It just is. I had to tell myself that this person was an individual who was suffering, not a color. He was suffering like so many people around the world. I was amazed that with all the spiritual practice I had thought I had, my first thought was to be racist. I no longer wanted to run away. Maybe this is what I had deserved after years of thinking I wasn’t prejudice. Soon my apathy turned to compassion for the both of us as we walked to the park just across the street from the UN building. Here were two young men with enormous potential – both wasting it.
“Stop right there,” he said. I still hadn’t turned around. “Gimme your wallet.”
I dug into my pockets and turned them inside out. I can still see the lint hitting the wet pavement. “I’m sorry, but of all nights, I didn’t take my wallet with me. I don’t have anything on me.”
“You are shitting with me. Tell me you are shitting with me.”
“I am sorry, but I am not. I can give you my iPod, if you’d like. It’s an eight-gig.”
“I should fucking blow your head off for wasting my time.” There was an unbearable silence. It was probably only twenty
seconds, but it was the longest twenty seconds of my life. I needed to go to the bathroom terribly.
“Get on your knees boy.”
I remember reading about three teens in Newark being shot execution style. The time was now to say something. I felt it was the only weapon I had. I had actually thought about this scenario before: What I would do if I were held at gunpoint and what would I say? I had devised a rather heroic mental script in my head in case the moment ever arose, but I never thought I’d have the courage to say it.
“I think you have enormous potential to do good things. Your wonderful heart is a fine jewel underneath the crust of your anger and desperation.”
“Shut the fuck up!”
“We both have potential. We are young men with all of this greatness before us. Think of Christ or the Buddha. Think of what they were able to accomplish. We are all created in the mirror image of the Christ and the Buddha. Why piss all over that?”
The young man felt around my person for whatever he could take. He pulled my watch off my wrist and snatched my iPod. “I should fucking kill you right now.”
“I only feel love right now. I’m not afraid to die. My body may die, but my spirit will be alive forever. If you kill me, I will die with thoughts of love and I will be reborn again. If you kill me, you will go to jail and you will suffer and be very unhappy.”
The young man leaned in real close to my face. I smiled gently.
“Throw your phone away,” he said. I removed it from my pocket and flung it into the ivy. He slowly backed up – still pointing the gun at me. He kept his eyes and his gun on me for some very long and tense moments. I can tell you that the whole business of your life flashing before you actually happens. He had begun ascending the long flight of stairs back up to Tudor City. When he reached the top – he sped off. There was a shake inside me that I have never felt again. My whole being was trembling with fright. I sat on the wet floor for a few moments unable to move.
A black man in a business suit walked by me and asked if I was all right. I told him I was. He had an accent I couldn’t decipher, but I imagined he was a diplomat or something.
The lines that I told the robber came from script, they didn’t come from within, I knew that – but maybe they did, but I don’t think so. I knew that if I had been a member of a proper Sangha, or had been practicing properly my spiritual practice all along, then maybe those words would have come from some type of wisdom. I knew I had to get serious with my spirituality. I let my slickness and smarts get me out of that one. If I had been truly free of my ego, I might not have been shaking as much. I remember wanting desperately to live, to run to a spiritual retreat and meditate for days. I had realized that night what I needed in my life most, and for that, I am very thankful to that young man. I not only found a Sangha, but I found a monastery in Alberta near the majestic Canadian Rocky Mountains where I live and teach today. I have hope my friend found his peace as well.