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By Jim Ross

Long dreads coiling coarsely from his blue-and-red ballcap trigger my environmental scan: boney, six one, mid-teenaged male approaches our dinner table. Outdoors, a four-foot-high wrought-iron railing offers symbolic separation between diners and passersby. As he reaches over the railing with a hummingbird’s grace, I tell myself he’s merely after a straw. I don’t slap away his hand. I watch. Then, for a moment, it seems my wallet belongs in his sticky fingers.

His hand rises from the table in slow motion. With his hand levitating six inches above the table, I grab his wrist. I hold fast, hoping for help. He tries jerking loose, like a catfish who on a summer’s day tries to steal the bait but mistakenly takes the hook. He jerks in one direction, darts in another, then tries to run out the line. My adrenaline surges. Like old-time cartoon characters, he tries to flee, but his feet run out from under him. My osteoporotic wrist begins bending backward. How long I can hold on?  Is anybody going to do something?  Damn it, I won’t let him go. A manic laugh/cry bursts from my lips.

I have flashes of being five years old. Mom’s being taught to drive. I grab onto the old grey Dodge’s rear fender as it pulls away because I don’t want her to leave without me. As it gains speed, I hold on for dear life. My fingers burn! My lungs ache. My legs can’t keep up. I’m terrified I’m going to face plant onto the gravel road. The car comes to a gradual halt, I release my hold, and the car speeds on. Nobody stops to ask, “You okay?”

The thief’s tugging and jerking grinds the back of my wrist against the rusty railing. I can’t take it and release him. I feel defeat.  Then Ginger, my wife, my angel, holds the trophy wallet over her head and announces, “I got it.” I hadn’t seen, in my furious holding on, that she’d ripped the wallet from the thief’s grip.

The would-be-thief resumes his nonchalant stroll, halts a few tables away, pivots, watches for our next move. We can’t legitimately yell, “Stop, thief!” because the would-be-thief  didn’t manage to steal anything. We foiled the attempt. Eventually, the kid escapes out of our sight.

The restaurant manager says, “Nothing like this has happened here before,” and calls the police.

After we give a report, the police offer to call fire and ambulance.  Three times, I decline. Ginger texts our children, who roundly chastise me for refusing medical attention.

“You wanna talk?” Ginger asks, as she fires the ignition.

“Yes. . . No . . . I dunno.”

“How’s your arm?” Ginger asks.

“Still there.”

“Does it hurt?” Ginger asks.

“Kinda like when you peel off a blister. Stings. I think I bruised the bone.”

“I can’t believe what just happened,” Ginger says.

“Getting robbed in broad daylight?”

“No, our reflexes. He thought we were patsies. We won!” Ginger says, pounding the steering wheel with her first.

“I know. Don’t you feel like a superhero?”

“I got the wallet!” Ginger says, again pounding the steering wheel.

“I always liked how your hands work.”

“We rule.  But wasn’t that exactly what we’re not supposed to do?” Ginger asks.

“How’d that happen?”

“Remember what my dad said about why he did what earned him the Medal of Honor? ‘I got mad,’” Ginger says.

“There wasn’t time for us to get mad.”

“You think we should’ve given it away?” Ginger asks

“Apparently not. Everything I said for forty years about not resisting was a fraud. When the chips were down, I couldn’t practice what I preached.”

“Forty years?” Ginger asks.

“In 1973, Gary was walking through a park in DC. Three kids with a weapon stuck him up.  Sound familiar?”

“Not at all,” Ginger says.

“The kids were nervous. Nervous armed amateurs are really dangerous.”

“Like children playing with deadly weapons,” Ginger says.

“Right. So Gary said ‘I’m new at this. Have you done it before?’ and they said no. He said, ‘Just relax. We’ll go step by step and it’ll be fine.’ He gave them their lines and they repeated them. He handed over his wallet saying, ‘You can take the money, but give me back the rest,’ and they complied. After they took his prized possession—a watch his grandfather made—he told the kids, ‘Now you say, turn your back and don’t watch where we go.’ They repeated their final line and vanished. Gary was heartbroken, but unharmed.”

“What a lesson!” Ginger exclaims.

“Exactly. Dead, Gary wouldn’t’ve needed a watch. I said I’d never forget.”

“And then there’s our apartment,” Ginger says.

“Do you mean when the old ladies were getting attacked on the street and even on the stairwells?”

“And the police sent out a cop who told them they need to fight back,” Ginger says.

“Oh, that made my blood boil.”

“And you told him so,” Ginger says.

“I told him, ‘That’s totally wrong.  You’re gonna get them killed.’”

“And you remember what he said, that’s the important part?” she asks.

“‘My daughter’d still be alive if she’d fought back.’”

“You think he was on a suicide mission?” Ginger asks.

“I believe they assigned him community education to heal, but he was gonna get people killed.”

“Before tonight, nothing’d ever happened to you ‘n me directly,” Ginger says

“You don’t remember what happened to us  in London? ”

“Refresh me,” Ginger says.

“We were with the kids at the Portobello Flea Market.  So that was in . . . 2001.  Three guys were walking toward us, around 18. I thought nothing of it.  Up close, one stuck his leg out to trip me.  Alex saw it coming, stuck his leg in between, put his arm behind the guy who was tripping me, and slammed him to the ground. Their plan, obviously, was to rob us during the scramble.   Instead, they got scrambled. They musta thought Alex was the incredible hulk.”

“It’s coming back,” Ginger says.

“The important thing is, another time, three guys got Alex in a back room to work him over. You remember what he did?”

“No, he must’ve told you,” Ginger says.

“Alex was bigger. He could’ve taken ‘em individually.  But, because they were three, he stood there and took it. He didn’t fight back. You know why?”

“He was afraid?” Ginger asks.

“He was smart.  He knew, if he didn’t fight back, they’d have to stop. They couldn’t keep pummeling someone who took it. He didn’t even defend himself.  It was mind over impulse.    He taught me a lot that day.  It’s great when your kids become your teachers.”

“Or your parents! Why didn’t we follow his example tonight?” Ginger asks.

“There wasn’t time. Instinct. I didn’t feel threatened.”

“You got physical,” Ginger says.

“You too.  We were invincible!  How d’we explain this to the kids?”

When we reach home, I dose my wrist with peroxide, then rush to post a victory dance on Facebook. At first, I only want to say, “Look what we did!” But, before I hit “post,” my objective has changed.  I want to stimulate a dialogue around resisting vs. fighting back.  Our son promptly questions my priorities in rushing to Facebook after refusing medical attention.

No surprise—as hoped for—we receive prompt reminders that “it’s not worth the risk” so we should “play it safe” and “just let it go.”  Most people give us a standing ovation.   Liz calls us Batman and Robin.  Monica dubs us Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  John suggests we star in a new crime-fighting TV series about an older couple who “won’t put up with it anymore.”   Cousin Dick says, “You can take the boy out of the city but you can’t take the city out of the boy.”

Vet friend Jack says, “I have no problems with or reluctance to fighting back.  It sends a clear message to the perp.”   Slow-moving Tina says, “I know we’re not supposed to resist, but when somebody stole my purse, I tore after him.”

Baby brother Bob asks, “So what’d you learn?”

“For starters,” I said, “I shouldn’t leave valuables like a wallet or cell phone out on the table as if I’m asking for them to be lifted. More to the point, I should stop carrying a wallet altogether. I’m gonna go back to what I used to do: store some cash, an ID, and a credit card or two in my sock. I’m safe till pickpockets go after socks.

“I hear that’s the newest fad in Naples,” says Bob.

We laugh.

“You’re right, nothing is safe forever.   Let me get to the big one.  After this, I think fighting back is a normal, instinctive reaction to theft or assault.”

“Not necessarily, not for everyone,” Bob says.

“Agreed, people are wired differently. But for many of us, we’re wired to fight, to resist.”

“Where are you headed with this?” Bob asks.

“I need to think long and hard about whether I want to change how I’m wired. And, if I decide I want to change—so I just let it go next time—I need to find out how.

“That’s huge,” says Bob. “I’d like to be part of that conversation.  ”

“I’ve got one more,” I said. “When I want help, I can’t just think it, I need to say something. I need to call out loud.”

“Good luck with that,” says Bob, “Let me know when you want my help.”

ADDENDUM: A couple of years later, in early 2016, I took my wallet to a peaceful coffee shop in Berlin. It was January and the birds were flying about inside the coffee shop. Immediately after Ginger and I left, I realized that, after I paid for our coffees, my wallet had been stolen. We walked to the police precinct and filed a report. The police officer said, “This probably won’t make you feel any better, but my wallet was stolen in a coffee shop too, and I’m supposed to know better.”  I asked the police officer what she thought of fighting back, of resisting the thief.  She said, “Most of the time, you won’t even know you’re wallet’s being taken. If you do, don’t fight back. A lot of the pick pockets carry a switchblade and they don’t hesitate to use it. You’re much better off just letting it go. Even better, leave your wallet at home.”

After retiring in early 2015 from public health research, Jim Ross jumped back into creative pursuits to resuscitate his long-neglected right brain. He’s since published 35 pieces of nonfiction, several poems, and 140 photos in 45 journals, including 1966, Cargolit, Entropy, Friends Journal, Gravel, Lunch Ticket, MAKE, Meat For Tea, Palooka, Pif, Souvenir Lit, and Thin Air. Jim and his wife—parents of two nurses and grandparents of three toddlers—live in the United States.  He aspires to move into more long-form reporting.