We called him Mother.
To this day I'm not sure if he really existed, or if perhaps Mother was just the generic name for any of the muggers who prayed on us -- like the supposed "Wild Man of 86th Street".
I grew up on the Upper East Side in the '70s and '80s, the days when getting mugged was seen as an inevitability -- and we all kept mugger money, at least $3, on hand to ensure a would-be mugger never left empty-handed.
And sure enough, $3 is exactly how much I had in my pocket that evening in October 1985 during my freshman year of high school when I was mugged in the lobby of an apartment building on 85th Street and Park Avenue.
That was just a few blocks from our ritual Friday night hang-out spot on the steps of the Met, where the bold among us would sometimes sip a wine cooler from a paper bag. Those steps were like an advanced version of a summer camp mixer with the kids from various schools crowding around each other until at some point someone would finally make a move.
Eventually the cops would flash their lights and within about 15 seconds we'd be gone from the steps and looking for someplace to kill the time before our 1 am curfews, which usually meant a friend's house.
There were seven of us this particular night, four girls and three guys. We walked into the Park Avenue building. And as we waited for the elevator the two thugs who seemed to appear out of nowhere pounded on me.
And for the record, they were white. Probably about two or three years older than us.
One of my guy friends hid behind the girls. They all hopped in the elevator.
Meanwhile, the two dudes kept pounding my head -- as the doorman stood there, apparently thinking this mugging was a just a bunch of guys playing around.
The doorman asked over and over, "Are they your friends?" So much for the baseball bat the doorman had hidden away, or the direct line to the 19th Precinct that could've been used for the first time.
As the fists kept landing on my head I finally muttered, "What do you want?" The two attackers looked at each other, apparently unsure why they'd followed us into this luxury building in the first place, and one of them said, "Your money."
I directed them to the wallet in my back pocket with $3, a public bus pass and a key to my apartment. Then I really panicked. What if they reached into the wrong pocket, the one that didn't have my wallet but instead had that latest edition of Truly Tasteless Jokes that I'd picked up at the Barnes & Noble on 86th Street so I'd have a way to entertain the girls on the steps of the Met?
Perhaps it's no surprise they went straight for the wallet. The joke book is still on the shelf in the room where I grew up.
I'm not sure if one of those guys was Mother. I'm also not sure if one of the guys who beat up my friend after he chased them down for stealing my bike a few years earlier was Mother.
Or if the guy who mugged my brother at knifepoint a few years later was Mother.
Or if there really was a Mother.
I do know that we were all terrified of this mythical figure in a way totally unfamiliar to New Yorkers today.
These days we walk sidestreets at night and bad neighborhoods seem to have disappeared underneath the proliferation of wine bars and bistros. Subways that were once off-limits are now packed. The Upper West Side, once a scary place even in daylight, is now more trendy than the Upper East Side.
Sure, sometimes a deputy mayor has to tackle a mugger who's trying to steal a woman's cell phone in midtown. This is New York City and that's the way it goes. But these days teenagers don't worry about being mugged by Mother.