It was cold when I woke up and I was confused. Why had my roommate left the window wide open in the dead of a Chicago winter? But I was too tired to get up and close it and tried to pull the covers over myself – except there were no covers. So I lay back down, shivering and hoped the sun would soon come through our dorm window to warm up the room.
A little while later I again woke up and looked around. I was not in my dorm room. I was lying on the tile floor of an apartment building and I began remembering what had happened.
Dr. Gerhard Meyer was my college advisor. He was a charming man with a terrible stutter which he had probably acquired as a result of spending some time in one of Hitler’s death camps. He looked out for his students and truly took an interest in our progress at the University of Chicago and had invited several of us to join him and his family for dinner. I was walking there when it happened.
Suddenly I was ambushed by three young men wielding knives. I remembered their pulling me into the apartment vestibule and ordering me to lie down. That was the last thing I remembered until I woke up shivering.
I didn’t know what else to do so I rang several of the doorbells to the apartments in the building. A couple came down, opened the door and helped me inside. The wife ran up the stairs to call the police and some time later an ambulance took me to Billings Hospital.
When I woke up I was lying on a gurney. The unpleasant antiseptic smell of an emergency room engulfed me, almost gagging me with its sterility. I was in a corridor and medical personnel were scurrying by, tending to their patients.
Some time passed as I lay there when two of Chicago’s finest were directed to me by a member of the hospital staff. The police were efficient, asked all the questions that one might expect, “How many people attacked you?” “Were they male or female?” “How old were they?” “What color were they?” “What were they wearing?”
The questions were perfunctory and flowed easily from the black cop who took the lead in the interrogation. I had the sense that he had done this a hundred times before and this was very routine. I also had the sense that the end result would be that my assailants would probably not be apprehended. To my knowledge they never were – at least not for their attack on me.
From what the doctors could surmise, apparently once I lay on the floor one of them kicked me on the left side of my head. This caused me to lose consciousness. Other than a five day stint in the hospital where they could monitor the concussion that resulted from the kick and a very bad bruise by my left eye which took more than three months to heal completely, I didn’t sustain any permanent injury.
The doctors said, “I was lucky.” Had the kick been an inch further to the left, they told me I might have lost the sight in my eye or the eye itself. While there were no permanent scars I didn’t realize that this attack left a psychological scar which it took me several years to overcome.
At the time I was the organist for the local Roman Catholic church. We held choir rehearsals on Thursday nights and I generally walked to the church and back home after our practice. It was nearly a year after the attack when I was returning from one of these when across the street I saw three young men walking in the opposite direction that I was headed.
Suddenly my attack came to mind and almost involuntarily I began running as fast as I could. I kept running despite the cold air biting my lungs until I got to my apartment, a distance of about a mile.
I remember my knees being weak as I climbed the three flights to my apartment – not from my run but because I realized that I had become a victim not only of a physical assault but those three thugs had instilled in me a sense of fear – something I had never felt before our encounter.
It took me several years until I was able to put this experience completely behind me. I made the decision that I would not allow muggers to shape and control my life and my actions. But before I completely overcame this mental scar I had several episodes where again my attack leapt into my mind and I had to catch myself to prevent fear from overwhelming me.
The neighborhood in which this happened was and still is one of the most highly integrated in the country. It was a nice place to live with a large number of middle class families and individuals, surrounded on one side by Lake Michigan and bordered on the other three by neighborhoods that were examples of urban blight.
According to the local police blotter, ninety to ninety-five percent of all crime committed in the neighborhood was perpetrated by young black men between the ages of 16 to 40. They generally lived in the surrounding poor neighborhoods and it was convenient and apparently profitable for them to ply their trade in our higher income level community. As it happened, the three men who mugged me fit that demographic.
In 1967, the year of my attack, few would have questioned a victim’s “motivation” if he or she reported being attacked by three black men. It would have made no difference if the victim were white, black or Asian. We did not attribute ulterior motives or racism to these reports.
With the national attention the Zimmerman trial received and the reaction to that verdict as well as extensive reports on “The Knockout Game,” it appears that issues of color are alive and well, newsworthy and profitable to those who regularly engage in finding racism as the underlying cause for every act of violence.
The real issue is not racism. It is a matter of whether or not a person is raised in a family environment in which values to which most of us would subscribe are taught and whether they absorb and apply that training. It is a matter of whether a person gets an education which enables him or her to make a decent living. It is a matter of having an environment in which government through its policies encourages and promotes policies which enable people to do better and rise through the economic system. Ultimately, it is a matter of how each of us chooses to conduct ourselves and live our lives.
That is the essence of America and the American dream. And as we can see throughout our society, for those who are willing to take the chance and make the effort, that dream is alive and it is color blind.