How muggable are you? If there were a test for muggability, my score would probably fall somewhere between the Incredible Hulk's and King Kong's.
This is not a boast. As one who should have been mugged a dozen times for venturing down a thousand mean streets with only a modicum of street smarts, I would be remiss if I quietly counted my blessings.
To dismiss my experience as sheer luck is simplistic. To ascribe it all to Providence is to leave me uncomfortably deep in God's debt. For years I marvelled at my seeming immunity to muggers in such cities as Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Antonio. It was only after a study was released describing how muggers choose their victims that I began to understand what I had been doing right all along.
In the study, prisoners with long histories of mugging viewed video tapes of pedestrians on a dimly lit city street. The inmates were asked to rate each pedestrian on his muggability. The results were surprising. Among such obvious high scorers as old ladies were more than a few sizeable young men, while a number of older men and women scored relatively low. Most of the choices were made on a gut level, and the inmates were hard pressed to explain. But on some of the unlikeliest choices they concurred overwhelmingly.
The pedestrians were then analyzed for common denominators. It quickly became apparent that such factors as age, sex and size were less important than the way each pedestrian carried himself or herself. A stride that looked unnaturally long or short or hurried or labored, for example, or an arm-swing that was out of sync with the stride, could predispose a hefty young man to the same trouble a petite middle-aged woman might confidently walk away from.
Intrigued by these findings, I embarked on a study of my own. With no pretense of scientific method, I first took a hard look at myself in a full-length mirror. Not even with shoulder pads and inflatable sleeves could I cut a formidable figure. At best, I was a rather large wimp. Well, what about the face? Mightn't a forbidding visage weaken a mugger's resolve? I tried to recapture the expression I wear on mean streets, but my face only reddened with embarrassment.
Okay, if it wasn't my appearance that kept the muggers at bay, maybe it was my gait. I walked toward the mirror, stopped, backed up, and stepped forward again. Over and over, simulating my mean-streets walk, I renewed my approach. Interestingly, my detachment grew each time until I was nearly convinced it was a total stranger on a collision course with me. Still, there was not a single thing I could pinpoint as lending him/me any extra measure of unapproachability. And yet, I found that when I neared the mirror, full stride, I had a powerful inclination to yield to the oncoming stranger and was vaguely relieved when he simultaneously stepped aside.
Still puzzling over this the following evening, I brought up the subject of muggability at a party. My friends admonished me not to tempt fate or flout superstition by advertising my luck. One of them, a mugging victim two years ago, took me to task for "suggesting" that victims are somehow responsible for what happens to them.
It was only after I had laid the subject to a fitful rest that I stumbled on -- or strode on -- the answer. My friend Donald and I were walking down the exit ramp of a college football stadium when Donald's wife, waiting for us in a nearby car, burst out laughing. "What a pair," she said. "Comic figures."
Now Donald, who towers over me, could use a course in remedial body language. When he goes to the airport, he unwittingly sets off some signal that brings the Moonies running; and it's a rare day when he can slip into a convenience store without drawing smirks or snide remarks from the loitering element outside.
"A study in contrasts," Donald's wife elaborated when we were in the car. "Donnie's all arms and legs, and his head tilts from side to side when he walks. But you -- you walk like you own the stadium and you just caught Donnie trespassing and you're marching him off the premises."
So that was it. Mine was a walk of authority and supreme self-assurance. And it was effective precisely because it was such an absurd bluff. When a mugger sees a wimp walking with such confidence, he can only wonder what arsenal the wimp must have up his sleeve, or what army of reinforcements must be lurking nearby.
Now, far be it from me to suggest that anyone can bluff his way through the most perilous urban straits. But if you ever have to go down that dreaded dark alley, walk like you own the alley and try to imagine you are the character everyone would hate to meet there.