IT HAPPENED ABOUT 10:30 at night, last Nov. 8, just after Robert McCormick left McDonald's where he had stopped for a hamburger and an order of fries. He was walking down 10th Street near New York Avenue when a man came up behind him and threw him to the ground with enough force to shatter his knee.
"The only thing I remember is he was bent over me, going through my pockets. He got so mad. He said is that all you got? I said yes. That's it. He told me to shut up."
The robber got $8. McCormick got 94 straight days in the Veterans Administration Hospital. He was in traction for weeks until a surgeon put a steel late in his knee and pinned the pieces together. Now he is in a cast up to his hip and faces anywhere from six months to a year of crutches and physical therapy to learn how to walk again.
McCormick is 59 years old, a slight man with sunken cheeks, who lost his right eye after another mugging in 1972. He has emphysema and a bad liver. He has given up whiskey but not cigarettes."It gives me something to do," he says.
He has gotten by for several years on a $197-a-month disability check from the Veterans Administration that he supplemented by working two or three days as a newspaper pressman. Now, he can't work. He is a man who, until now, has always had enough money to live on, spending most of his spare time sitting around talking to friends in neighborhood bars, a man whose greatest pleasure was to go fishing on the Chesapeake in the summer. In a sense, McCormick is a classic case of a victim who lived his life alone and perhaps unwisely. And as he got older, he lived his life so close to the margin that a single calamity has rendered it desperate.
McCormick learned his trade in his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., and from there he worked in Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, San Francisco and finally Atlanta. When he came here in 1961, he left behind his wife and four sons. "We couldn't get along. The four boys are all grown." He says he calls his sons "every couple of weeks," but they don't know what's happened to him. "I don't bother them with my troubles. They've got enough to worry about."
McCormick has been robbed four times since coming to Washington. He was robbed first in 1971 when he was getting off the elevator to his ninth-floor room at the Cairo Hotel. "A couple of kids shoved a gun in my back. They got $300 that time." It was payday.
And it was on a Tuesday in 1972, when he was walking home from a friend's bar at 14th and Belmont that a couple of kids jumped him. "I had a couple of hundred on me that day . . . I got hit on the side of the head and it ruptured the eyeball. It got to hurting me so bad the doctor took it out." McCormick's right eye is artifical.
He was robbed the third time in November, a week before his leg was broken. "They didn't mug me. They just shoved the gun in my back. I said be my guest."
McCormick is a victim without rancor, without anger, and oddly, without self-pity. Sure, he says, he's thought, "Why me? a million times," but he says he has concluded he was simply "in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"You know what I found myself doing after I got to the hospital? Praying for that son of a bitch. I don't know why. I was laying there and all of a sudden I started praying for that jerk. I'm not really religious. I don't go to church too much. I just feel they're doing something wrong. They need a little assistance. I guess that's why I prayed. Dope gets to you, I guess. I don't feel angry at all. They just have to have it."
McCormick lives in a rooming house near Ninth Street and New York Avenue NW, paying $60 a month for a room. His VA check did not come this month -- he says checks are suspended when you spend more than 60 days in a VA hospital -- and he hasn't been able to pay the February rent. He doesn't have any savings, but he knows he could have.
McCormick has had a couple of big paydays in his life. He was one of the pressmen who took a flat $10,000 payment to retire from the Washington Star in 1976 as newspapers automated their pressrooms and reduced their manpower needs. He says he spent all that money buying things for his friends and family. Later, he says, he received $7,100 in workers compensation for a claim that his hearing had been imparied by noise in the pressroom. "I blew it," he says.
He says he guesses that, yes, he would have been better off had he saved some of that money. But that's not his way. "As long as I have money I buy things for people. I give it away. That's the way I've been all my life. If that guy had asked me for my money, I'd given it to him. I'm always buying something for somebody. It makes you feel good inside."
So the money is gone. "I don't have anything at all. I'm flat broke. I've always had money before. This is the only time I can remember that I've been down to nothing. You worry a lot," he says. "You worry about your health. You worry about everything."
McCormick may be eligible for some kind of public help. He doesn't know the rules. He doesn't know the system. "I've never had to ask anybody before."
The system doesn't offer him much. The maximum benefit he would be entitled to under general public assistance is $180.53 -- slightly less than his VA disability, which would be deducted from any other compensation. The most he could get under supplemental social security income is $208, and again, most or all of his VA benefit would be counted against him in figuring any such payment. He might be eligible for food stamps and Medicaid.
McCormick is at the lowest point of his life -- sick, old and tired beyond his years, broke, but he is a man who can sit in the smoky shadows of a 14th Street bar and tell a friend that yes, maybe he could use some cash, but it would only be a loan. Ask him what he would have done differently and you expect him to say he would have spent the 10 grand or the seven grand more wisely. Maybe invested in a bar with a friend. Something like that. But no, that's not what he says at all. McCormick, you see, had this dream.
"I would have went to college if I could live it over again. There was something I always wanted to do. Oceanography. I loved the sea. Studied oceanography and been an oceanographer. That's what I would have done if I had it to do over."
He smiles and says softly, "I'd have been right out there with Jacques Cousteau."