I could have been killed, you know.
One of them had a butcher knife. He said he was going to kill me if I didn't give him my $13.
I was one of the six reporters assigned to cruise the 14th Street strip to record the sights, sounds, crimes and misadventures of a typical Saturday night.
We took off at 9:30 p.m. for various points along the strip, some of the sleaziest parts of the city, where sex is sold in pickups and drugs are traded openly. It was here that a District policeman was gunned down last month.
I was dispatched to China Street. I drove around a while, unsure about getting out of the car. The streets were humming, portable tape players pushing out beats for hundreds of people along this lower Northwest corridor. They wrestled and drank and just hung around. I smoked cigarettes.
After talking to some cops in a gasoline station parking lot, I parked the car shortly after 11 p.m. near Meridian Hill Park on 15th Street and headed down Chapin, into the heart of drug country.
My white face sent young dealers and hangers-on into the dirty brick row houses and worn apartments along the street. I may have been The Man -- the police. Not to be trusted.
One young dealer stepped into my path. "What you need, man? Got some good ----, man." He pulled on a joint, and blew the smoke in my face.
"Thanks anyway," I said.
I continued around the block, up 14th Street, left on Euclid. At the top of the hill, two men in their early twenties leaned against a wall next to an alley. One was tall and thin, with a big Afro and a small goatee. He wore a long fatigue topcoat. The other was short and thick. He had a flat face and dangled an unlit cigarette in his wide mouth.
"You got a light, man?" he called.
The oldest come-on in the books. Well, that's what I was there for.
I walked over, lit his filter-tip. Suddenly there was a knife pointed at my chest. "Be quiet and you won't get killed," said the taller one. His eight-inch butcher knife did the talking.
It was getting cold, I remember, and quiet, and we walked into the alley, the short one in front, the tall one behind, carrying the knife. We stopped in a shadow by a garage next to a dumpster. I could see the headlines: "Reporter Knifed." I thought about the way I had descriped the victims in countless crime stories I had written, and I shook. My hands, my knees, my lips.
They faced me, aimed the knife at my chest. "We want your money, my man," said the tall one.
"But man," I said. "Come on. Be cool, now. I . . ."
He held the knife to my nose. An ich from my nose. "F--- around more and you be dead, man."
"I got cash," I said.
I took a step back and reached into my right pants pocket. I had $13, a ten and three ones. I pulled out the bills and fumbled them, letting them drop to the pavement. They dove for the money and I ran, sprinting 200 yards around the corner to the car. I didn't look back.
So now it's over and I'm here at my typewriter. The police have the case, number 122-148, under investigation. My editor tells me it's such a great story I can put the $13 on my expense account.
But, you know, I could have been killed.