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FIRST PERSON

So, Life Has Come to This: Mugger Money

November 18, 1994|DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

No matter how hard she tried, Mama never could get me to carry cash.

"Here," she'd say, slipping a $5 bill into my pocket. "Put this in your wallet for emergencies. And don't spend it."

But I was a teen-ager and the money waltzed right back out. For lip gloss. RC Cola. Gas.

For years I have lived close to the edge, telling myself that even pay phones and tow-truck drivers accept credit cards. Who needs the real stuff, anyway?

But now I am having doubts. For the first time, I am thinking of carrying cash. And not for impulse purchases, either.

We are talking mugger money.

Many of my friends in New York, where walking is still the way to get around, have long carried mugger money. That way, if a thug demands cash, they can comply.

"I wouldn't think of leaving my apartment without it," my Manhattan friend John says with a horrified shudder, tapping the shirt pocket where he stashes a spare $40.

He's had to replenish it twice in 12 years and considers himself lucky. The muggers took the money and ran. So did John.

Mugger money runs on the same principle as flinging a half-eaten hamburger at the snarling dog that suddenly appears from nowhere. You want to appease the beast and perhaps save your life. Of course, the aggressor might pounce anyway, but that's something I don't want to contemplate.

Still, I find myself thinking about this a lot lately. I live in Silver Lake, where an armed robber struck 20 times in June.

I was jogging around the reservoir when officers in a police car pulled up alongside to warn me. They said the robber's modus operandi was to approach potential victims in his car, feign being lost, pull out a gun and demand cash. His targets were folks like me, walking their dogs, chatting on the street with neighbors or circling the reservoir.

Unlike large swaths of the city, Silver Lake is a place where many people still feel safe taking a stroll, even at night. It's a throwback to the old Los Angeles, with narrow, windy streets; old Spanish-style houses and California bungalows, and residents ranging from retired Japanese gardeners to Anglo professionals to hip Latino filmmakers.

*

And increasingly, crime. I know the notion of mugger money seems ludicrous to those who sleep in the bathtub for fear of stray bullets from the street. Or to those who have no cash to spare. But for me and my neighbors, the debate over mugger money marked a painful loss of innocence. We wondered, "How much does it take to placate a mugger?" Is $20 enough? $40? $100?

A query to the police on mugger-money protocol didn't help much. "That's a judgment call," said Police Officer Alicia Ski, who often speaks to community groups about crime prevention. "We recommend that people not carry large amounts of cash. But if it's your life, then we advise people to give up whatever a person demands."

The debate wore on.

Then came the news that the police had a suspect who sounded a lot like our guy. He was 16, lived in Echo Park, and told the officers that he stole money to finance a drug habit. We all relaxed a bit, but as one resident told a reporter, two or three more feral youths would soon pop up to take his place. That's the city we live in.

Still, one good thing had come of this: a stronger sense of community. Those who were only nodding acquaintances days ago have become confidantes. Before the arrest, I had hailed a woman, walking alone at twilight like me, to warn her about the robber.

As we talked, a young man crossed the street from his house to us.

"Have you ladies heard what's going on in our neighborhood. About the armed robber?" he said, explaining that he had been among those robbed at gunpoint.

"I just want to let you know, from one human to another, be extremely careful," he said.

That night, I made my decision. The next morning, I visited the ATM, looked around suspiciously, and withdrew $40. Mama will be pleased to know that, this time, I plan to hang on to it.

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