Another installment of memoirs:
I didn’t know it at the time, but the New York Statler Hilton (that’s what it was called in 1968 when I was a guest/victim there) has the dubious distinction of having the New York phone number in longest continuous use. The number, PEnnsylvania 6-5000, has been around so long, in fact, that it was the inspiration for the 1940 Glen Miller hit.
I didn’t know the number, though. Couldn’t have called if I wanted to, trussed up like a Christmas goose, my own Clorox scented handkerchief stuck down my gob. They cut the phone line, too, just in case.
They. Sorry. Antecedent. The two fellows who helped me find my room. Me, an obvious hick from the sticks on my first ever trip on my own, headed to school in Europe. The Statler Hilton was full of twenty-year-olds like me, gathered there to spread out across the European continent for junior-year-abroad programs. Fresh-faced, whitebread kids from all over the hinterland all gathered at the Statler.
The marquee outside heralded our arrival, I noticed as my taxi from JFK pulled up to the curb: “Welcome Students Abroad!” My two muggers must have salivated when they saw the marquee. To them it read: “EASY PICKINGS! COME AND GET ‘EM!”
So my–what should I call them? Assailants? Muggers? Thieves?–my purveyors of real world experience played the role of slightly bemused and equally lost students, wandering the halls of the Statler looking for their rooms. The pasty complexion of the tall, needle-thin, coppery redhead, and the smoky, dark, silent fierceness of his shorter colleague would have set bells dinging in the heads of those with a fraction of street smarts. Me, I grew up on the coast of Oregon. Portland was a city for me. I had no such bells.
We exchanged room numbers and promised to help each other find our rooms. I did not really keep my end of the bargain, finding my room finally and setting down the suitcases I was too cheap to pay a bellboy to haul for me. I barely had the door shut when the inevitable knock came. I didn’t even have it on the chain, just opened the door and there were my two friends, along with the alarming snout of a pistol pointing straight at my head.
There were some moments of quiet and not so quiet terror that followed, me finally leveling with them that I was about to do something stupid (faux karate attack? scream?) if I did not get some assurances from them. The terror dialed up when the shorter one sat in an armchair, put on sunglasses (it was dark outside), clicked open a nifty switchblade, and began cleaning his nails.
Copperhead saw my panic and was smart enough to say he was scared too, this was his first time. They were in the market for some quick cash, not homicide. So I allowed them to truss me up, lying on my belly with arms in back and knees bent. As they tied my hands and feet and then the hands to the feet, I faked stiffness so that later I had some play in the bonds, some looseness to help me free myself. Lord knows where that bit of ingenuity came from–it is the one bit of bravado I can boast from that sorry affair.
So they tied me up, took my cash and travelers checks. Small pickings, actually. Before they left, knife man comes up to me, flicked his knife in my face and hissed:
“You better lie still. See. No noise from you. We hear you from the other side of the door. You make noise, you get that
pretty face of yours cut up. Understand?”
I nodded. I understood that he had grown up on the same crime shows I had. Pretty face? That almost made me laugh, but I figured that would not be a smart move at the moment.
So I lay there quiet as a pea pod for a few minutes after they left, silently undoing the Venetian blind cords they had used as rope.
And then I heard a burst of activity and shouting outside the door. Somebody caught them! Fantastic.
I had managed to get my feet separated from my hands, but my hands were still tied, as were my feet. And the handkerchief was beginning to swell in my mouth. I rolled off the bed where they had trussed me, managed to get to my feet and hopped to the door like a dipsomaniacal bunny. I stood by the door for a moment, controlling my breathing. The shouting persisted. They must have caught them, I thought.
I gripped the doorknob, slowly turned it, and hopped out into the hall.
Straight into the early, though fully-fueled stages of a Lithuanian reunion. For the next five minutes I was a human pinball machine, spun and pushed from one inebriated celebrant to the other.
Not my finest moments.
Long story short. Some less drunken member of the party figured I was not entertainment laid on by the hotel. The authorities were notified, the police came. The manager was aghast that the thieves had not only cut his Venetian blind cord, but also the phone line.
“They didn’t need to do that,” he moaned. “You were tied up. How you gonna call?”
I could see his point.
Thereafter I shared a room with a guy from Iowa who was heading for college in Germany. It seemed safer that way. We put our valuables in the hotel safe, and a day later I was off for Vienna, now officially known to my fellow students as the guy who got held up at the Hilton.
End of story, right? Except that it wasn’t. I was on the road in Europe for several weeks before school started in Vienna. When I finally arrived, there was a message waiting for me from the guy I shared the room with in New York. I had left before him; problem was, I signed for the safe. He was stuck. He couldn’t get his traveler’s checks out or his airplane ticket, or his passport. He didn’t leave the States. Instead he went back to Iowa, tail between his legs, and married the hometown sweetheart he had talked about getting away from for a while.
“Maybe you could sign the enclosed form,” his letter said, “so I can at least get the money out of that safe and go on my honeymoon.”
That was one of the saddest letters I ever got.