The Day a Homeless Person in Denver Tried to Rob Me

by Tommy Leung on March 14th, 2018

Like most New Yorkers I rode the subways.

There is a rotating cast of panhandlers who repeat their sob stories as they pass through the train cars asking for money.

Someone’s house burned down last week. Or they just lost their job. Or was in a abusive relationship. Some claim to be veterans and they might be. I can’t know for sure.

But I wasn’t born yesterday.

If I see you peddling the same stories month after month then I know you are bullshitting me.

I’m from Brooklyn. We're pretty good at detecting bullshit.

"Develop a built-in bullshit detector."

- Earnest Hemingway

Now I'm in Denver, Colorado. It is not New York and it ain’t Brooklyn.

There are some homeless people who mill around my neighborhood. They are different than the panhandlers of the New York subway system.

They don’t generally bother you. They don’t even ask for money. The homeless here appear to actively choose homelessness as a way of life.

Others appear to have mental illnesses.

I was out walking my dog, Otis, one day. He was moving like a tank. He usually does this when there’s something he doesn’t like. I couldn’t tell what it was since everything seemed ok.

At one point after we made it a few blocks Otis just stopped and refused to move. This wasn’t a new area. We’ve walked this street many times.

Another person who was walking behind us goes and hugs a tree.

Yes, he hugged a tree and smiled while doing it. This is Colorado. Maybe he just really likes the outdoors? It was also one of the first warm days after weeks of cold weather.

I didn’t pay this person much attention since I was trying to get my dog to move.

We make it to the corner of the street and suddenly this tree hugger makes a lunge toward us. I quickly turn around and he backs off.

Remember, I’m from Brooklyn. Born and raised in a neighborhood with shootings and muggings. Unless you are a lion or a bear, my natural fight or flight response leans fight.

My girlfriend was with me so I gave her the leash. I didn't know what this erratic tree hugger was up to but I wanted both my hands free.

I kept an eye on him while we waited to cross the street. He stood a few feet away and mumbled to himself. At this point I figured he probably had a mental condition. He was a bit dirty. Held a bird feather in his hand. And had a beaten backpack.

He was probably homeless.

We cross the street and he stayed put. He doesn't cross the street until we are halfway up the block. He continues following us and eventually catches up and makes another lunge.

I turn around and he backs off. I'm not interested in playing this game so I ask him, “What are you doing?”

He sheepishly says, “I’m trying to steal our water bottle.”

I aggressively snapped back, “You ain’t stealing shit.”

Aggressive anger is my natural response to threats. The fight in fight or flight. I immediately got angry the second he said he wanted to steal from us and responded the way I did. It happened faster then I could consciously process it.

He then sighed, went to put his backpack on the ground, and got into a pseudo fighting stance. He was still holding his bird feather.

I didn’t want to fight. Especially not someone with a mental illness. I haven’t had to actually fight anyone since my teenage years. The last time I was involved in a similar escalation was on a New York subway platform where someone—also may have had a mental condition—was angrily displaying and then started barking racists slurs.

The subway platform event escalated to him also putting his backpack on the ground and then coming within inches of me. He was shaking angrily and pacing in a circle as if ready to fight. We were close to actually coming to blows but we didn’t. My girlfriend pulled me away and he didn’t follow.

That fight would probably have been ugly if it happened. This encounter with the homeless tree hugger was different.

He didn’t appear like he wanted to fight. It seemed more like he felt he had to.

I could have just given him my water or at least offered him some. But the situation veered into threat when he said he was going to steal from me and there wasn’t much rational thinking after that.

We’re standing there facing each other about 2 feet apart. I’m racing through scenarios in my mind. His body language was meek and unsure so I was reluctant to use force. There was still one more level of escalation before it had to get physical so there was hope.

He made a half hearted lunge so I yelled back in a deep, booming voice, “What the fuck are you doing?!”

Which scared my dog and the homeless person. Otis tried running way. The homeless person flinched backwards.

A passerby heard the commotion and came over to disarm the situation.

We then all went our separate ways and no one had to get hurt.

What I learned from this experience is that Otis is not a very good watchdog.

"Forget about winning and losing; forget about pride and pain. Let your opponent graze your skin and you smash into his flesh; let him smash into your flesh and you fracture his bones; let him fracture your bones and you take his life! Do not be concerned with escaping safely- lay your life before him!"

- Bruce Lee