I didn’t want to come back to this story but I knew I would. How could I not? How could I leave this one out of the defining moments of my life? It was 1985. I had just finished working on a pledge drive at my job at Milwaukee Public Television at MATC.
I thought he was going to rape me. I saw him in the shadows, a board clenched in his right hand, but it was too late. I turned and ran but my heavy winter boots and the sloshy snow slowed me down. He grabbed me by the back of my coat and dragged me to the ground. He hit me on the head with a board with one hand and yanked at the strap of my purse with the other. It felt like everything was moving in slow motion. He hit me with the board over and over again until my purse finally gave way. He clutched it to his chest and ran back into the shadows.
I lay there for a few surreal moments in the waning February light. Stunned and wet from the snow. No one was around. No one could see me in the walled parking lot. My car was the only one. There was no point in yelling for help. I was afraid to get up and afraid to stay put. I still had my car keys in my hand.
I looked around to make sure he was gone and struggled to my feet. My head and shoulder hurt. My stockings were shredded and my knees were bloody. The only lighted building I could see where I knew there would be people, was the Milwaukee Journal station across the street on 6th. I found two macho looking guys there busy with their work, shifting piles of newspapers around. I had to move out of the way so a truck could get by.
“Will you please call the police?” I said sheepishly
“What for?” asked the older one, annoyed.
The dam burst opened and I started to bawl. I could barely speak. “A man,” was all I could say.
The older guy called the police and kept working, collating one section of newspaper into another barely noting my existence.
I stood there shaking, embarrassed by my tears.
Two police officers came and I spat out my story between sobs, wiping my nose on the sleeve of my coat.
“There was a guy,” I said. “In the parking lot. He hit me. He took my purse.”
One cop scribbled a few notes.
“Are you hurt?” they asked. I felt my head and found a damp gash where the ache was. I showed them my bloody knees. I moved my right arm around to make sure everything still operated.
The cops drove me to the hospital in their squad car.
I had to tell the people in the emergency room my story all over. A doctor gave my body a once over, patched up my knees and stitched up my head. He suggested I take Tylenol for the pain. A nurse took me to a place where I could use a phone. I called my boyfriend.
“Was he black?” were his first words.
“Yes,” I admitted through sobs.
The next day, I had to tell my kids what had happened. They knew some drama was unfolding and that it wasn’t good. I explained that I was all right. That my purse had been stolen and a man had hit me. Ben (7) stroked my arm and searched my eyes. Sam (11) smashed the table with his fist and demanded to know, “Was he black?!”
“Yes,” I said, “but that’s not important.”
“I knew it!” he shrieked.
I called my parents. My mother cried. She told me to be more careful and stay out of “those” neighborhoods.
I stayed home from work the next day. The kids were at school. My boss was concerned and told me to take as much time as I needed. I cancelled the credit card I had so recently and proudly acquired. The bank wanted to know how I knew that my credit card had been stolen.
The police called and asked if I thought I could identify my assailant.
“Of course,” I quickly replied. I wanted the man who did this to me, the man who made me feel a fear so intense that I didn’t want to leave my house, to be punished.
Two police officers showed up in less than a half hour. They were different than the ones who came to the Milwaukee Journal station the last night but the same typical officers—white with short hair.
They asked me to describe him. I said that it was dark in the parking lot but that I knew he was African American, not fat but kind of hefty and about as tall as me. They spread a big black binder of small photos across my lap. Every photo was a head shot of a young black man.
I chewed my lower lip and studied them closely finally focusing on two. “It’s either this one or that one,” I told the officers.
“It can only be one,” the friendlier of the two responded.
So I picked one. The less friendly officer snapped the book shut and said that it wasn’t him.
Confused, I asked “why not?”
They offered no explanation and left abruptly.
Had I picked someone who was dead, in jail, or in another state? The questions swirled in my mind and shame rose in my throat. Was I willing to make someone, any black man, pay for what happened to me? Was I willing to send a man to jail just because he is black?
I did my best to shrug off the terror the next day when I pulled into the MATC parking lot where the incident happened. I had no other choice. I couldn’t afford to stay home. I only had a dollar in my purse along with the uncashed payroll check I’d received that day.
Everyone knew. My coworkers stared at me with dog eyed concern. When I called the finance department and explained what happened and that I would need a replacement check, I was told they could not reissue it until there was an attempt at fraud. I told my boss who called the head of the college. Within minutes he came to see me personally with a check and to share the school’s immediate plans to implement a security escort service.
Still, hackles rose on the back of my neck every time a young black man passed me in the hall. I knew the mix of shame and fear I was feeling wasn’t rational but logic did nothing to stop it.
The following weekend, I was visiting my parents with my kids. The phone rang while Dad was in the garage and Mom was busy with dinner so I answered it.
“May I please speak to Edward Mal-lay?” the unfamiliar voice said. He pronounced our name wrong so I knew it wasn’t a friend of Dad’s. A prickly premonition made me aware of every strand of hair on my head.
“He’s busy,” I said. “Can you tell me what this is about?”
“Yeah, uh, I found a purse in the basement at Hillside (a housing project) and it had a card in it that said to call Mr. Mal-lay at this number in case of emergency.”
“What does the purse look like?” I asked.
Mom stopped what she was doing and stared at me.
He described my favorite faux leather caramel colored purse with a big zipper close.
“That’s my purse,” I said.
“When can you come and get it?” he asked.
“Tomorrow morning,” I offered. The man gave me his address and we agreed on 10 a.m.
I immediately called the police officer who had given me his card the day they showed me the mug shots and told him about the call.
“Maybe that was him—the guy who did it!” I asked if he would retrieve my purse for me since there was no way in hell I was going there.
The officer called the next day to tell me that the man who found my purse could not have been the same man who mugged me but he didn’t say why not. He said that I could come to the police station anytime to pick it up.
I retrieved my caramel colored purse the next day. At home alone, I solemnly emptied it of the little book of photos of my kids, my hairbrush, my lipstick, and my empty wallet. I went outside and hacked through the snow with a spade. I dug a whole where the rhubarb grows and buried it.