I took myself out for an early supper a few days ago. A little family-run Japanese restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, filled with neighborhood parents too tired to cook, kids with their homework spread out amid the platters of sushi.
Midway through my meal, the place was robbed. Two skinny kids, no more than 15 years old, had come in and, while the waitress’s back was turned, seized the cash box and fled, with five of the staff pounding after them, to no avail.
It was very quick, very unnerving. The speed with which it happened gave it a surreal quality, like a Disney cartoon where naughty boys steal pies while the baker chases in vain, throwing hot cross buns. Fists were shaken, but no weapons deployed. No one was injured. The police weren’t even called because, as the maître d’ explained with a shrug, there wasn’t a lot of cash; it’s a mostly credit-card business.
So life continued, shaken but not substantially stirred. People returned to their meals, children settled back to their homework, and the place resumed its soft murmured conversations amid the tinkling of spoons, glassware, crockery.
Still, there was a restless current of adrenaline that lingered for a while. An understandably distressed mother at the table next to mine described the thieves to her son as “those horrible people.” But as she went on, her indictment of “those people” became an infinitely expanding universe of horribleness, extending far beyond the two who ran off with the till.
Her handsome boy of only 5 or 6 began to muse aloud about what he’d do if he ever caught a robber. His piping little-kid voice carried well as he cheerfully imagined the pain he’d inflict. He’d clearly thought this through, and when he mused about boiling entrails and how you have to drain the blood before you put the severed head on a pike, I was impressed. The detail seemed delivered across centuries, evoking the great English jurist William Blackstone’s eloquence upon the punishment for high treason:
“(1) That the offender be drawn to the gallows, and not be carried or walk…. (2) That he be hanged by the neck, and then cut down alive. (3) That his entrails be taken out, and burned, while he is yet alive. (4) That his head be cut off. (5) That his body be divided into four parts. (6) That his head and quarters be at the king’s disposal.”
As much as the robbery itself, it was the little boy’s gothic soliloquy, delivered in the present tense, that unsettled me.
The unease stayed with me while I finished my soup, then paid for my meal, then walked a few blocks north to drop in on a book party.
The affair was to mark the publication of Nell Bernstein’s Burning Down the House, a comprehensive examination of juvenile detention in the United States. The lack of drawing and quartering notwithstanding, the little boy in the restaurant had been otherwise spot-on about the sort of violence visited on juvenile wards by adult guards and staffers.