Being a perfect target
By Barry Shlachter
September 30, 2007
An unarmed, middle-aged man pedaling down a Fort Worth park trail finds himself unexpectedly vulnerable.
It’s not easy being a victim of random violence, especially making sense of the senseless.
I was stomped by three young men near the end of the bike trail in Fort Worth’s Gateway Park, a place I had cycled for years without mishap or interruption.
My return blows were ineffectual, and when the youths were finished with me, I was left with mangled bifocals, a busted bike helmet and a broken rib.
The attack was so unprovoked that I can’t begin to understand the motivation. Clearly, I was easy prey: a 58-year-old man (possibly three times their age) on an unusually empty park trail.
They were Latinos in their late teens, dressed identically in oversized white T-shirts, baggy shorts and sneakers. The biggest and most belligerent sported a black hairnet.
Restaurant workers taking some air before the dinner rush? Gang members in low-budget outfits? I don’t know.
It was 2:40 p.m. on a Sunday, and families were enjoying after-church lunches on picnic tables just a few minutes’ walk in either direction. The children looked up from their meals and waved, and I returned their greetings.
But the four of us intersected at an empty stretch a few hundred yards from other people.
Not another soul came by during my three-minute ordeal, when anyone at all might have made a difference.
I had spotted the trio on my outbound ride. Then, they were just off the trail, looking at some heavy-duty electrical extension cords that had been left across the pavement.
On my way back, I saw them walking abreast; then they stopped to face me and block my path.
Dismounting when it became clear they wouldn’t give way, I gave them a wide berth and, in a friendly voice, suggested that they make room for joggers and cyclists.
The biggest closed his clamshell cellphone, ran up to me and punched me in the face, knocking my glasses off and breaking the visor on my helmet. He then called me an n-word with incestuous tendencies, although he employed words not found in family newspapers.
The expletive added to the surreal quality of the situation. I’m a very, very pale white man, 5-foot-8, 155 pounds. The main attacker easily had a 40-pound advantage.
At first I thought that they spoke only Spanish, except for a few choice phrases. Then I heard them speak to one another in fluent English.
Still in disbelief but with adrenalin pumping, I hauled up my old Schwinn to chest level to block him.
His fists kept flying, mainly pounding my helmet. I then heaved the bike at him. He kept coming. And out of the corner of my eye, I saw the other two moving behind me.
Deciding to go down swinging, I threw punches again and again toward his face, seemingly to no effect. (I had lived eight years in Japan and now regretted never having spent a single day in a martial arts class.)
Knocked to the ground, I lunged for my attacker’s knees and tried, but failed, to bring him down.
One or both of the other youths chose that moment to begin kicking me in the side. The sense of powerlessness hurt more than the blows. And I felt I was fighting for my life.
At one point I tried to land the mother of all punches on the main attacker’s most sensitive parts. But his khaki shorts were so baggy that I doubt if I even got close.
I lay flat on my stomach, with all three kicking my head until they had enough. Afterward, they kicked my bicycle and threw it toward the river.
Then they simply sauntered up the path.
I got to my feet and called 911.
Yes, I had a cellphone, along with a wallet with cash and credit cards, a small radio and granola bars, all stashed in the pockets of my bike jersey. It clearly wasn’t an attempted robbery.
And though they were Latinos and I an Anglo, I don’t think the attack was racist.
I was just a bully’s perfect target: an unarmed, middle-aged man pedaling solo down an isolated patch of wooded trail.
Early in the pummeling, I said to the main attacker: "You’re very brave, three against one." Fairness certainly wasn’t an issue, although any one of the hefty teens could have taken me on.
I found my bicycle in the bushes and straightened out the wheel. I pedaled to the parking lot to try to get their license plate number, but they had just pulled out in a candy-apple-red sedan, which another cyclist described as a four-door Toyota.
A kind couple on bicycles helped me find my glasses, and then my eldest son arrived from across town, 15 minutes before the police got to the scene. The officers recorded my statement, told me it was an extremely rare assault in Gateway Park and recommended that I carry Mace the next time.
The incident keeps replaying in my mind as I struggle to figure out why I was attacked and if I should have responded differently, somehow putting up more effective resistance or none at all.
When my rib heals, I’ll be back on the trail with a new helmet — and pepper spray. And if I go back to that leafy section of Gateway Park, I won’t be alone.