Why a Dutch Mugger Stole My Breakfast

The autumn in Europe was unexpectedly pleasant. It was t-shirt weather, which is why the shock of street crime shattered our relaxed fun like a hammer thrown against a sliding glass door. When the threat of violence appeared in our mugger’s hand, my friend froze in place. He did his best impression of the Statue of Liberty. He went stiff as that old green lady. Meanwhile, I tried to ensure our mugging played out smoothly. We were just across the canal from the central Amsterdam train station and I really wanted to be in Paris by afternoon. I knew I’d be pissed if we missed our train because our mugger stabbed me.

It was our fourth week in Europe of a planned six-week grand tour. We had to keep moving around because everywhere we went, so did the Queen of England. She was also touring the continent. We’d hit town and she’d show up. Soon as she arrived in the city, it would shut down. Wherever the three of us went, all the hotels would be booked and the roads throbbed with tourists and taxis. Unions called attention to labor strife by using her visit as an opportunity to go on strike. The Queen of England was a royal pain in our ass, like an ill-fitting, jewel-encrusted butt plug. So, we kept moving.

My friend and traveling partner got sick in London, and again in Rome. One night, after tramping out to fetch hot chicken soup and fresh-squeezed orange juice for him, and red wine for me, I told my shivering, coughing friend that he and I should head back to Amsterdam — if we left the next night, we could sleep on the train. I told him Italy didn’t seem to agree with his system and perhaps a move back north would be good for him. I could tell he was dangerously weak from sickness because he agreed with my ideas. He never did that. I felt bad, like, I was taking advantage of the fact he was too weak to argue. But it was a good idea, so I didn’t feel too badly.

Plus, I knew it was my job to look out for him; he trusted me like a big brother. He was an only kid and always flirted with the idea of a sibling. I played along. Aaron and I grew up together. As boys, we were a formidable partnership. Me with my soft afro and he a ginger kid, we were cute to boot. It’s right there in our names: Aaron and Zaron. It’s catchy. We were like a YA novel come to life. The fact that people paired us in their minds also bonded us as a duo. We were used to being called Aaron and Zaron. I didn’t even care that he got top billing, even though he was younger. It has a natural flow. (Zaron and Aaron just sounds weird.) We’ve always been partners and nearly complete opposites.

We toured Europe like a vaudeville comedy team. He was the straight man, the cautious one. I was the restless one, the overconfident one, the one who got us in trouble. I ate everything, drank everything, talked to everyone, wandered wherever curiosity compelled, and I refused to listen to any and all warnings of danger. Aaron believed all of them. Some folks say you invite fate to you. Okay … maybe. I don’t know. But I’ve learned you gotta roll with it.

Guess that’s why I’m always convinced everything’s going to be okay. Those words are like my mantra for when shit gets hectic. During an emergency, in those frantic few seconds when the world slows down and you see the doom you hope to avoid, I repeat it in my head like I’m a meditating monk:

“Are we fuct? Nah, this is fine … this is fine … everything’s cool…”

It’s my Westernized version of the advice of the Taoist monk, Chuang Tzu, You never find happiness until you stop looking for it. I find happiness by never looking for it. Instead, I expect it will arrive unbidden. I survive calamity because I’m always certain the worst is almost behind me. I tend to think every tomorrow holds welcome surprises. And in the day-to-day swirl of life, I expect every next moment might be wildly better than the last. Yeah, kinda like an excitable five-year-old. My other option is paralyzed neurosis. I go with the kid.

My friend does the opposite. He expects the best: five-star hotels, first-class tickets, fine dining … and he always prepares for the worst. He focuses on it. He tries to avoid it at all costs. He fears that the worst thing may happen. Even though he likes and buys the finer things, he’s often disappointed. Whereas, I happily accept the worst: street food, sweatbox hostels, and table wine. I expect they’ll be good and everything will be cool. I pretty much dig anything. As much as I tend to think shit will work out, he assumes he needs to protect himself from things that he doesn’t want to experience. One trusts. The other avoids. Our twin approaches tend to focus our attention on diametrically different goals, fears, and outcomes.

You hear it said that whatever you think will happen … tends to happen.

I can go along with that, to a point. I’d say your expectations determine your reaction. Because what to me was just a momentary confusion involving a knife was, for my friend, a life-threatening encounter with the grim spectre of death. And we were standing on the same street corner.

We’d double-backed to enjoy Amsterdam for a second time. I’d convinced Aaron this was indeed a good idea. Admittedly, he was weakened because he was sick, but now that he was well, I made double-sure he had a damn good time in Amsterdam. He did. The second time through, we didn’t feel like tourists. We moved through somewhat familiar spaces. We went back to restaurants to savor the options we couldn’t decide between the first time we ate there. If you love food, that’s a rare decadence: to double back to a city just to eat the other plate you didn’t order. It was like a Twilight Zone episode, getting to taste the life path you didn’t choose.

Also, if we’re being honest, I wanted to go back to Amsterdam to go shopping at the Albert Heijn grocery store. I love a good grocery store. All the colors and odd smells, the blur of excited kids and their exhausted parents, the label-readers and the fruit-squeezers. People may be different all over the world, yet, in the grocery store they’re often the same in a way that gives me a window into a culture. Hands down the central Albert Heijn supermarket is the sexiest supermarket I’ve ever been in — the variety of the produce, the warm inviting lighting, the soft reflective floor wax — it was all so pleasant, plus, it didn’t hurt that the customers looked like there were five very busy modeling agencies located across the street.

After our second round of enjoying the museums, fragrant gardens, postcard-worthy canal walks, the coziness of the coffeehouses and the comfort foods of the restaurants, it was time for us to bounce from Amsterdam. It was early in the morning. Rather than hit a bakery for breakfast, I wanted to hit up the Albert Heijn. One last time. Aaron was patient with me. I said we could buy breakfast, and some lunch foods so he would be set for our day on the train, and wouldn’t have to be at the whim of whatever they were serving. He liked that idea. (He liked control.)

After we bid fond farewell to my favorite grocery store, we made a quick stop at the red light district so I could buy more hash and pot for the rest of our European tour. We were right by the expensive hotels that line the canal, the ones situated across from the central train station. A dude bumped into Aaron. I saw them collide. I saw his left arm fling forward some small pinch of white with a burnt end.

The joint hit the sewer grate and slipped below. The man stopped. He spun around incensed. He got right in Aaron’s face, “What the fuck you do that for, man?”

Aaron stopped, made a motion with his mouth like he was about to speak, but no words followed. Just an awed silence.

“You fucking bumped me, man! You made me drop my fucking joint, you fucking asshole!”

Our Dutch mugger cussed in English in a way that suggested he’d once lived in New Jersey.

“Now what the fuck am I gonna do? That was my last joint — you’re gonna make this right!”

Aaron was frozen. He had yet to speak or move. No matter what happens in life — don’t do that. You can’t freeze. Everything flows. Much like your bowels, it’s always best when you flow … with everything. Aaron forgot that. And so, he clenched up tighter than a water-tight duck’s butt. But, I get it. I’d do the same thing if a snake crossed our path. Fear is fear.

We both had on our travel backpacks, fully loaded. We were each carrying a big brown paper bag loaded with groceries. One of us was a statue of an American holding groceries, and the other was me, grinning like a five-year-old who couldn’t wait to see what happens next. What can I say? I like street crime. Even if it happens to me (obviously, within reason). Our mugger upped his ante. He reached into his jacket and started threatening us with his as-yet-unseen weapon. He had yet to draw it. And frankly, I didn’t fully believe he had a weapon.

Assuming he was just a desperate drug addict pulling a hustle, and since Aaron was still an ice statue, I spoke up, “Look, man. Obviously my friend didn’t mean to bump into you. We’re headed to catch a train, and we’re late. So, here’s how it is — I got…” I pulled a handful of money out of my pocket, “What is this? Six, seven … eight euros. That’ll buy you a big ass joint, at that shop right there.”

I pointed to a coffeehouse I’d been in the day before. I knew exactly the price of a fresh spliff.

“So … take this … go buy yourself a new fucking joint. Thousand apologies. But, like, seriously, man, we don’t have time for this shit.” I held out the fist of colorful bills.

Our mugger looked at my money, “No, man. I respect you.”

Wait — what? You don’t expect the knife-wielding man who’s mugging you to say that he respects you, and that he has a specific disregard for your friend. I laughed. I really, really wish I didn’t. For Aaron’s sake. But I couldn’t help it. It was funny to me. Our mugger respected me. (If you’re wondering, he was white, make of that what you will.)

Our mugger continued, “I don’t want anything from you. I want something from him. He’s the one who fucked up. Put your money away.”

Meanwhile, Aaron had yet to blink. Being the big brother I am, I tried to make the trouble go away. Even though our mugger said he respected me and didn’t want my money, I had to do something to protect Aaron, so I countered with a new offer, “Okay, whatever, you respect me. Fine. Then do me a favor and just take this money and go make your morning right. I really don’t care. It’s not a big deal.”

That was a mistake. I wasted our mugger’s good cheer by rejecting his “respect.” He flashed his knife, and said, “You don’t get it. This motherfucker disrespected me and he’s gonna make it right. What do you have on you — “ He pushed his knife up close to Aaron’s face, close enough he could take an eyeball with him if he was in the mood for eyeballs.

“Dude, I’m offering you, like, the only cash we have. We just spent it all at the grocery store, so just take this and go, man. It’s cool. I don’t care.” I offered the eight euros again. He ignored me and focused on Aaron.

“Fuck you, asshole!” He spat right in Aaron’s frozen face. Then, our mugger reached into the grocery bag and grabbed the bananas, a yogurt and a chocolate croissant. Suddenly satisfied, he took his stolen loot and left. I stood there shaking my head. Our food was spread between both bags, and all the stuff on top of the grocery bag that Aaron was holding was mine. He’d taken my breakfast. This is further proof the Universe has a far funnier sense of humor than any fiction writer. I would have much rather he’d taken the money. Fuck.

“He’s gone.” I said, softly, as I hoped life would drain back into Aaron. He was terribly shaken. It took the length of twenty-odd breaths before his catatonia fully passed. People walked past and I thought, sure, now there are pedestrians.

“I — I didn’t mean to bump him.” Aaron said, stammering a bit, even though it was not a cold day. “I’m sorry he took your yogurt.”

He’s such a sweetheart, his response was to be worried about my yogurt. He didn’t curse the mugger. Besides a moment of terror, our mugger never did get anything from Aaron. He certainly didn’t take his dignity or even change who he is, since he kinda expected we would get mugged. As I watched my breakfast walk off in the arms of our mugger, I thought: Should I like chase him for my bananas and strawberry yogurt? Nah, that’s fine … everything’s cool … guess I’ll have beer and brioche for breakfast.

So I did. And everything was cool.

Read more from Zaron Burnett III:

How to Be a Fearless Badass

Love, Sex, and Other Things You Might Find At The Airport

How Do I Survive This Shit?!

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Image by Franklin Heijnen

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