It was about 6:30 a.m., a September day in 1998, in front of the highrise at Lake and Forest. I was walking to catch an early Metra train when a young man approached from the opposite direction. He suddenly side-stepped, blocking my path. "Damn," I thought, "he's panhandling for money."
But he grabbed my right shoulder with his left hand and growled, "I got a knife, look at the knife!" I was close enough to smell booze on his breath. There was a large knife in his right hand, held down alongside his thigh. "Gimme your wallet!"
Instead of being scared, I was angry. I thought of my old college wrestling and Army hand-to-hand combat tactics — grabbing his arm, kicking or punching – but those moves were years ago. He was maybe 20 years old, and solid. I was 55 and loaded down with a shoulder bag. If I missed, I'd likely get cut or stabbed, ending up in the hospital. And a block away I saw an Oak Park cop ticketing cars on Lake Street in front of the movie theater. "Hey, look this way," I thought.
I feared for my life, but for some crazy reason I was thinking if I got hurt all my marathon training would be wasted. So I handed over my wallet, then, made a dash toward the cop who was writing tickets. The robber hissed, "You better run, m---f---!" I told the cop I'd just been robbed, but the man with the knife was already long gone.
And by not trying anything heroic or stupid, I was able to run the 1998 Chicago Marathon. But it was a warm day, so I missed my 55-59 Boston qualifying time by four minutes (back then I needed a 3:35). It turned out to be my last marathon.
A month later, my wife Barbara was going through our monthly bills. "What's this $90 check to Anton in the Visa statement?" she asked. I had no idea. I didn't know anyone named Anton.
After the robbery we cancelled all credit cards, so I called and was told that I had written a Visa check. Suddenly, I recalled tucking one of those credit card checks that occasionally came in the mail into my wallet. Protesting that I had cancelled my account after the robbery, Visa reluctantly agreed that the check should not have been charged to me, and said they would send a copy.
The check was made out to an Anton Mims and signed with my name, misspelled, even with my name printed on the check. I relayed the name to the Oak Park Police. They looked it up and said Mims, age 19, lived in the Austin neighborhood. Wow, was he actually dumb enough to sign his own name? A few days later they asked me to view a photo lineup, and I picked Mims out.
"Now, we have to find him," the cops said. A week later they found Mims … in jail. He had robbed a liquor store, and, fleeing the scene, ran into two Chicago cops. And when he robbed me he was on parole from yet an earlier robbery. Now he was a three-time loser. This time they called me in for a live lineup, and I picked Mims out once again. I was looking forward to being a witness at his trial, but instead, with a quick plea bargain he was jailed for 10 to 15 years.
Maybe a year later as I got home from work, I turned on the television. Hearing a familiar name, I stopped what I was doing to listen. There had been a fight at Cook County jail, and an inmate had been fatally stabbed.
His name? Anton Mims.