A crummy trench is subway rider's protective coating

April 10, 1991|By Gersh Kuntzman | Gersh Kuntzman,New York Daily News

NEW YORK Ron Katz goes about his subway-riding in a soiled, beat-up, frayed trench coat, the kind large enough to cover his entire body. He keeps his hair unkempt, and his shoes are often untied.

This corporate exec could easily be taken for a flasher.

Katz, a life-long strap-hanger, is one of a growing number of people making their way through New York's underground in urban camouflage. Of course, for years, riders have been hiding their jewelry, leaving home without their American Express card, and avoiding eye contact. But rising subway crime has prompted more creative self-protection.

"I got the idea when my wife was throwing out this ragged coat," says Katz, who, when he's not riding the R train, is vice president of a Fortune 500 company. "She wanted to give it to the Salvation Army but they rejected it. That's how I knew this was the coat for subway riding."

Katz is no slouch at maintaining his costume. "I never hang it up," he says. I absolutely forbid my wife to ever clean it."

In tandem with the trench coat, Katz maintains a "mugger roll," a stash of $20 separate from his wallet that he is prepared to yield in the event of trouble. Katz is sure "Nobody is ever going to say, 'Hey, you're holding out.'" Not the way he's dressed.

While it might be difficult to outdo Katz' commitment to camouflage, many riders have adopted "distractions."

"My friends read the Bible on the train," says Albert (No. 5 train) Hocko. "They tell me reading the Bible is the best way to avoid trouble."

As for himself, Hocko tries to convince his fellow riders he's an off-duty cop.

"First thing you gotta do is stand," he says. "No matter how long the trip, stand. Then, whenever the train pulls into the station, stick your head out as if you're on patrol. It never fails."

NYU law student Kurt (N train) Hirsch is more practical. A native of Washington, D.C. (where subway stations are more like museums), Hirsch says that whenever he enters the subway, he "New-Yorkifies" his wallet.

"I take out all my I.D., leaving only one credit card and a $20 bill," he explains. "But most important, I remove all my personal photos. I had my wallet stolen once and I had to live with the idea that this criminal was in possession of my personal photos."

"That's not a bad tactic," Hocko notes, "but you gotta go further when you're riding from Flatbush to Pelham Parkway at 2 in the morning."

To that end, Hocko says he has considered dressing as an Amish farmer. He admitted, however, that this tactic is fundamentally flawed: The Amish don't use subways unless they're horse-drawn.

Names have been changed to protect the cover of the interviewees.

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