LITTLE UNSHKINS CAN FLY. Not a transatlantic flight, but short trips of 10 feet or so. Last week, Unshkins made one of those flights and helped save his owner. Unshkins is a cat.
Peter Choyce, wheelchair-bound by a bad spine, was enjoying a sunny afternoon in the driveway of his neighbor’s house on Benton Way near the Silver Lake–Echo Park border in Los Angeles. He was typing on his laptop, working on his memoir, his cat by his side.
Two men in a white car drove by, apparently saw what they thought would be an easy mark and stopped. One of them, described by Choyce as a light-skinned Hispanic in his 20s, got out and approached his wheelchair. The suspect may not have noticed the cat.
In the space of a second or two, the assailant punched Choyce in the face, grabbed the laptop directly out of his lap — and was attacked by little Unshkins. Unshkins, a black cat with white paws, flew up in the face of the attacker, clawing frantically and bloodying the criminal’s face, Choyce says. And Choyce managed to get off a solid punch to the mugger’s throat.
“I know to go for the larynx,” says Choyce, 48. “I didn’t know it, but I have the killer’s instinct. Go for the throat. But Unshkins just flew at him, though. And that was the main blow.”
Choyce says that, as he looked up from writing his memoir, the attacker “came out of nowhere.” His cat is not the friendliest beast, with a cranky and aggressive personality. “I don’t think she did it to protect me,” he says. “I think she did it purely for selfish reasons, thinking she was the one being attacked. It happened so fast . . . This guy was one of those skinny, flabby guys, if you know what I mean.”
Choyce, who can barely walk without a cane, says an adrenaline rush so inspired him that, after Unshkins’ facial attack and his own punch, he actually got up and “ran like hell” after the attacker, who had taken off running with the cherished laptop toward an awaiting getaway car.
During the foot chase, the laptop, a Dell Inspiron E1505, was smashed against a concrete wall of the neighbor’s driveway and ruined.
“That laptop was my connection to my world and my family,” says Choyce. “It was the only way I can write my book. Now it’s ruined because of this punk.”
Because Choyce suffers from kyphotic degeneration of his vertebrae, he must be in a wheelchair. He cannot drive, although he sometimes can get around with a cane. A friend of Choyce’s in San Francisco is now worried that he won’t be able to communicate via e-mail with his friends and family — or finish his memoir — without his laptop.
“He’s in such a depressed state of mind, feeling completely alone. His laptop was a connection for him, and he is very unhappy without it,” says Sandra Derian, who has known Choyce for 19 years.
“He is hoping he can get money from someone to buy a new or used laptop until he can pay them back in a month or two,” she says. “His mom is 88 years old, living in Ohio. He has a sister living in Asia. There is no one he can rely on in L.A.”
Alvin Baligad, manager of the 16-unit building on the corner of Benton Way and Reservoir Street where Choyce lives, came upon the scene shortly after the attack on December 5. “I saw that Peter was bleeding from around the bridge of his nose and the paramedics were working on him, but I didn’t see that attack,” says Baligad.
WITH A HINT OF PRIDE, Choyce says that some of the blood on his face was from the attacker’s bleeding and scratched-up face.
Apparently, no one saw the assault — at least no witnesses have come forward. The attacker fled into a waiting vehicle, described by Choyce as just a white car. That’s not much for police to use in their investigation, and Los Angeles Police Department Detective Jeana Franco adds that she has no leads.
“I have very little to go on,” says Franco, who works the robbery table at LAPD’s Northeast Division. “The description is a male Hispanic in his 20s and a white car. Basically, that’s the whole report. I think it is pretty horrible to attack a guy in a wheelchair. That’s about as low as it gets. But unless he [the attacker] does something else and we can link this to him, it is not looking like we’ll catch him.”
The LAPD’s Northeast Division covers a mix of rough, gang-ridden and gentrified hilly areas, including Eagle Rock, East Hollywood, Echo Park, Silver Lake, Highland Park, Cypress Park, Los Feliz, Franklin Hills, Solano Canyon and Atwater Village. As of December 1, the division had recorded 480 robberies in 2007, in addition to 17 homicides and 665 aggravated assaults.
By Los Angeles standards, that puts the area in the mid-range of crime. In comparison, the toughest area of the city, 77th Street Division, which covers South-Central and parts of South Los Angeles, has seen 1,334 robberies, 47 homicides and 1,280 aggravated assaults in 2007.
Despite LAPD ChiefWilliam Bratton’s claims that the city is safer than it has been in decades, many residents don’t feel the city is even close to being safe, especially with crass street crimes committed in broad daylight by lowlifes who would nab a laptop from a crippled man’s lap.
“Peter and others I know feel that the neighborhood still feels unsafe, with many drug crimes taking place, despite claims it is an up-and-coming neighborhood slowly gentrifying,” Derian says of Echo Park and Silver Lake. “Him being assaulted in the middle of the day is just an example of how misleading it is to see reports of the neighborhood being a livable place for people to move to, when he isn’t safe on his front lawn from the thieves trying to make a buck to buy their next fix.”
After the attack, Choyce was upset with the treatment he received at an area emergency room, saying he was dealt with extremely coldly: “All they did was be rude to me and call me ‘sir,’ ” he says. “I was bleeding, my computer was ruined, and I was getting ‘sirred’ to death.”
It wasn’t the first time Choyce, who has been openly gay since he was a boy, has been attacked. As a youth, he says, he was often beat up and called “faggot.” Choyce, who was raised in New Hampshire, was a nude model for many years in his 20s, before his body was ravaged by disease. His apartment is full of photos of him and other males, sans clothing, along with shots of tigers, elephants and religious images.
He was also a disc jockey in Boston for a time, and at his Benton Way apartment enjoys playing an eclectic collection of CDs. One recent day, Bruce Springsteen was singing about Spanish Johnny in “Incident on 57th Street,” followed by a song from Leonard Cohen that Choyce says is the only one ever written about his illness, kyphosis.
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He’s not shy about his deformed body. He takes off his shirt and shows off his twisted back. It has a severe, hunchback look. Perhaps not surprisingly, in a city like Los Angeles where every other person is trying to get into “the industry,” Hollywood has tapped the unique-looking man. He has worked as an actor on Monk and Dexter, and openly touts himself as the “Hollywood Hunchback.”
“Central Casting has been very good to me,” says Choyce, but in recent years he has worked far less, not been well, and has struggled with pain medications — and addiction.
Despite his pain, he still swims and tries to stay fit, working out in a friend’s pool for up to four hours a day to stay strong. There’s not much more he can do, with five of the six lower discs in his spine virtually wiped out. But he still has a lot of hope, and takes a minute to plug a book by physician John Sarno, Mind Over Back Pain, saying, “I love this book.”
Facing the holidays, and thinking about the mean streets around him, Choyce says, “I think they saw a guy in a wheelchair and figured I would be an easy mark. But in the end, me and Unshkins kicked his ass . . . I just wish I had a laptop.”