If you'd asked me about the most fear I ever felt in my life as recently as last month, I would've stumbled for an answer. Maybe I would have said something about the black dog that pulled me off my bike and turned my 12-year-old leg into hamburger. I might have told you about the half hour my friend Ian and I sat in the back of a cop car in Beloit, Wisconsin while they sorted out what a couple of scruffy miscreants were doing in a new Honda that didn't belong to them. I might have mentioned the night I spent tied up and locked in a closet while on PCP. I could've mentioned the seven hours I spent in a Baton Rouge holding cell for something that's a story better left untold for now. I might have even made something up to keep you saying 'no way' for a half-hour, and then at the end of the story dropped the boom that I was kidding. But as of a few weeks ago, I have a solid answer.
Saturday night started off normally enough. It was my girlie's birthday and after three hours of convincing her that we should go out to celebrate, we met the friends I spent the week collecting for a surprise dinner party out on the East Side of town. Dinner was good, if a bit expensive, taking into account how many of her friends assumed I was paying for the whole ordeal (yeah, get another bottle of $30 wine, I just won't pay the phone bill next month). Still, it was good time. After dinner, we took the party to a nearby apartment where a few more bottles of wine were opened. Talk was made about taking a caravan over to a semi-nearby cocktail party in progress. Once again, a small horde jumped into the Poopship and we were off, half-drunk, blasting bad metal, and full of nothing but the most fun of thoughts. We waited for the lead car to pull around, not sure of which one it would be. A brown jeep pulled up and I got behind it. A few people I didn't recognize jumped into the back of the jeep and I followed as it steered into traffic.
The jeep went the wrong way on the highway (South instead of North, not into oncoming traffic). Since the East Side isn't exactly my neck of the woods, I assumed a shortcut was in the works; but it wasn't. We were soon downtown, whizzing past barrels of burning trash and abandoned toy factories. The jeep finally pulled over to the side of the road near a barbed wire parking lot and I pulled up along side of it, rolled down my window, and yelled "Where the fuck are you going?" It was then that I, along with my carload of passengers, realized that I didn't recognize anyone in the jeep. I had followed the wrong car. Before I could apologize, the jeep laid about 10 feet of rubber and was gone around a corner. It was a good laugh. It was also good that someone in our car knew how to get to the cocktail party.
A few blocks from the party, we decided that it might be a good idea to all chip in and bring a nice bottle of booze as an antidote to our numbers. I eyed a liquor store, but it seemed a little shady. I gunned my car past it to the grocery store up the street. In the grocery store parking lot, I collected a handful of ones from the car's occupants and walked inside with my friend Squili. After debating the pros and cons of vodka versus tequila, and then the pros and cons of Absolut versus Stoli, I picked a bottle of Stoli and made my way to the cash register, silently reciting the cigarette orders shouted at me as I left the car. Camel softpack? Marlboro Reds in a box? Deciding that smokers are fucks, I didn't sweat the cashier too much, just nodding at whatever tongue he was speaking to me in, probably ordering menthols and cloves in the process. It didn't matter anyway, I never got the cigarettes.
I remember when they walked into the store I thought to myself, "These dudes are gonna rob this place." They were huge guys with hoods pulled over their faces, strutting in at a strange angle towards the cash register. Then my cool urban introspective voice kicked in and said "Nah, these are just young men trying to act tough and get by in a tough environment. To immediately assume that they are going to rob this place just because they look like stereotypical robbers, and are acting in a stereotypical robber fashion, stems from your own fears and cultural discomfort with-" it was at this point that a black Glock 9mm pistol was pointed at my head and my cool urban introspective voice shut the fuck up.
In retrospect, it makes sense to me why the man pointed the gun at my head. I was standing halfway between the cash register and the cigarette lock-up, wearing a blue button-down shirt with a tie. If you read one of my last columns, you will note that I have little ability to dress myself. On this night of classy celebration, the best I could manage was making myself look like was a soccer coach at the end of the year pizza party, where I get up to the microphone and announce how much everyone hustled this year. In the restaurant I was merely treated like I had possibly driven into Los Angeles from one of its neighboring desert trash communities, but in this grocery store, I was being mistaken for the manager. I really have to start thinking about my wardrobe more.
Somehow, my swollen tongue told the guy that I didn't work at the store. He didn't seem impressed with this knowledge and continued to demand that I open the cash register. I tried to hand him my wallet as a compromise, but he knocked it out of my hand. Finally, the cashier told the robber that I didn't work there, and was rewarded by getting the gun pointed at his face. The other robber had jumped a counter and was behind the customer service desk, pistol whipping the manager, making him empty the safe. It was at this point that I made a very bold and brave decision: pick up my wallet and hide. I tried to motion to Squili to follow me, but he was pretty drunk, and seemed pleasantly engrossed in the situation. Coming to America from the war torn Kashmir region of India, he'd seen plenty of guns in his life. He looked like he was watching an angry customer complaining about rotten bananas rather than a violent takeover robbery.
Obviously on my own, there was one thought running through my head: don't look at the robber. I didn't want his attention and I didn't want him thinking I could identify him later. I just kept my head down and walked backwards slowly. The robber at the register was high out of his mind. His eyes were solid red. The cashier was trying to punch numbers on the keypad to open the cash box, but the robber kept hitting him in the head with the gun, yelling 'hurry the fuck up!', and slamming his hand down on the cash register key pad, throwing a string of wrong numbers into the access code. Leaving this nightmare scene behind me, I slowly walked down an aisle, eyeing a floor display of deodorant. I crouched behind it, and slowly drug it to a display on the other side of me, making myself invisible to anyone looking down the aisle. Safe for the moment, my mind suddenly rushed to the carload of cute girls waiting in the car parked right in front of the store. I peeked around the display, and saw that a third robber was waiting at the door with a sawed off 12 gauge. So much for running out the front of the store and checking up on my girlfriend.
After I waited for what seemed like a long time, the screaming of the crooks at the front of the store stopped. I peeked around the display and saw that the robber at the door had left his post, but I couldn't see the whole front of the store from where I was squatting. Sure that the robbery was over, yet still a bit spooked, I walked to the back of the store, along the meat aisle, and started back towards the front through the produce section. Squili was standing near the front of the store, a little pale, but still alive. I started walking towards him, but as I came around a corner, I saw that the robbers were still very much in the process of robbing. Squili saw me and loudly yelled "Driver" across the store. My heart almost stopped. The robbers stopped what they were doing and looked directly at him, and then at me. One raised his gun.
This moment was probably the scariest of my life. I stood there like I had just stumbled upon a coiled cobra, terrified that any sudden movement would cause it to lash out and sink its venomous fangs into my thigh. I just stood there and watched a dusted, adrenaline-mad asshole decide my future. I remember thinking "I'm gonna die wearing a necktie." Something behind the customer service desk shifted their attention, and I did another disappearing act, this time running through an 'Employees Only' door at the back of the store. Thirty seconds later, the store manager, a trickle of blood running out of his temple, blew by me, grabbed a phone, and called the police. "Are they gone?" I asked, obviously annoying the shit out of a guy who had just been severely beaten and robbed. "Yeah, they're gone," he said, staring at the door, like they would burst back in at any second.
I ran to the front of the store. The front doors were locked. I pressed my face to the glass. The Poopship was still outside, but it was empty. My stomach dropped about 17 floors. I tried to open the door and that failing, began pounding on the glass. They weren't letting anyone out. "Fuck you man, my girlfriend's out there in the parking lot." An employee grudgingly unlocked the door and locked it behind me. I ran out to the car, bottle of vodka still in hand. Everyone inside was laying on the floor. I checked the glass for bullet holes. I pounded on the back passenger window and someone screamed. "It's OK, it's me," I answered back. I unlocked the door and jumped in the car, sinking under the dash slightly and scanning the parking lot for the getaway car. The crooks were gone. After establishing that everyone was OK, I clumsily attempted to tell them what happened. Everyone sat up slowly. They told me they had seen the robbers run in and the gunman at the door. Shortly after they hit the deck. Squili came out of the store a few minutes after me, still grinning. "Man, that was fucked.". More stunned than traumatized, I started the car and we slowly drove away as the police were pulling into the lot. Somewhere down the road a helicopter was blasting the pavement with a spotlight.
I dropped everyone off at the party and went to find a parking spot. It was a strange moment. I felt like a ghost, like I shouldn't be alive. The car seemed to float underneath me. I parked and walked back to the party, realizing after I got to the front door that I had left the bag with the vodka under my seat. I walked back to the car and grabbed it. By the time I got back to the party, everyone had heard about the ordeal. Someone handed me a cup full of tequila. I told the story a million times, but it was like therapy, each time becoming more and more of a chunk of entertainment and less the terrifying situation it was, another layer of duct tape separating me and reality. After calming down a bit, it dawned on me that I should have talked to the cops. I called them from the party and told them I was at the robbery. They took down my phone number and said they'd call if they needed me.
So there's my answer. Maybe it seems scary to you. Or maybe you get shot at every day and I'm just a pussy. Maybe you wish I would've gotten shot. Who cares. What's scariest to me that people with the least to lose are the people most likely to fuck up whatever niceness you've painstakingly carved out of this world. Any idiot can cross your path for a millisecond and destroy everything and everyone around you, for whatever petty motivations they have, or even for the hell of it. I knew that before, but there's nothing like a gun at your nose to wake you up from whatever illusion of safety you wrap yourself in. Mostly, I've thought about my girlfriend (whom I assume likes me a lot) and how she'd deal with me getting blown away on her birthday. "My 25th? Yeah, that was the one when my boyfriend surprised me with two kittens, took me and all my friends out to my favorite restaurant, and got blown away by a crackhead while buying me a pack of cigarettes." Fuck that. Even if I would've had my gun on me, it wouldn't have done anything but get a lot of people shot. I suppose in the end, it all came down to luck. Luck that whatever this guy had been through, whatever things he'd seen, done, whatever drug he was on, whatever stress he was under, kept him from pulling the trigger. Luck that no one else got shot. Luck that the Poopship wasn't the getaway car. Luck that I didn't have my Nomeansno "Kill Everyone Now" T-shirt on. I suppose if I had been really lucky, I wouldn't have been there in the first place, but who knows, maybe the Ebola virus was lurking on the $5 I would have gotten in change from the sketchy liquor store I passed up.
At any rate, I've come up with my only New Year's Resolution from this experience: Don't get shot. Unlike the others I usually make, it's one I'm gonna try really hard to keep.