This is a blog post I composed in July of 2010 only ten days after being in an armed robbery. It is the only entry I’ll resurrect from the old version of Liquid Ink, and I’ve edited it only slightly. While writing it, I had no way of knowing that the event would trigger a psychological deluge of emotions, memories and ideas that would eventually lead to PTSD.
I’m including it because, as I’ll be writing about PTSD often, I’ll require making reference to this robbery. It’s also a marker of sorts. Having read it myself for the first time in over two years, I’m stunned by how much a person can change in a very short time:
I was held up at gunpoint earlier this month (7/2010) while buying cat food at a local convenience store. The store is only a few doors from my home in Oak Park, IL, a “yuppy-hippy” village of mansions and boutiques (or, in my case, affordable condos in close proximity to public transport). This typical shop offers specials for police, and there’s usually a Chicago or Oak Park squad car parked out front. Sometimes the store seems a regular tea party for cops, as five or more will be standing around and chatting with the cashiers or managers.
However, there were no cops in the shop now. I was swiping my ATM card when the thugs came in, three of them, one with a bizarre bandage meant to disguise half his head. The ring leader wore a brown and white baseball cap, and the lookout was dressed in a brown or maroon hoodie. Bandage boy put one hand on my shoulder and stuck something hard and blunt into my kidney, probably his knuckle. He whispered “Don’t move.” My first instinct, an impulse that surprised me, was to see if the tools had guns, and I relaxed when I noticed the ring leader holding what looked like a .45 caliber automatic pistol. That hand cannon relieved me of some pressure. Had these punks come in with knives, my civic and moral duty would have been to throw them through the glass. But now I could just let them get on with the robbery.
The bandaged one turned me around and pushed me up against the counter to be sure I wouldn’t move. He kept his hands on me the whole time, sometimes holding his thumb near my temple. As I remember this now, rage surges through me, but I was perfectly calm during the robbery, holding my wallet at my side, letting the guy know I wasn’t going to struggle with him.
I could see the whole event reflected in the store’s front windows. The only other guy in the shop was the cashier.The main thug clocked him in the face with the gun and demanded all the cash drawers opened. Bleeding down his cheek, the cashier did as he was told, and the thug emptied the tills. Then he wanted something else unlocked; I couldn’t see what it was, either a safe or a box beneath the counter. The cashier said, “I can’t open that,” and the thug protested, gyrating and gesticulating in an armed fit.
This was the moment when I realized I might die–the idiot standing behind me might put a bullet in my head just to prove his seriousness. The cashier’s pleas had now approached panic: “I can’t open this. I’m not able to open that!” The various voices of my inner consciousness began their monologues: the Catholic was blaming me for choosing to adopt a cat, as the college professor analyzed 50 years of public policy and socio-economic decline that had led to this crucial point. I was surprised by how easily the artist in me accepted death. My daughter would not only grow up without a father, but she’d get to say he was killed while buying cat food in Oak Park. This filled me with shame and terrible sadness, so intense that I believed the bullet was certain. I was waiting for the blow, the libertine in me curious to know how it would feel. In the meantime, my inner Cicero-boy was screaming, “You idiot! They’re just kids robbing the place. Snap out of it. Keep your eyes open.”
The thug keeping lookout hurried his parters up. They left the store with a few cartons of cigarettes and an insignificant amount of money. A getaway car in a nearby alley drove the gang to the next target: a gas station along one of Chicagoland’s busiest streets.
This heist at my local convenience store, I learned today, was part of a spree that robbed seven businesses, one of them a fortress-like liquor store; a sandwich shop was also hit in broad daylight. All of it was done with a hijacked car the kids crashed while fleeing police; they ditched it and took off on foot, leaving everything on the floor: cash, cigarettes and the gun. I was happy to learn that the pistol was real and loaded: the vision of my death had not been on account of a pellet or squirt gun.
Today I went in to view a police lineup and a series of photographs. I successfully identified two of two arrested thugs. The detectives claimed this was very important, as other witnesses had been unable to recognize anyone. Strangely, the men I saw did look very similar to each other, an odd mix of opaque anger in their eyes and blithe apathy in their body language.
I’m left with a dumb sense of confusion following today’s lineup; it did not provide any sense of closure or a feeling that justice had been served. I won’t get into our nation’s gun debate or try to counter the argument that all of this could have been avoided had I entered the shop with an M-16; and I don’t want to beat myself up (again) over my failure to invest in Lockheed Martin back in 2003. We have armed teenagers running around hijacking cars and holding up gas stations. We’ve gotten used to it. We feel it’s normal, even inevitable, and we’ve found all sorts of ways to separate ourselves from these events. What do you expect, people ask, from kids who don’t have responsible parents or teachers? It’s a good question, one that begs so many others.