Why you should care
About half of the time, reading about crime just becomes wallpaper for what feels like a slow slide into urban entropy. Until it happens to you.
I knew it was a sketchy neighborhood. There were always a few men milling around on the streets, looking me up and down, making me feel like an especially tasty piece of barbecue. A friend of mine drove in from the suburbs of Chicago once and had his car stolen just minutes after arriving at my boyfriend’s place. He calmly remarked as he stood by the window: “There goes my car.”
But I didn’t feel scared.
I was in the historic South Shore neighborhood, just a few blocks from Lake Michigan. There were gorgeous homes along some of the streets. This was south of Exchange Avenue though, where the commuter train runs, with dilapidated businesses, currency exchanges and desperate-looking people just trying to survive on not enough money.
I spent a lot of time there — in the pretty brick three-story building that had seen better days — where my boyfriend lived in an apartment with his family. He slept on a bed behind a curtain in his father’s bedroom, and there was a lot of love there. He and my parents had made me promise not to get out of the car until he came to the window on the top floor to wave, and then down to the street to come to get me. But for some reason, that night I got out of the car as soon as he left the window, knowing it would only take him a minute to get downstairs.
Huge, life-threatening mistake.
I had taken self-defense and thought I knew how to fight. I knew to stab for the eyes or kick the guy in the balls and run, screaming, “Fire!”
I was driving a two-tone Dodge, and as I got out of it, there was a man in front of me holding a gun in my face. Time stopped. His words were muffled because all I could see was the circular barrel of what seemed to me to be the biggest gun in the world.
“Don’t move,” he growled. “Give me that purse.”
I thought I would say, “Here you go. Please don’t shoot me.” But when I opened my mouth, nothing came out. Not even a squeak. I meant to hand him the big black purse that had belonged to my grandmother, but instead, I clutched it closer to my chest. It wasn’t that I had a lot of money. But inside was a reporter’s notebook, with three months of interviews I had done for a story on battered women, and somehow, I was thinking I could just reach inside and give him my wallet. Uh, no.
“Bitch … I said give me that fucking purse.”
I held it out, hands shaking, not looking at his face. It was a blur. I knew he was wearing black, and that he was tall and kind of burly. But the barrel of the gun was my whole world, filling my line of vision like a black hole. My stomach was clenched, and I don’t remember breathing the whole time.
People shoot people over less all the time. I was a reporter and had written way too many stories about folks getting shot even after they’d given up their goods. I couldn’t think. I just stood there, hand extended, car keys in my other hand, leaning up against the side of my car in the pale streetlight.
He snatched the purse, then took a second look at me as I stood there trembling. I thought, “Oh my God, he’s gonna rape me too.” He reached toward me, while I stared at the gun, transfixed, then reached for my throat. He thrust his hand inside the collar of my coat and pulled hard, snatching at the chain of the faux turquoise necklace I was wearing, which had also belonged to my grandmother. He ripped it off.
I held out my other hand, the one with the car keys, thinking he’d take the car too, but he ran away into the night.
Suddenly, my boyfriend was there, screaming, “What happened?!”
“I just got robbed,” I choked, and burst into hysterical tears. He took me upstairs, where we called the police. But I was no help with the description because all I had really seen was the gun. The police came and drove me around the neighborhood trying to find the guy anyway. We didn’t. But we did find my grandma’s purse on top of a trash can around the corner. It was totally empty. Even my lipstick was gone.
But I was alive.
Later, I thought about the cop shows, superheroes and Star Trek, which I love, and how the people in the movies and on television always fight back. They do fancy kicks, knocking the weapon out of assailants’ hands, or they rush the robbers and grab the gun and turn it on the bad guys.
I had taken self-defense and thought I knew how to fight. I knew to stab for the eyes or kick the guy in the balls and run, screaming, “Fire!” You’re supposed to zigzag if someone has a gun on you, so they have less of a chance of hitting you.
I couldn’t do any of that. I just froze and stared at that gun.
But I lived.