Two Memories With Guns

Being Mugged

Like many of my fellow writers, I sometimes enjoy bad experiences–at least in retrospect–because they make for good material. Like the time I got food poisoning at a wedding and vomited on the G train somewhere between Long Island City and Brooklyn Heights, and did so in such a ladylike fashion (shielded by my pashmina) that none of my fellow passengers noticed. Or like when I passed out while donating blood and was slapped awake by a briskly unsympathetic nurse and then left, for the 45 minutes it took my blood pressure to rise, lying in a puddle of my own urine. Such an appetite for anecdotal fodder is why I appreciated being the victim of a crime. Once I walked away with my life, I was glad I'd been mugged.

First of all there was no way I could be blamed for it.  I've walked down questionable streets at unwise hours–and once, when I was in a particularly terrible mood, I did so hoping something would happen to me because that would show them–but in this case it was 9:30 p.m. on a Tuesday and I was on one of the nicest streets in Carroll Gardens. I had just passed the midpoint of the block, between the F train stop and the corner deli, when I heard quick footsteps behind me. I think sometimes the body knows what the mind doesn't: my mind said "Jogger" and my body said, "Oh, shit." Before I could decide who was right, there was a boy standing in front of me, a tall, skinny boy wearing a red athletic jersey and long baggy shorts. This boy looked at me and said, "Give me all your money."

I said, "What?"

"Give me all your fucking money," he said, and in case this wasn't clear enough, he added, "Give me all your fucking money or I'm going to fucking shoot you."

At that point I noticed he had a gun. I also noticed that he had a friend who was even taller and who was standing behind me, just in case I'd thought about making a run for it in my heels. They were both young: maybe 15? 16? 17? I had the idea that they were some of my students, though it had been years since I'd taught high school. They seemed vexed and nervous, as if they knew they hadn't really studied for the big test.

"Hurry up!" said the one with the gun. He waved it around, pointing it at the sidewalk, at the pretty wrought iron fences in front of the brownstones, but never actually at me. I thought that was polite of him. "Fucking come on!"

I had just gone to the cash machine, so I had $200 in my wallet. The thought of handing this fresh, warm money over to him galled me. Then, too, there was the prospect of having to cancel my credit cards, and the fact that I carry my social security card in my wallet, which everyone has told me not to do. But what I really, really didn't want to deal with was the driver's license thing. What a hassle to have to go to the DMV. Also for the first time in my life I'd taken a really good driver's license picture.

I said, "I'm just going to give you the money, okay?"

He didn't have a problem with this in principle. He said, "Hurry the fuck up, hurry the fuck up!"
I said, "I'm sorry. I'm really nervous."

He widened his eyes at me. I could see this because he'd jumped me under a streetlight. Is this your first time? I thought. Finally I found my wallet–I have always kept a messy purse–and I reached into it and grabbed some of the money and held it out to him. He snatched it away and then he and his friend sprinted off into the night. They were fast, beautiful runners.

After they left I fell apart. I staggered into the middle of the street because I couldn't control my legs. A minute later some guy came up and asked me if I was okay and I burst into tears. When I told him what had happened he asked me if they were black like he was and because I didn't want to make him feel bad I said no. He gave me a hug and his last cigarette. It was a Kool, and it was like smoking a Velamint.

It turned out that I had given the boys $100. I was bummed I hadn't pinched a fewer bills, but I felt kind of proud of my bravery: at the police station that night I met people who'd handed over their entire backpacks at the first flash of metal. Together we sat around on plastic couches and drank bad coffee while thumbing through three-ring binders of possible suspects. I knew I wouldn't find my boys because they don't keep binders for juveniles. The cops made me look at all the mug shots anyway.

One of the cops told me he wanted to be a novelist. He was eating a lollypop. His name was Detective Lee and he'd been in the precinct for fifteen years. He had some really crazy stories, he said. He'd just bought a new computer so he could write them all down.

N. Curtis Street

The way to find our house is to look for the fire. Big Daddy's Smokehouse squats on the corner of Lombard and Peninsular, a hulking box with orange and yellow flames painted up the sides, and on bright days it feels like a punch in the eye. You make a right after the conflagration, go a block and a half, and there you are: the 7000 block of Curtis Street.

Our block has big walnut trees and lovely scrubby dogwoods, and during the day the sound of KBVM, the station of the Blessed Virgin Mary, ripples soothingly up the street from the farmhouse on the corner. They have six dogs, a couple of snakes, and some chickens; their geese just had babies. A bunch of kids live there too. The two I see most just graduated from high school and they wash their cars all the time because they can't think of anything–anything–else to do.

My boyfriend likes our leafy street's proximity to the Lombard scuz, whereas I try to pretend the scuz is not there. I focus on the young creative types who live near us. There are three or four other couples. I don't talk to them very much but I like knowing they're around.

The other night, at about 11:30, we heard gunshots at the end of our street. They made a startling but strangely innocuous sound: a kind of cheerful popping, like fireworks. We watched out the window, over our neighbor's roof, for what felt like a long time, but when we didn't see anyone or hear anything else we went back to watching Battlestar Galactica. We thought about calling the cops but figured that someone else would do it.

The next morning one of our neighbors told me that there had been a drive-by shooting at the blue house, right where Curtis dead-ends into Farragut. There were shell casings littering the lawn, but no one was hurt–there weren't even any bullet holes. Did the cops come? I asked. "Oh yeah," she said, "like eight of 'em. Didn't they, Princess?"

Princess was her pit bull. Two days before I'd watched Princess dig a hole in my flower garden, extract a quantity of poop my cat had buried there, and eat it. She did so very delicately: she curled her lips back and nipped lightly at the shit, avoiding the soil around it, as if the dirt were the gross thing. I was repulsed, but I also felt like Princess had done me a service.

"This is a good neighborhood," my neighbor said. "It's bad when things like this happen." Princess was licking her shin.

I wondered what her definition of good neighborhood was. People walking down Curtis toss their Arby's wrappers onto our lawn, and there's been a Tecate can in the bush out front for weeks. One morning I watched a drug deal from my dining room window. Two men, one of whom had a little dog tied to his wheelchair, were making their way down the street when another man came running up to them. There was a quick, shuffling exchange of goods and legal tender during which no one stopped moving: the man was  wheeling his chair, the dog was leaping and biting at his leash, and the dealer was jogging. Another time I saw a guy trying to sell a baby stroller and a hanger full of old stained ties for a dollar a piece.

My neighbor said she ran outside in her underpants when she heard the shots. Hers is the house with the bars on its windows and the rusted truck on blocks in the driveway. But she'd put some pansies in windowboxes, so that was something. She said she felt sorry for anyone who was scared by the gunfire. She'd told her mother it was just someone knocking really loudly on a door. She told me to have a good day and went home with that shit-eating dog following her.

The next day I was watering the flowers in our front yard. I'm always alert during this activity because I wear a combination of something I slept in and something I found on the floor, so I have to be prepared to hide if someone passes by. Perhaps I was especially alert because I was still wondering why someone would shoot at the house of an old Vietnam vet who plays in a basement blues band.

I heard the car before I saw it. There was that dull thumping bass, the kind that rattles the ribs, and then I looked up and saw a low white sedan coming down our street. The car was dirty–where were the neighbor girls when you needed them?–and all the windows were open and I could see the maroon interior and how there were four or five guys in there. There were flags hanging from the rearview mirror and the driver had on a tank top and only one hand on the wheel. The car slowed down as it approached our house. In the backseat, one of the guys began leaning out the window. Towards me. I forgot about my bad fashion. I guess I thought I was going to get shot with a garden hose in my hand. And then the euphorbia and lavender would to die because my boyfriend would never remember to water them after my funeral. The man who was leaning out the window had sunglasses on. He raised his arm. There was something in his hand. The car slowed down more. The man in the sunglasses made a grunting sound and something came flying through the air. The Friday Oregonian ad circular landed onto my porch with a sharp thwack, and the low white sedan kept on driving.

About This Story

  • Author: Emily Chenoweth
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012
  • Print Publication Date: Jul 2008