"You go down and get the Calzone dough and I'll start prepping the sauce and vegetables."
Isn't it funny how someone's last words to another person right before they lose their life can be so ... banal?
I was in the early stages of dating this woman, Lillian, many years ago when we decided it was "Calzone Night" at my then home on Highland Avenue. Somerville, Massachusetts had a Bertucci's Restaurant right on the cusp of Davis Square back in the mid-90's. Gone now and replaced by a Subway sandwich shop, I believe. It was an easy place to get to so that's where we decided it best to pick up the fixins' for some "homemade" Calzones. No, we didn't want Bertucci's to make them per se we just wanted them to provide us with the pre-fabbed and uncooked dough so we could create the rest ourselves.
Lillian was a good cook her specialty in Hungarian cuisine specifically. She was Hungarian, after all, second generation to the States, and very much fluent in the language. When visiting with my nieces in Colorado they always referred to her Hungarian as "Martian" anytime they heard Lily speak on the phone with her mother. I can offer no imitation in writing that will do it justice but my nieces weren't too far off the mark. It's a beautiful language (and who says Martian wouldn't be either?) as it's a polyglottish sounding hybrid of Russian, Czech (another very difficult language!) and some unknown Romance Language. If you can speak it fluently it must be a helluva lot of fun to massage your jaw, lips and tongue around with its challenging rolling hillsides of intonation and sometimes brutish Eastern Euro-Slavic edges. Imagine, if you've never heard it, a fiery Rasputin reading a lovely and lilting French sonnet and you'll be somewhere in the right range.
Language isn't really what this post is about, though, unless you believe in the language of violence.
I left the house shortly after making a quick list of other foodstuffs to pick up and then walked down to the restaurant in a comfortable outfit of blue sweat pants and a faded green chamois shirt that I had worn cycling across Europe from several summers past. It was a lazy Sunday and I wanted to feel loose and fancy-free despite the lack of being far out of range of any fashion sense. The temperature was cool as Fall was getting underway on this late September day.
I remember these details very vividly. I remember them as if I were staring at a photograph or watching a short documentary film; it is important to capture the last few minutes of your life.
My mood was good, my step was lively, my manner betrayed nothing short of "I'm going to go get some dough and, MAN!, are we going to have some killer Italian-Hungarian tonight"! You could almost hear the whistling-choir soundtrack as I sprang, light of step, down Elm Street in all of that early autumn evening's resplendence.
Bertucci's had a moderate dinner crowd when I entered and the conversations all familial oriented. A number of folks with kids were all there merrily dining away. Pizza Night! Cheese strands trapese-ing off of chins, sauce streaking down bibs, salsa'ed smiles.
So, I didn't even notice the kid leaning over the counter at first when I came in.
He was just somebody's friend chatting up the girl behind the cash register. Of course, he was. But you're in my way there, fella. I was even a little bit rude at first when I started to place my order because nobody was paying attention to me; everyone had their eyes on the guy chatting up the cute chick at the register. Yo? What gives, people? Service industry remember?
"Hey, can I just order some Calzone dough? Just the dough, though, we don't want it cooked..."
The man who I thought was taking my order looked at me and kept rolling his eyes to my right - to the right - to the right- TO THE RIGHT! He was looking all pale and wide-eyed. And his eyes kept motioning me to ... look to the right!
Handguns are frightening things.
I know because my chatty counter neighbor had one. It was a nasty looking black snub-nosed automatic, protected somewhat from view by his crooked arm and dark folds of a 'hoodie', pointed directly at the stomach of the young woman behind the register. Muscle control had failed her; yes, synapses decided she was not moving for right now. A living, breathing shop mannequin stuck in position with a visage now painted up for Halloween as a BOO-ing ghost.
"Listen, I don't give a fuck how you do it just get me the cash out of the register, okay?" She would not, could not, move. Paralyzed with fear her eyes just kept looking down into some vast, bottomless well. Perhaps there was a key to the register? Maybe there had to be an actual sale transaction first...?
He repeated his demand but this time with far more irritated urgency, "Do I look like I have all day, baby?"
When she failed to respond yet again that's when he took notice of the guy next to him. The frumpy looking pseudo-jock in his blue sweats strolling in 'fer-sum-fahkin'-peeza-duuude'.
What a perfect 'mark' for him.
And, what a bad time and place for me to be.
This gangly 'scarecrow' of a creature was strong for his overall size and appearance. Guns make their bearer's bolder, mightier, to be sure, and their targets into instant putty I can attest. So, when his lanky frame grabbed me, abruptly and humiliatingly by the scruff of my chamois' collar and t-shirt, it was easy for him to hold me up like a dangling show dolly. Here we have it, ladies and gents, one life-sized Super Sports Ken doll at your disposal! Any bidders?
He was making no bones about the seriousness of his request now. He poked the tiny black weapon against my sternum with an aggressive 'thud'.
"Hey, ya cunt, see this guy? He's about to lose his life? You think I'm not serious? You wanna think again about opening that fucking register!?"
The rest of the kitchen staff was fully tuned in by this point. As a rule everyone in the restaurant was his captive (captured?) audience now. No one seemingly knew what part to inherit in this perverse this-is-not-happening theater of the absurd. As to how many restaurant crews are actually trained in armed robbery defense tactics I know not, but the Bertucci's staff either had slept through the class or never bothered showing up. Not that I was really expecting any true intervention (never negotiate with the terrorists, remember?) but at least open the goddamn register!
Nope. Standing there was an easier option.
Like they were watching TV.
Only with no remote.
'Scarecrow' spun me around now so that his back was to the restaurant's front window, mine to the back of the dining room area. I was easy to manipulate. When he twirled me about in his macabre ballet I felt featherweight in his grasp. Why he did this manouevre remains a sort of a mystery. In retrospect, he was left-handed so it did allow a better view of the dramatics for the counter staff. Another thought occurs that he may not have wanted to shatter the front window with any spent rounds and thus draw any unnecessary attention. But, that's about as far as I'd like to venture inside this man's mind, I'm afraid.
Oh, and by the way, if you're at all wondering, there were absolutely no thoughts of any kind of heroism being schemed up inside my head a la Dirty Harry during this whole episode:
INT. - DARKENED RESTAURANT - EVENING
WE FIND OUR HERO WITH A GUN PRESSED TO HIS CHEST BY A MYSTERIOUS AND CLOAKED FIGURE. A DEVILISH SMILE SUDDENLY CROSSES HERO'S LIPS. HE WINKS AT HIS ASSAILANT. WITHOUT HESITATION, HERO GRABS THE MAN BY THE WRIST AND USING AN AGILITY HERETOFORE UNKNOWN TO MERE MORTALS WRESTS THE WEAPON FROM THE EVIL DOER'S HAND KNOCKING HIM TO THE FLOOR.
(beaming with brandished gun)Looks like you'll be getting your pizza served ... cold. So, let me ask you this, Mr. Sunshine, who's your daddy now, huh? Huh!? Bee-yotch! Ha, ha, haaaa!
FADE TO BLACK - UP MUSIC
END CREDITS ROLL
I'm certain the "What I'd actually do" fantasy is just that, a myth that our Hollywood-ized culture instills to the Nth sad degree on the average citizen. In fact, had you put an audio recorder inside my head at that moment you may have heard the sound of crickets and one sole, desperate thought from me, "If you don't move, if you just don't move, you're going to be okay... so just don't move." My body felt rubbery and in an almost yogic trans-meditational state albeit without any of the relaxation part. Downward dog playing dead for his master.
"OK, we're going to play the numbers game now. I'm going to count to three," he raised the little black gun directly at my face; he was about to have his glory, every painful shortcoming this man may have experienced in his young, chaotic life, was about to get its due, "and by the time I get to three this guy will have a bullet in his head."
Directly behind me my peripheral vision acknowledged a family of four sitting in suspended animation at their table. Forks hanging from hands in mid-air, napkins white-knuckled in fists. I remember most of all their little girl with her mouth wide open in just-about-there comprehension of the whole scary situation. Whenever 'Scarecrow' decided to fire the shot there was a damn good chance mom, dad, young boy or little girl would have been struck by the exiting projectile. Never mind the contents of my head.
"Hey, God, please, one thing here. Yeah, me, Dennis, again, remember? You know how everyone says I have a hard head? For the sake of the little kids behind me ... make it extra hard tonight."
As this sorry little man and his weapon were pissing fear and bravado all over the restaurant that evening I recall the most extraordinary out-of-body sensation. Its strikingly similar to how its described in literature and film. You do float. You see yourself standing there detached from self, and in this situation, next to a stranger with his life in your hands. You just observe. I recall a dark shadow silhouette, a self portrait in negative photo image, a long extended tree limb attached at my throat and the mouth of some cold, dark empty hole.
The muzzle of the weapon was never merely an inanimate gun barrel during those moments.
It was a cartoon-sized cave opening as if I were staring down the ass-end of some long droopy, Dali-esque drain pipe. Pitch black, well deep, a blossoming fish-eye lensed hole as it trained your eyes not to look away.
He moved the handgun firmly up underneath where my jaw and neck met now letting the family of four off the hook for the moment. The shot would push my teeth up into my brain and perhaps through the top of my skull I reckoned. It felt blunt and heavy and coldly indifferent. If it were cognizant it would have felt the pulse in my neck S.O.S.ing it to just cut the shit.
And, yet the whole time I never said a word.
"Here, asshole, here! Take the fucking cash and get the fuck out!" I think it must've been the manager. I recall a ding! sound while he spoke out, the register popping open barely pregnant with its diminutive bounty, "Here, $66 bucks, you want it? Take it! Now get out!"
And so there was the punchline. Green wrinkled paper. Metal buttons. King Money slapped declaratively onto the register's table top with all of its clinking, clanking, clunking vassals rolling onto the floor below.
But it spoke much more loudly than that; it had one more very potent thing to add: here's how much your life's worth today.
Sixty-six dollars and change.
At least that's a lot of Calzone...
"Lie down on the floor, faggot!" Faggot? Whatever. That would come as some surprise to Lillian (Lillian, oh my, God, Lillian...)! My newly designated "faggot" self wasn't going to argue. Down I went.
Scarecrow sauntered over to the counter and scooped up his lucre, gun still very much threateningly in command.
When dollar bills were finally stuffed into baggy black jeans pockets and every speck of change meticulously plucked off of linoleum tiles he backed towards the entrance.
"Now, everyone get on the floor!"
He liked that.
You could tell he liked this whole experience of being in absolute, unquestionable control.
Coooool as a cucumber as they say.
As Scarecrow backed up into the glass door of the main entrance he left us with one last yippee-kai-yay cowboy line-read:
"Ya'll have a nice day."
He grinned a mile-wide grin and then disappeared into memory.
(You know the expression "there's never a cop when you need one"...?)
The young woman behind the register burst into tears and then fell into hysterics, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I just couldn't move, I couldn't move, I didn't know what to do...!" the manager offering his best firm hand on a shoulder bit and a bunch of "you did the right thing"s all the while. Ha, yeah! Mind telling that to the guy who just had the gun pressed up against his head...?
I know what you're thinking. No shots were fired. Everyone escaped with their lives. Happy ending, right?
Yes and no.
Yes, my teeth remained firmly planted in their jaw settings that night.
No, for that five minute eternity I no longer had owned my life.
Crime victim survivors will often refer to their experience as the ultimate violation. There is a good reason for that. When a person comes to the menacing realization that they really don't "own" their life (or anything for that matter), that life is a privilege and not a right, it brings to the front of the brain queue some serious questioning of old belief systems. Some people insist that this is even a liberating experience.
Here's the rub: I had lost my life that day to a stranger with a gun and now I was just beginning a journey towards some unknown quantity of residual effect.
Figuratively, spiritually, symbolically, whatever scope you'd want to peer at it through, my life was gone as I had known it. To what degree the changes I would come to know thereafter were anyone's guess.
My experience, certainly unique to me - maybe another more tactically trained individual may have viewed the whole affair very differently and with a different outcome - still reveals this damning notion: when somebody decides that ownership, slavery in essence, of another person is in the cards that day, and they have the means to bringing it all to fruition, and you happen to be the unfortunate entertainment ... indeed, your own life in betrayal will unhinge itself from its customary setting. It becomes plainly there for the taking.
Scarecrow got his muse that night and it changed everything for me from that day forward.
"Sir, are you all right?" It was the manager addressing me.
"Yeah, yeah. Listen, can I just get my Calzone now?"
He smiled awkwardly, fetched the dough and dropped it into a To-Go box for me.
He shook his head: "On the house, man."
The walk back home was crippling. It hadn't quite gelled as to what exactly just happened to me, but I knew something was going to tip the kettle inside soon. Just you wait.
When I finally did arrive back at the house Lillian was there, vegetables cut, sauce bubbling, and naturally concerned and curious, "What happened to you? What took you so long?"
"Don't ask." (Really. Don't. I won't have an answer for another several days/weeks/months/years anyway...)
"Okaaaay. Well, then how much did the Calzone end up costing?"
That I knew without any question:
"My entire life's saving..."
It would be remiss of me not to mention that I was later asked to come back down to Bertucci's and help with the criminal investigation. Apparently, there had been a string of very similar styled robberies in the Boston area for about two weeks prior to that incident, the 'perp's tactics fitting Scarecrow's joie de vivre.
To make a long story short I spent the rest of the evening pouring over photo I.D. logs and then eventually riding in a police squad car chasing around leads all night - there was even a gun-drawn commuter bus raid that I watched from the safety of the lead detective's car - a dozen police officers stormed an MBTA bus on a tip that a suspect fitting the description had boarded this particular vehicle.
No deal, but it looked like it scared the crap out of a bunch of people inside.
To my knowledge the police have never apprehended the guy. Not uncommon with these types of crimes.
Personally, though, I know exactly where he's been all this time.