Editor’s Note: We’ve been exploring the idea of teachable moments–those events that shape who we are, or why we believe what we believe. This one is my story. One of them. There’s a video at the end, if you’d rather hear me talk than read. It is a long video–close to half an hour. And it is just me talking, so don’t complain. It has been raining for weeks, and my range is underwater. So I broke out the camera and too a break from cleaning out the shop to talk through this event.
“Drive,” the man says. He kneels behind me in the minivan. He looks vindictive and oddly satisfied as he tucks a gun behind my ear. How did I expect him to look? He presses the snub-nosed barrel in the divot between my jaw and my skull, twists it. It’s a Smith and Wesson .38 special. The silver S&W medallion on the walnut handle glints in the rear-view mirror. His hand isn’t quite big enough to hold onto the flared grip. He’d said to call him Lefty. He isn’t even left handed. Doreen, if that’s her name, breaks character and screws her face into the passenger side window.
“Drive,” he says. I drive.
Let’s go back…
When had I decided this was bad? At lunchtime, I left MindSpring Enterprises, began the five block walk to Capella’s, an Italian sandwich shop in Midtown. In the crosswalk at Peachtree and 14th, the compact black man had caught my sleeve. Thinking he was going for my wallet, I grabbed his wrist in my left hand. The move was reflexive, aggressive. It surprised him and me. He cowered. An even smaller white woman ducked behind him, as if I was going to hit her, too.
“Easy, fella,” he said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” I let him go, but he reached out and touched my forearm with the careful consideration of a politician. “We need some help.” When I said nothing, he continued. “Our car broke down. While I was looking for a garage, it got towed. My wallet, luggage…. My wife,” he said, acknowledging the woman in his shadow.
We stood still in the crosswalk. Though the winter sun had stalled above the Atlanta skyscrapers, the concrete canyons were still cold. The woman tucked her hands beneath her belly, hid them in the pleats of a grey maternity dress. I will spend hours, days, debating this second. I could feel it. It was as if my watch, everyone’s lunch hour, and all the mounting traffic had slowed to a cinematic stop.
This happened to me in 1997. I was 23. Even at that age, I could smell a confidence scam. Whatever it is that passes for instinct said walk away, but I didn’t. I stood still. And then I asked the inevitable question: “What’s wrong with your car?” The blinking man above the crosswalk flashed his small warning.
“I’m a doctor,” he said. “A pediatrician. Don’t know a thing about cars.” The stoplight changed. “I’m supposed to present a paper this afternoon at a conference. All I need is a ride to the impound yard.” We stepped onto the curb.
I’d parked in a pay lot two blocks over. We made small talk. He said he has a practice in Manhattan. His name is something Frizzel, but I could call him Lefty. His wife’s name was Doreen. Either he was trustworthy, or their grift was decently scripted.
I drove a blue 1984 Dodge Caravan, a hand-me-down from my uncle. I opened the passenger door for Doreen. Lefty opened the sliding back door himself. He made some small joke, and we laughed a little. “You listen to me, son. Your charity will be well rewarded.” He scooted in where the first seats should have been, but they are long gone. I buckled my seat-belt and made polite apologies for the inconvenient state of the van.
“Drive.” he says,
I am positive that this is why I was in this situation: I’m white. I am so liberal I’m a libertarian. And I’m overly educated. If that wasn’t enough, I have what I had always thought was a healthy dose of xenophobia. But as a white man in the new south, I go out of my way to avoid any situation that might betray any trace of racism. This jackass looked professional enough—huaraches, black slacks, a Heathcliff Huxtable sweater that resembled a Jackson Pollock painting.
Here’s the crux of the biscuit. Had Lefty been white, I would have made some excuse—regardless of how well he was dressed. We were in downtown Atlanta before cell phones were everywhere, but I still would have walked away. That’s what you do when you’re in the city. You shrug it off and walk away. But I didn’t. And the man put a gun to my head.
“I’d like to ask you, boy—are you a Christian?”
This is what you think about when you have a gun to your head. I’d read a news story about a man who was shot in the head three times. The bullets grazed miraculously around the contour of his skull. They cut furrows in his scalp but he lived. And then I’m thinking about Lincoln, who was shot with a .45 caliber ball that squirreled around inside his skull but couldn’t get out. Someone got JFK from some incredible distance with a bullet the size of my pinkie nail and scattered his brain over half of Dallas.
At the time, I was 6’4″, 211 pounds—the same weight as Muhammad Ali in 1974 when he worked the rope-a-dope against Foreman. But I wasn’t not built like Ali. And then I’m questioning this man’s judgement for carrying a revolver. Cops had stopped carrying .38s years ago because of limited stopping power and inadequate capacity. But this .38 was pressed right up behind my ear. It might as well have been a cannon.
My mouth filled with an electric tinge, as if the gun were stuck through a hole in the back of my head and into my mouth—the barrel where my tongue should be. It tasted like pennies. The heater in the van blew cold air from the cold engine. January cold and I was sweating.
A weird history of violence
And this is how the mind spirals down the rabbit hole. I saw a man get shot once, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I went with my uncle to see the Chattanooga Choo Choo. We’d seen Chickamauga and Rock City; all that was left was the city’s historic train. This was the summer of 1984. My parents went to L.A. for the Olympics and I went to Chattanooga, which was fine with me as I liked singing Pardon me boy, is that the cat that chewed your new shoes? I had just finished the fourth grade, a fact I know by the number four in the year column—a coincidence that seemed mystic at the time.
My friend Wayne Lee had taught me the song. We were ten and drunk on White Russians, our favorite, and whatever else was left behind in half empty glasses after one of Wayne’s parents’ parties. Mr. Lee, a North Korean general, defected in the late seventies. He ran a karate studio, made a name for himself by tightening his abdomen and inviting grown men to hit him. By the time we were ten, Wayne was built like a white oak. He’d lift his shirt, tighten his abdomen. I’d let loose a worthless jab. He’d laugh and hit me just hard enough to sit me down. This was our relationship.
Once, while I sucked wind, Wayne sang “Pardon me boy, is that the cat that chewed your new shoes?” I wanted to laugh, but I couldn’t.
“Hey,” he said, after finishing up a chorus of the song. “How many one-armed naked ladies does it take to screw in a light bulb?” There was a new kid in our class, Jeffrey Askew, who only had one arm. His name may have been Asquith, but I called him Askew–with the stress on the Ass part. He had two arms, but one was paralyzed. Jeffrey’s arm hung like a tube of flesh. If he didn’t like you, you were ignored. If he liked you, he would snap his torso and the momentum would carry the arm around like a wrecking ball. It hurt. Nobody liked him.
“It’s not a joke,” Wayne said. He tried to look sophisticated, gagging down the dregs of a lukewarm martini. “I’m asking.”
The moment was so funny that a part of me still aches. This is the stream of consciousness. A man put a gun to my head, and I drifted back to elementary school. I hadn’t talked to Wayne in years, and right then it was all I wanted to do.
“It is so wonderful that you agreed to give us a ride,” Lefty said.
“You can’t just talk about mercy, or helping the poor,” Lefty said. “You have to walk with the poor, live a life of mercy. ‘What you do unto the least of God’s creatures….’” He stopped and changed his tone. “You never said—are you a God-fearing-Christian?” He wasn’t looking at me. He was checking where we were.
“Yes sir.” I said.
“Sir,” he said and he chuckled. “You are so polite. Would you mind driving us to a bank?” The barrel of the gun slid down the back of my head. He pressed it into my neck. It was warm.
Jeffrey Askew didn’t find the one-armed naked lady joke all that funny. But he liked me, so he whacked me with his arm. At home, I tried to empathize with his one armed-ness. I let my left arm dangle. But I could feel the bones.
Our teacher had told us to treat Jeffery like we would any other student, but still—it wasn’t like you could hit him back. No eye for an eye. He was special, and he knew it. At his birthday party, I gave him a GI Joe man wrapped in the Sunday comics. He was happy, I guess, and whipped that limb into my face. Then I hit him in the nose with a punch I learned from Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I had been saving that punch for my first Nazi. Jeffrey’s head snapped back. He fell sideways into the wall. He smiled a toothy smile and checked the blood with his good hand.
End of party.
“Will you be attending church this Sunday?” Lefty asked.
I drove, but I didn’t know where I was going. “I pray every day,” he said. “Not for riches or health. No. I say ‘Lord shape my heart like Jesus’s heart. Let my heart be as large as his.’ That’s how to be a Christian.” He tussled my hair with the gun. “Perhaps we could come to church with you, then have a nice lunch.”
Should I have wrecked the van? Driven into a telephone pole? What if the woman really was pregnant? She wouldn’t pull her face off the glass.
“Where exactly do you live?” He asked.
Maybe that was the change. Suddenly I wanted to catch his neck and crush his throat. There are long networks of interconnected neighborhoods in Midtown and the Highlands. They have zoning ordinances and few commercial enterprises. Boutiques, the occasional restaurant. No banks. I had turned into this green maze, under the canopy of old oaks, and past quiet Craftsman bungalows. But this lacked subtlety. He watched the cross streets, too. “Now son. Let’s not avoid the inevitable.”
Back in Chatanooga
We were at the Choo Choo and I was bored. I pretended to be one armed again, let my left arm droop heavily. My uncle stopped and asked me what was wrong. A tall white kid stumbled backwards through the front door of the hotel, a purse in his hand. Someone inside yelled some cliché, and a barrel-chested black man stepped into the kid’s path. They collided. The black man fell backward on the cement walk. The kid pulled a pistol from the waistband of his pants, and shot the man as he tried to get up.
I don’t really remember being there. But I remember watching the recap on the evening news and thinking how weird it was that I’d been there and could not remember it.
“How about you turn right on Monroe, and left onto Ponce.” The gun whispered in my ear, I think you will. “You know the parable of the good Samaritan? There is this man, right, who finds himself in the wrong part of town. He’s in a bad way ‘cause he knows he isn’t right with Jesus.” The man was pleased with this statement; I could see it in the way he smiled. He had scary British teeth. “But remember this: if you walk with the lord, than you have nothing to fear, not even death. So this dude gets all cut up. These punks just leave him lying on the side of the road, bleeding, and nobody wants to touch him. He doesn’t look rich, see, and bad luck is catching. But the angel of the lord takes pity on him…. Turn here.”
I’m not sure if I was supposed to be the Samaritan or if Lefty thought he was the Samaritan. The way I saw it, I was about to need a Samaritan. Or something.
The bank was unavoidable, but I had to wait in traffic to turn into the parking lot. A guard, a local deputy, stood in front of the walk up ATM, but I was the drive-thru. Lefty lowers the gun, pushed it through my coat.
I held his eyes in the mirror as he leaned his weight on the tip of the barrel in the ravine between two ribs. He strummed abrasively. At last, there was a tangible pain.
Doreen leaned her head just slightly to one side. I still can’t get a good look at her, but I could see enough. She had a large triangular nose and no chin. She looked like a rat.
“What happened to the Sumerian?” She asked. I guess she hadn’t heard the story.
The ATM was on the far end of the drive-thru lanes. I waved to the woman behind the green window, safe in her bulletproof cage. I could only take out two hundred dollars. The machine spit out ten twenties.
As I turned to hand Lefty the bills, he shifted forward on his knees and connected with my hand. The bills slapped across his forehead, and my knuckles popped on the bridge of his nose—not a punch exactly, but he fell backward. I nudged the gas. He pulled himself up with the back of my seat and pistol-whipped my head. Only once.
I could feel that I was bleeding, but he did not shoot me, and then I knew he wouldn’t.
“Now,” he said, straightening his collar under his sweater, “you made me lose my cool.”
He didn’t shoot me
Odd thing about Jeffery Askew—he kept coming back. I wrecked him regularly for three years, like he was my best friend. He loved to fight. After a while, I lost my taste for it, and he found someone else who would hit him.
Wayne Lee went off to a prep school, and we slowly lost our ability to communicate. We fought once our senior year. I spit in his eye. He broke two of my ribs, but he knew it wasn’t an accomplishment.
“Son,” lefty says form behind me. “Will you enter into the kingdom of heaven ahead of me? You have to fly right. Jesus wouldn’t want you to say he is the way and the light and stumble around all day praising him. Live your life as he lived his. The meek shall inherit the earth. That’s what this is, see, a small part of my inheritance.”
“I have to get back to work,” I said. “Can I drop you two….” Lefty slapped the back of my head. There was a damp matted thwack. He sat back on his heels, repulsed by my blood on the lighter skin of his palm then wiped it on the back of the seat.
“You might want to call in sick.”
I had never killed anything, though I understand, then, how it was possible. Not possible—easy. This was enlightening; all of my pseudo pacifistic, anti death penalty rhetoric. Bullshit. I would have, in that moment, killed this man.
I turned out of the bank, looked for the accident I was about to cause. My best plan was to make a run at a light pole, but two blocks west on Ponce de Leon, we slowed down. Cars clogged the intersection behind a limousine parked diagonally across one lane and most of the sidewalk. The lunch-time walkers congregated at a less than respectable distance. A man and a woman stepped out of the limo. She draped an overcoat around his shoulders like a cape. He looked like the a black version of the Captain Morgan pirate. Even then, at his advanced age, he looked like the hardest working man in show business.
“Goddamn. Louis,” Doreen said from the passenger seat. “I think that’s James Brown.” Louis looked up and I locked the brakes. He crumpled face-first between our seats and into the dashboard. But what did I care? I was free of the seat-belt, out the door, and dodging through the growing crowd.
So that’s it. The end. I walked away. Actually, I kind of ran for a bit. The video of me talking is below. But first, I owe a debt of gratitude to my accidental savior. Bask in the glow of the hardest working man in show business, circa 1974.