Friday, February 29, 2008
This is going to be an odd post for me, and if it's boring or terrible, then I apologize in advance, but this won't be my usual ball-of-fluff. It's just that I have a story I've never mentioned here (I don't think) and it turns out this is the day to post it, if ever there is one.
Though I'm not one to hang a lot of significance on dates, leap day brought itself into sharp relief for me forevermore on February 29 of 1988. I'm probably one of the least superstitious folk you'll ever meet, but when leap day comes back around, I always remember 1988.
I was 22 and working for the US Post Office at the Bulk Mail Center, armpit of the greater Dallas metro area. I had some office details, but mostly I threw around 70 pound sacks of mail for a living. Yes, I was fit and healthy, but then again, at 5'2" I was still no Linda Hamilton. I was paid well and liked the work itself, if not the way the place was run. I went to Europe occasionally, went to every concert that took my fancy, and I was having the proverbial fun a girl was meant to have, very carefree.
I generally didn't hang out with co-workers, although I found some to be passably nice and even pleasant to talk to. One couple I liked in particular kept asking me to meet them out at a bar in a large entertainment district at the west end of downtown. One day, I finally agreed and I showed up-- leap day. I was wearing ballet flats, olive cotton pants and a white tank shirt with little purple lilacs. Oddly, I carried a small purse that night with a long strap crossed diagonally from my right shoulder to my left hip-- I normally didn't carry a purse, finding them cumbersome and a general pain in the butt. The olive pants had no pockets, though, so the catch-all accessory was a must that night. There were a lot of people around, and I felt fairly comfortable, even though I wasn't that familiar with this complex of bars and restaurants. It was still early enough to be light outside.
I walked around the corner where the couple said they'd meet me and instead of my colleagues I saw two tall black men walking toward me. They were memorable because they were both wearing very tight white jeans and white t-shirts, also tight. Strange to coordinate in such a way. Hmm. Whatever. I've always been the never-met-a-stranger type, and I made eye contact with one of the men and started to say "hello," but I instantly sensed menace(?!) in his gaze and I averted my eyes. I heard the words come out of his mouth as if they were shouted from the other side of a field:
"Give me your purse."
What? No! He didn't say that. Brain can't process this.
Yes, it happened very fast but I could chart and graph every scintilla of the experience.
I kept moving forward and the man nearest me reached and grabbed the part of my purse strap over my sternum as he said
"Give me your fucking purse."
I have less than a fraction of a second to process what's happening, I flip through my memory bank of their attire, and considering the tightness of their clothing, I decide they are not carrying guns, and I plan my course of action and move forward with it. I give him the only response which made sense in my universe:
"No fucking way."
People all around. People everywhere. Every direction I look there are people. How can this be happening?
my hands go instinctively to my purse grasping at the corners, a strap extending from each desperately clutching palm as they push me down.
I am in a foetal position around my purse, on my knees. They each are beating with one hand on the back of my neck and on my spine, each pulling on one side of the purse strap with the other hand. I see people standing around in an ovine stupor, useless. I see Madras plaid shorts with hideous tourista white socks. The fists on my spine surprise me - in a way they don't hurt, I feel the force of the blows but it's not that bad, for some reason. I'm on my knees looking around for any help, any port in a storm, and I see a silver BMW sedan with two white couples, men in front, women in back seat, stopped in the street, staring gape-mouthed. "Muffy, look! How quaint-- a mugging!"
Isn't anyone going to help me? A mere female chick being beaten up by two big goons? What in Hades is wrong with this picture?
When will this stop? I earned the privilege to have this purse and all it contains, you sniveling piece of shit-- I busted my ass, I sweated, this is mine. I'm hanging on for dear life, and I can hang on for an hour, if need be. Someone has got to stop this. this must stop. SOmeone will come along. Someone...
my heart sinks as the leather betrays me and one side of the strap snaps free from the bag. as if this were planned - as if they'd been practicing this very move for weeks, the instant the strap breaks free, the guy on the other side grabs the little bag from the underside and pulls the straps clean out of my hands, free, and they are off and running. For hours I won't feel the rope-burns on my palms. I run into the street after them immediately and they run into a parking lot. I stand in the street, screaming yelling an inarticulate babble of rage and despair - what just happened to me?
A big Irish cop comes on the scene and gently guides me out of the street onto the sidewalk by the parking lot where the goons both ran. He was the beginning of the universe setting itself aright. A security guard for the parking lot who "saw the whole thing" came over to lend a hand, acting like the calm voice of reason to my sputtered, breathy regurgitation of events. Thanks, pal. Really.
The goons pull up in a 70s car and out of the parking lot exit. The officer does nothing to stop them. They drive away. We get make, model and license plate number.
Emergency room, bruising, no serious injuries. In coming weeks I field an array of variations on "why didn't you just give it to him?" and am told by all and sundry that I'm a moron for not just handing my stuff over on demand.
My dad got in touch the detectives who were handling the case. My dad is the same kind of salt-of-the-earth man they were - the men who make things right. I felt they were as committed as my dad to the objective of holding these dirtbags accountable. We were told it was highly unlikely a mugger would ever be caught, and even more unlikely he'd be positively identified in a lineup. I could see their faces, though, and I still can - identification would be a snap.
In late April, I got a call from the detective: the car was pulled over in connection with another robbery, and could they bring some photos by the BMC for me to look at? I identified the man who was driving the car. The detective would later testify that I shuddered when I saw his photograph.
His pubic defender insisted I identify him in a live lineup - I had named the wrong guy. Again, I had no difficulty in fingering the excrescent congregation of flesh which matched the image seared on my brain.
The trial was set, and so began a pattern: I'd take the day off, meet my dad at the courthouse, then the pubic defender would ask that the trial be postponed at the last minute. This happened about 4 times.
Finally, the day of reckoning came about. The assistant district attorney was a pistol-of-a-woman and one of my personal heroines. On a pound-for-pound basis, she whupped him way more on the stand than he had done me on the street on February 29. She had the most fetchingly homey east-Texas drawl you ever heard - her voice was the aural equivalent of a big, old comfy leather chair - HOME! When the sentencing phase came around, I'll never forget the words with which she admonished the jury:
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we have asked for a sentence of 20 years and a $10,000 fine, but you do not have to issue that sentence: you may sentence him for more if you think it is appropriate."
I was elated. Props to the lady in shining armor on the white horse! Finally, someone steadfastly in my corner, someone who agreed and said for the record that- dammit- this was my purse to which I had sole right.
In the end he got 7 years and $5,000 fine. He did a plea bargain on all the other charges against him, including raping another inmate, so he probably ended up cooling his heels in lockup for at least a couple more leap days. Happy endings.
It was an incredibly strange adventure. I wish it never had happened, but I learned a whole lot. I learned that bad crap can happen to you and that you can still survive. I learned that other people are very afraid. I learned that other people will try to shame you into validating their fear-based approach to life. I learned that you can not shrink from threat and just hope it will go away. I learned that if you have no plan to react to a physical attack, you won't really know what to do when faced with that situation. I learned that in the moment of real crisis, no one is going to step in and save me: I'll have to save myself.
If I'm ever in that position again-- unarmed and under attack -- I mean to come away from the experience(even if dead) with at least the trophy of one eyeball from my tormentor with which to festoon my trophy case. Next time would/will be tooth-and-nail. If I have time to access it, my weighty little Leatherman will be slammed forcefully into an accommodating temple-- I will do my best to kill with my bare, immaculately manicured hands: no more Mr. Nice Bitch. There are kneecaps, eyeballs, shins, insteps and wedding tackle among the array of vulnerable areas on an attacker, and I'll set about my business if I must.
I didn't believe in just handing it over, and I don't even moreso now than ever. I'm still no Linda Hamilton, but I think this is a principle that applies not just to possessions or your life, but to our very freedoms and rights as human beings. Don't just give it away without a fight. Passivity gets you nothing but soundly and thoroughly ensconced in the bitch-seat, and you teach the aggressors they were right to disdain you.
Yeah, it's possible someone will divest me of a handbag in the future, but next time, I'm going to take something in exchange, including a heaping helping of their DNA.
ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ, and all that stuff.