I have been feeling sad this week with the loss of two precious lives–Robin Williams and Michael Brown, both from acts of violence. I know many others died in horrible ways as well, although I don’t know their names. My own experiences with violence have, thankfully, been few.
The summer after I graduated from U of Illinois, I stayed with my parents, who were then living in Des Moines. I was to start law school in the fall. For the summer, I found a job at a 7-11. I was working the 3-11 shift (I think that was the time–anyhow, it was midafternoon into the late evening). I remember we had to take a training before we started. I sat in the back room and watched a tape on the VCR. I was instructed to use suggestive selling–would you like some ice cream to go with that cake? Could you use a lighter to go with those cigarettes. Part of the tape was about what to do in case of a robbery. They basically said just give them the money. The job was fine for a summer. I didn’t mind it. I met some interesting and strange and also some nice people. But about halfway through the summer, I was at the store by myself when a young man walked in. It was hot outside, so I thought it was strange that he was wearing a coat. He also seemed very nervous. He looked around and ascertained that no one was there but me. Then he poked a gun through a hole in the pocket of his jacket and pointed it at me. I remember wondering if it was loaded, but knew better than to ask. His hand was shaking so much that I was afraid that he would pull the trigger by accident.
I felt like I should talk to him, but I had no idea what to say. He asked for all of the money in the cash register, so I handed him the bills. As I did it, I described everything that I was doing–“I’m taking the cash from the drawer. I’m handing it to you.” As I did this, I looked at him, memorizing his features. I also had this feeling of how precious and fragile life is. I felt like there was a thread of light that connected me to life and that it could easily be broken.
He asked me for the change. My hands were shaking, too. I told myself little jokes–would you like a bag to go with that money?–as I watched him stuffing the money into his pockets.
When he had all of the money, he told me to lay down on the floor. I was terrified. I thought he was going to shoot me. I did what he said. A few moments later, I heard the door open and close. I was pretty sure he had left. I knew that I had no sense of time, so I made myself count slowly to sixty, because I didn’t want to stand up and find him still in sight. When I stood up, he was gone. I called the police. Two boys, around ten years old, came into the store. They wanted to buy something, but I told them that I couldn’t sell them anything right then. I called the woman who owned the store, and she said she would be right over.
The police came. They told me I should have locked the door and not let anyone in. The robber might have left fingerprints on the door. This didn’t make any sense to me, because even if the door was locked, the boys would have tried to open it. But it didn’t seem worth discussing. We went to the station and I told them everything I could remember, including a detailed description of the guy. They showed me some photos, but none of them were him. They didn’t think they would find him, and he had only stolen about $60 including the change–we really did put the money in the safe regularly. I left the police with my boss. She drove me around to some of the other 7-11 stores and had me talk to the other clerks. She asked me if I wanted to work the next day as scheduled, and I said I would, but I didn’t want to be alone. She promised me she would be there.
The next day, my Mom drove me to the store. I went in and talked to the guy who was finishing his shift. As I stood there, I started having flashbacks every time he opened the drawer. I asked him where our boss was. He said she had called and said that she wasn’t coming. I said I couldn’t stay alone and went out to the car, where my Mom, who really didn’t want me to come back, was waiting. I climbed into the back seat and refused to get out. I knew that I had to go back. If I didn’t, I was afraid that I would always be afraid to go out anywhere. The other guy called her. She had decided to go to the beach. I had seemed fine the night before. I stayed into the car until she came back. She sent me into the back to count the empty soda bottles. I was pretty sure that she was just giving me something to do. Everytime someone came in or the cash register opened, I would see his face again. But it got better as the afternoon wore on.
I realized that I wouldn’t be able to work by myself anymore, though, so I transferred to a bigger store where there were always two people working.
That was many years ago, but I still remember it clearly, although I don’t remember his face anymore.
Life is precious. We all die in the end. My life was never the same after that day. I woke up in a way. I was aware of what a gift every day is. Not that I haven’t forgotten–many times–but I always come back to that awareness.
And giving birth to my daughters was another reminder of the miracle of life. Every life is precious. Every child deserves to be loved and nurtured, as does everyone who used to be a child or is still a child at heart. My heart breaks for those lives cut short.