Self Care At Gunpoint


If you’re mugged at gunpoint, get your parents off the phone by telling them you have beers and friends waiting. This is probably the best way to convince them that you’re going to be fine. Bourbon will help you gain perspective, indulging nicotine cravings will relax you, and friends will listen to article pitches that will seem more or less relevant in coming months. No one will stop you from doing what you’ve got to do.

I knew I was not going to be shot. I have never felt more certain of anything. I am very extroverted, generally competent, and rational, but am prone to doubting myself. But during the aftermath, I didn’t doubt that I needed to take care of myself, and realized that I can always do a better job of that.

I squeezed in a three-day visit to Washington that coincided with Valentine’s Day—Bolt Bus happily profits from trysts and visits for young people who need a break and revel in independence. Roommates, old buddies, a sister, and an appealing female friend were all on the agenda. Things didn’t end up working out with her, but my friend Jake, a guy I sang with during high school, was bringing 12-year sherry cask-aged duty-free scotch.

I arrived at Union Station after 9:00 p.m. on the 14th, and waited for my friends before taking the red line to our destination in northeast DC. Jake had landed two hours earlier at Reagan National with his touring a cappella group and came over as quickly as he could, visibly on London time but happy to meet up. Sam, a Senate intern and former classmate, told us en route that it would be all right for him to show up to work hungover in the same suit the next day; the Republicans were filibustering Hagel and his senator would not be in town.

Exiting the station, I called my old roommate Nick for directions to his place, fumbled with my ticket while rolling a carry-on suitcase, adjusting my laptop bag, and straining to listen through a poor connection. After successfully inserting my ticket on the third attempt, Nick confirmed his instructions and we walked to the footbridge attached to the station. Because we were late, I moved quickly on the lit bridge with my phone still out, loudly telling Sam and Jake to hurry up.

I did not notice the two young black men walking slowly in front of us until one of them turned around and pointed a gun at us at a distance of five feet. The gunman told us to give our phones and watches, and his accomplice, wearing orange-tinted ski goggles, stalked around us and collected our stuff. I handed over my iPhone 4 immediately, Sam lost his iPhone 4S and a bag carrying his Senate credentials, and Jake lost his Galaxy Nexus, six year-old Fossil watch, and a messenger bag with his performance uniform and the Glen Garioch.

The encounter did not last very long. After collecting our things, the muggers told us to put our hands up and move away. They quickly backpedaled, jumped over the barrier to the street, and ran. I cannot say precisely what our muggers looked like, because I was staring down a rifled gun barrel, clearly unsuitable for pellets or paintballs.

I remember being incredibly focused and observant in the moment, to the extent that time was noticeably dilated. After being flooded with so much information, for one reason or another, specific images won out in my lasting memory. I remember Jake raising his eyebrows and attempting to act calm and steady while parting with his bag and watch. There was a brief moment after we handed everything over where I wondered if they would ask for my bag or our wallets, and rather than address that head-on, I stood there awkwardly with my hands in my pockets until they left. I remember worrying in the moment how I would get through my school work without a laptop.

The only correct thing to do at gunpoint is whatever you are asked. Actually shooting us outside of a metro station would have been an incredibly stupid thing to do, but our muggers were almost kids and looked like they hadn’t done this very often, if ever. A two year-old iPhone is cheap insurance against the possibility of a panicked teenager pulling the trigger. I did not doubt this conclusion.

After what can only be lamely described as a brief, awkward silence, we headed back toward the station to contact the police, seeing as we no longer had phones. Two bystanders immediately asked if we were okay, and said they had already informed the metro police. They had lingered at the base of the bridge, thinking they had stumbled upon a photo shoot until we put our hands up.

I knew that I was perfectly fine. I knew what my phone upgrade would be before I was safe. They had not asked for my wallet or my bag, which carried both my laptop and my tablet, and even if they had, all of my documents were in the cloud and I would not have lost anything. Sam found it incredible that despite guns being stuck in our faces, we still thought of them as “asking” for our belongings.

If you get mugged, the police won’t really help, because getting mugged isn’t all that special. They will not prevent the next person getting mugged. They won’t find your iPhone, and they will be genuinely surprised if you try to follow up on your case. They will act as if confirming your assailants were black men is an almost contemptible formality. You won’t remember any numbers without your phone, and you will have to improvise to contact everyone. You might also be offered questionable advice: Let it be known that at least one DC police officer recommends bringing a knife to a gunfight. Regardless, talking it out with law enforcement somehow helps.

Basic TV literacy made me confident about what would come next. Seeing as the crime happened in a metro station, we were under multiple jurisdictions, and the three of us offered our testimony separately about a half-dozen times over the next hour. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable, so I was careful to measure my confidence and say the same things to each officer. I wrote a statement down for a harried, bald detective in an ugly beige suit inside the station’s help kiosk. I checked in on Jake and Sam when I could, and eventually, I borrowed a police officer’s iPhone 5 so I could contact our hosts via Facebook. I joked to one officer that I’d just have to make up the cost of the iPhone by writing about the experience. That was my worst forced quip of the night.

Knowing that I was going to be okay—in every sense of the word—excited me. After we gave statements, one of the six or so officers who attended us drove us to Nick’s house. Seeing as Jake had just landed in this country with a disorganized a cappella group only to be mugged at gunpoint in northeast DC, he did not join us for the evening, and another officer graciously returned him to his hotel. Nick greeted us at the door, and his roommate Andy, another college buddy, gave me a hug.

Valentine’s Day fell the day after Ash Wednesday this year. God was going to forgive me for abandoning my recent Lenten pledge to abstain from my infrequent cigarette habit, and Nick let me bum one (or two). I was struck by the existence of a situation in which smoking a cigarette is clearly the appropriate solution. Of all the excuses I have used to justify smoking, including but not limited to being tired in the morning, pre-exam stress, boredom, proximity to an attractive person, drunkenness, or self-pity, victimhood as a pretense offers a unique combination of smugness and release of tension.

I called my parents and my sister to let them know what happened, that I was okay, and how to get in touch with me. Sam worried that his parents would freak out and thus stress him out, so he waited until the next day to call. We were concerned for Jake, and hoped he was doing all right without us. Andy and his visiting girlfriend Naomi went upstairs to resume their Valentine’s Day.

Deprived though we were of our expensive foreign scotch, as a newly employed single guy, Nick had Knob Creek on hand. Booze treated our anxiety and residual adrenaline, but what we really needed was a way to understand what we felt. None of us could believe it had happened. We’re all writers, and were self-conscious enough to cringe at how often we described it as “real.” I kept getting excited about different things I could write. Nick was particularly amused that the accomplice was wearing orange goggles, and recommended I lead with that.

Nick went to bed around one, but it soon became clear that Sam and I were going to be up until a normally useless hour of the morning talking about what happened. As a Senate legislative intern, about a third of Sam’s time is spent taking calls from constituents who choose to yell at some unpaid twenty-two year-old that the government shouldn’t take their guns away. He thought of these people when it was happening. For them, owning guns and calling interns are some of the only ways they can feel powerful. We knew beyond a doubt that having our own guns would not have helped. We agreed that the best-case scenario with guns on both sides would include dead teens, and we knew we didn’t want that.

By two in the morning we were sober, and starting to feel more shaken. Sam decided that he had sufficient cause to show up late, given that it was going to be a casual Friday, but wasn’t sure if or how he would tell his co-workers what happened. I said he might view this as an opportunity to talk about something important and as a means of establishing stronger relationships with everyone in his life, not limited to his mother and his coworkers.

Sam also got to suffer through my process. I’m a senior at Yale who has wended his way about different disciplines, preoccupations, and states of enrollment. I’m willing to consider any piece of advice on how to live my life that I’m offered. But since that night, as I explained with some urgency to Sam, I’ve felt hungry and impatient. I want to take care of myself and figure out who I want to be. I want to make it easier for others to do the same and harder for us to harm each other. I’m clutching at straws, and it doesn’t take much anymore to commit to an activity fully.

We both felt the late-night conversation was a moment to be seized, but I can’t say that it yielded anything monumental. My life didn’t change as a result. As I later explored what we discussed, it became clear that I didn’t know what taking care of myself meant. I keep myself entertained in everyday conversations by thinking of what it’s like to be the person to whom I’m speaking. I’ve been doing that for years, but it feels more focused now. I’m committed, because I don’t have any other way of figuring out how to take care of myself.

I am very lucky. My material losses were replaceable, and I have friends and family who love and support me. I would go so far as to say that, in hindsight, the experience was positive. On some level, no matter how privileged, we’re all trying to figure out who we want to be and what is a life worth living. A society in which threatening others with lethal force has become a mere nuisance is a society that misses this mark.

I’m writing this in the hope that I can surround myself with people who share these goals. I struggle with how to explain this profound experience to someone who is still waiting to hear what I think about gun control.

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image – gfairchild