Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Go Ahead, Punk, Make My Day!

My cell phone buzzed in my left pants pocket as I about to help a co-worker move a piano. I was expecting a call from Verna’s oncologist, so I quickly answered the call. Miguel’s voice was shaky on the other line.

“Hey, what’s up Miguel?”

“Dad,” he said haltingly, “I was mugged.”

“What?!? When? What happened?”

“I was riding my bike to the mall. Mommy gave me money to buy my saxophone reeds.” I could hear him sobbing. “And these guys, some kind of gang, asked me if I had any money…”

It appears that three men at least, one he described as bearded, wearing a black backpack, and in his 50s, and two young Hispanic males, maybe teenagers, intimidated Miguel on the dirt path alongside the railroad tracks a mile from our home. He immediately turned over the money, $35, and then raced back home, shaken and stirred.

“I’ll take care of it, Miguel.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going over there to find them. Do you want to come with me and identify them?”

“No!” he said with total authority.

After I got off the phone I could feel the anger bubbling inside of me. How dare these hoodlums rob my relatively innocent and usually very sweet 12-year old son? The anger was rising quickly and I knew exactly what I was going to do. I bolted for the front desk of the retirement facility where I work. I saw one of my other co-workers, Walter, a big, burly guy who is the director of housekeeping services.

“Walter, what are you doing right now?”

“Um, nothing, really,” he said, though he was clearly reading paperwork. “What’s going on?”

I explained what had happened to Miguel and my plan to retrieve the money. “I’m going to confront these guys. Got a tire iron or some other weapon?”

I guess the housekeeping director might have assorted broom handles, bottles of sanitizer, and anti-bacterial wipes. But nothing lethal enough for my vigilante purposes.

As Walter and I walked briskly to my car (OK, he lumbered), I opened the trunk and pulled out the tire iron. As I looked at it, I thought, “Who am I kidding?” The Toyota Corolla tire iron is about 8 inches long and can be lifted with one finger. There was no way it’d help me unleash any Charles Bronson-Clint Eastwood fury at the scum who’d stolen Miguel’s money.

“I’ll be right behind you,” Walter assured me in a tone that really said, ‘I plan to stay right behind you.’” He grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Seattle and added, “If this was 30 years ago (he is now 43), I’d get you that money right away. I had to be that way growing up.”

Clearly, though, Walter’s days of teenage self-protection amid urban violence had faded into distant memories. I was on my own. But then I realized, “I am on my own!” Who was I kidding? Verna is at home, couch-bound, because her physical and emotional health have been zapped by radiation, chemo, and a plethora of medications, each with its own funky side effects. I can’t do anything stupid and jeopardize my own health while Verna is sick. (Plus I am a coward.)

So I drove the car onto the other side of the railroad tracks and watched four young people, late teens, three who definitely Hispanic, amble along the path on the other side. Moments later, a bearded guy, black backpack, black sweatshirt, but in his early or late 20s at most, strolled by toward the highway underpass above the train tracks. Bingo, I thought; a cluster of guys who fit Miguel’s description.

I flipped open my cell phone and dialed 911. After querying me for several minutes, the dispatcher said, “We’re going to need a statement from your son. Is he home? Then we’ll send someone as quickly as possible to the spot where he said the incident occurred.”

“But the guys are now headed away from the railroad tracks, past the storage facility on Merrydale Road. I’m afraid they’re going to get away.”

I asked the dispatcher to have the police meet me right away at Dandy Market, which is halfway between the railroad tracks and a major street away from the area. I slowly followed the group, watching to see where they were headed. There was a McDonald’s, an A & W, and a carwash right across from the market.

The group then split up. The four youngest males, three Hispanics and one African-American, sauntered slowly along the sidewalk while the bearded white male picked up his pace and headed toward the other side of Merrydale, a hilly street, that leads up to a trail near the highway.

I drove across the street, away from the market, but turned my car to face the traffic light at the intersection of Merrydale and North San Pedro Road. As soon I saw the patrol car, I honked my horn, flashed my light, shouted, and waved my arm out the window.

He pulled up alongside me and I told him the suspect was near the top of Merrydale. He dispatched yet another patrol car to hold the alleged thief. Then he asked for my ID as he wrote down some basic information about the incident.

“Exactly what denominations of money did your wife give your son?” he asked me.

I called Verna. “A twenty, a ten, and a five,” I told the officer.

Moments later a third patrol car raced by with Miguel tucked in the backseat. The police had asked him to ID the suspect. The officer questioning me drove up to assist. Since I had to wait, I pulled out Sports From Hell: The Search for the World’s Dumbest Competition by Rick Reilly. Miguel was involved in a frightening process of potentially identifying the man who’d robbed him and I was laughing my ass off at people, for example, who competed in the World Sauna Championships where the temps inside the sauna are 261 degrees. The person who stays in the longest wins the top prize: sauna speakers. The winner boiled and baked himself for more than 12 minutes.

Seven pages into the book, the patrol pulled up behind me and Miguel and the officer exited the car. I greeted Miguel by rubbing the top of his head. “You did the right thing Miguel,” I said. Yes, he did, said the officer. Miguel had positively identified the suspect, who was carrying one twenty, one ten, and one five.

I then noticed that Miguel was barefoot. The officer thanked him and gave me his card. “Here is the case number. Usually in cases like this they plead out and there is no trial. We’ll be in touch about your money.”

“Miguel, you’re in your socks?” I said as the officer laughed.

“We went out the front door,” Miguel said, “so I didn’t have any shoes (we keep the shoes down in the garage).”

I joined the laughter as Miguel and I walked to the car. He had calmed down as I told him I was proud of him for accompanying the police. I shared the same sentiments with him as I put him to bed last night. He was worried the other guys might find him and beat him up. I said I didn’t think that would happen.

“Maybe I should carry a knife?” he wondered.

After he was asleep Verna and I began to process what our son had experienced earlier in the day. “You know what’s really sad?” I said. “Miguel lost some innocence today and that’s not fair.”

“I know,” was all Verna said in response.

Because I get up at 5:30, I sleep on the couch during the work week so I won’t disturb my bedmate (Verna) or our roommate (Maya). Miguel tapped me at what I thought was early, early morning. I rolled over and saw it was 11:50, only 45 minutes after I’d gone to bed.

“Dad, I’m scared,” he said.

“Miguel, why don’t you sleep in our bed?” Verna occupies a king-size bed by herself. Maya sleeps in her princess bed nearby.

“OK.”

Miguel returned a half-hour later. “Dad, I’m still scared. I can’t sleep. Every time I close my eyes I see the faces of those guys.”

“Well, what do you want to do?”

“Can I sleep down here on the floor?”

“You could, but I don’t want to wake you when I get up at five-thirty. Why don’t you turn on another light in your room?”

Yes, I know, I should’ve just gone up there with him. But given all the stress we’re under with Verna’s health, my busy job, and family life, I need that hour to myself every morning. Then, again, this was rather unusual.

But Miguel liked my bleary-eyed suggestion. The three lights in his bathroom pack more than 180 watts of luminescent energy. They are, in short, very bright.

“That sounds like a good idea,” he said.

I rolled over to my left and felt a rush of sadness. His world would never be the same.

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