In New Orleans during Mardi Gras in 2000, there are so many people walking around the streets in the French Quarter that it can be hard for cars to cross intersections (this was back prior to Katrina, mind you). Nobody stops to let traffic pass, so cars will just inch forward slowly into the masses of people and try to get folks to get out of the way to let the vehicles pass. I was with a friend walking through the Quarter late at night (there's a crowd in the Quarter at almost all times of the night, or rather that was the case pre-Katrina), and a truck was nosing through the crowd in an intersection. I actually stopped to let the truck pass, and when he hesitated, I slapped the side of the truck to try and get him to hurry up. Instead, he stopped and rolled down his window, aiming a pistol right at me. He didn't say a word, just sat glaring at me aiming the gun.
My immediate sense was that his lack of words and the way he stared at me meant he was about to pull the trigger. And my instant reaction to that feeling was to say something like (I'm paraphrasing, I do not recall the exact words that came out), "You're shooting me for letting you through?" The guy just turned away and just drove on through the crowd like it never happened, and as soon as he cleared the crowded intersection he raced off quickly down the street. I was momentarily furious at the thought he wanted to shoot me after I was trying to help him, and so didn't have a more rational response like "duck" or something equally brilliant. But for what it's worth, I'm convinced that if I hadn't said anything, that guy was about to shoot me.
The other time was outside of a gas station in 1998. I was on a payphone checking if a friend of mine was working at an all-night diner before I headed up there, and two kids came running out of the gas station. I looked over and saw that one of them had a bag, and the other was carrying a gun. They had no disguises, and I realized they'd robbed the store. So I watched them, trying to pay attention to their faces and clothing, and the kid with the gun noticed. So he slowed down and raised the gun toward me as they veered their course slightly to run close by the payphone. They were probably no more than five feet away from me, and the kid held the gun right out at me and looked seriously pissed off that I wasn't looking away. So I got a pretty good look at the gun, too.
I just had a split second to decide to either look away or to try and memorize as much as I could about them in case they did shoot me -- and I was frankly only mildly worried about being shot, because they were running and the kid was only half-assed attempting to keep the gun pointed at me, so I (irrationally, probably) thought I wasn't in serious danger. I was just waiting for them to get far enough away that I could run to the gas station and see if the cashier was alive -- she was, they hadn't harmed her -- and write down everything I remembered as fast as possible. Because I kept looking at them, I was able to actually identify the gun from a lineup, and identified one of the boys from a lineup as well. They were both arrested and convicted.
In both cases, I felt more nervous about it afterward than I did at the particular moment. The first time, in New Orleans, I felt more angry than anything else at the time it was happening. At the gas station, I wasn't angry, but my fear was more about finding the cashier dead in the store than about getting shot. I think I didn't have time to really have the fear reaction in New Orleans, and I think the situation at the gas station made me feel less worried that I'd be shot (if the kid had stopped and aimed at me, I think I'd have felt differently, but I had plenty of places to run to and they were clearly in a hurry to get out of the area before the cops showed up).
There were a few other times people pointed guns at me, but not in anger. One example, however, is kind of funny so I'll tell it just for the heck of it.
My wife and I were robbed at gunpoint in D.C. late at night in 2003, and (in keeping with my stupid reactions) I was tempted to try and tackle the kid who had the gun, because these two robbers were clearly stoned out of their minds on weed and the kid kept forgetting to point the gun at me. But my wife was there, too, and I wasn't going to risk her getting hurt. And they were just dumb kids, probably mid-teens, and (as you'll see shortly) they weren't hardcore gangbangers or anything. But the gun was definitely real, and afterward, I kept thinking that if I'd stopped them then, they wouldn't be likely to rob someone else later when someone might get hurt or killed. But all they got was $20 and some credit cards that we cancelled five minutes later when we got home, so they never got any use out of anything except the cash.
To demonstrate how ridiculous this situation was, as we were walking off and the two stoned robbers were wandering away down a footpath in the park (to D.C. residents -- this happened on the little footpath from Fort Totten through the park, the kids were hiding at that old abandoned trailer that used to be a police building for protecting citizens in the park, ironically enough). They had taken my wife's purse, which only contained her credit card and her house keys. She stopped and turned and shouted to the kids, "Can I have my keys so we can get in the house?" The kids stopped, looked at one another in a daze, and then fished the keys out of the purse and threw them to my wife. She yelled, "Thank you!" and the kids actually waved back as they turned and continued their slow stoned saunter in the opposite direction down the path. I think they might've forgotten they just robbed us. My wife and I still laugh about that situation (even though it was also startling to turn around and have two people walk up on us in the dark with a gun).
By Caroline Zelonka, Creative Director
In September 2001, I flew from SFO to SEA to attend a friend's wedding. Yes, right after the attacks. The nervous energy in the airport was palpable; everybody was as anxious as hell. Airline personnel especially. One of the hijacked planes had been headed for SF, so a lot of these people knew or knew of the people on the flight.
The airport was virtually deserted. No lines at check-in or security. However, we were viewed with suspicion because of my then-BF's appearance, I believe. Despite his bleaching his hair Billy-Idol blond for the occasion, he has black-brown eyes, thick dark eyebrows, and, god bless him, a naturally intense expression on his face. Sephardic Jewish ancestry, but easily could pass for someone from the Middle East.
We're going through the various security checkpoints, and BF is getting the business; being asked about his ancestry and other bullshit, which was getting him a little riled up.
At the time, President Bush decided it would help travelers feel "more safe" to have the National Guard help out with airport security. Not exactly. These guys were walking around in civilian-clothes (plaid shirts, shorts, combat boots; a grunge/badass look) and rifles. Freakin' rifles! You could tell that some of these guys were just looking for an excuse to exert an extreme show of force.
Well, at the last checkpoint, right before boarding, guess who misplaces their driver's license?
I had thrown it in my bag after showing it the previous time, and in my nervousness, I didn't remember where. In 2001, multi-pocket messenger bags were all the rage, and I was using a new and unfamiliar one.
"She can't find her I.D!" one of the National Guard guys yells. The gate check guy gets on his walkie-talkie to announce this to the flight crew. My BF is yelling at me, too. "Where's your I.D?!! You just had it!!"
I'm rifling through my bag, getting panicked, when I finally spot it and pull it out. "Got it!" I exclaim.
I look up to see not one, not two, but three rifles pointed at my head.
I was told I let out a little scream, but I think I was just startled. I do remember thinking that this was sort of cool, like a scene in a movie.
So they let us on the plane. The shaking and heart-pounding started after the whole thing was over. Right after I was seated, a sweet flight attendant brings me a mimosa, saying, "I had a feeling you'll be needing this."
I talked to him a little bit during the flight. He said one of his good friends was on the hijacked plane from Logan airport. And that he felt the National Guard were doing more harm than good. Apparently my experience wasn't that unusual. Thank heaven we've calmed down somewhat.
I didn't feel any lingering trauma after the incident. I was a victim of the times and collective anxiety. And it gave me a good story to tell.More questions on Guns and Firearms: