Monday, December 05, 2005

An unpleasant incident

I was going down the street to buy my mother a birthday
present when I witnessed a violent episode. As I waited
for a red light to change, a man on the other side of the
street began to yank at a woman’s purse. She screamed
and clutched it tighter against her; the man started punch-
ing her in the head to make her let go. The cars passing on
the busy road began to honk their horns, drowning out
what I was trying to tell the 911 operator. While I shouted
into my cell phone, the man threw the woman to the ground,
tugging mightily at her purse strap as he went on hitting her.
This was rush hour and a long line of cars swerved to avoid
them, most of them holding down their horns, but nobody
stopped. Their noise caused a couple of guys to look out from
the bay of their body shop, though, and they rushed over to
seize the robber. One of them held him while the other
punched him. The robber flailed in their arms, but they
were a whole lot bigger than him. He slumped to the curb
and the mechanics battered him until he was laying down
in the gutter. I could hear them shouting dirty names at him
just before one of them kicked him in the face. The light
changed then and the woman scrambled past me as I crossed
the street. She climbed onto a bus and vanished while the
mechanics and I–along with a few other witnesses–waited for
the police to show up.

“I’m going to kill you motherfuckers,” the robber told us.

“Shut the fuck up, you fucking piece of shit,” the mechanic
holding him against the ground replied.

This isn’t the sort of thing that you expect to happen when
you’re off to shop for your mother. It was a little awkward,
loitering around with a bunch of strangers while a bloody man
in the gutter mumbles vicious things about you through his
newly fucked-up teeth. I remember that conversation was
somewhat stilted. Except, of course, for the robber. He was
voluble. He didn’t make much sense, though, so he was mostly
ignored. When the cop came and threw him in the back of his
patrol car, we all spoke at once about what we had seen. A few
of us–and I was one of these–suspected that the man knew
the woman he assaulted. He was speaking to her before he
grabbed for her purse and the body language between the
two of them gave me the impression, perhaps erroneous, that
they were at least acquainted. Another man on the scene
thought it was strange that the woman would flee. I didn’t
give this much credence, though: traumatized people often
don’t think clearly. Also, she was shabbily dressed and
walked like she might have been drunk. If she was a street
person, she probably wouldn’t want much to do with the
police. I don’t know, though. I’m no goddamn Sherlock

I suppose the robber could have shed some light on these
issues, but the one coherent statement he uttered to the
cop was–no kidding–“Man, I ain’t done shit!”. Given that
this was at a busy intersection at the start of rush hour,
somewhere around a hundred people must have seen him
do shit, which made this declaration almost quaint in a
scary-sociopath kind of way. My work brings me into more-
or-less regular contact with this sort of person and, once
you get used to them, it is easy to recognize that the passion
of their denials only increases with the obviousness of their
wrongdoing. They know they’ve done something awful, of
course, but in their minds the far bigger crime is you making
a big deal about it. It’s like they think that the whole world
is too stupid to handle the hard truth–that this woman’s
purse was his because he wanted it–and now they have to
suffer the indignity of having to proclaim themselves inno-
cent of bad behavior that, all things being equal, they’d
rather be gloating about.

Despite his protestations, the police carted him off and life
on that street corner quickly returned to normal. I found
my mom a fine gift. Three days later, I got a call from a
machine that was programmed to tell me that they were
letting the robber out of jail. He threatened my life, you
see, and they had a duty to warn. I wasn’t too worried,
though. This was, after all, a guy who couldn’t even steal
a purse right.