Erik Quinn: The Heart of a Family: Columbus Day 1990

Monday, October 08, 2007

Columbus Day 1990

Seventeen years ago today I was at work at the drugstore. It was a painfully slow evening punctuated only occasionally with customers coming in to have me make some keys made or send rolls of film off to be developed. A man walked into my department, and I greeted him. He said nothing in return. Slightly disgusted, I shook my head almost imperceptibly and went back to what I was doing. He went to the hardware aisle in back and crouched down to look at something on a low shelf. I buzzed past him with a sloshing bottle of Windex and asked if he needed help. He said no, so I continued past him and began polishing the counter tops in my department, wiping away dirty smudges left by previous customers. It was then when I felt someone standing in front of me. I smiled and tilted my face up. It was my quiet customer. He was now wearing some sort of mask or bandana to conceal his facial features. His dark eyes bored into me from the narrow space between the fabric covering him and the rim of his hat. I suddenly realized that previously in our very brief customer-clerk relationship, he had never let me get a good look at him. His hand appeared to be holding a firearm sort of hidden in his jacket. Between the short supply of time available to me and my desire to keep my eyes off the man, I couldn't tell what or where the weapon was exactly. Most importantly, I was able to determine that it seemed to be pointing directly at me. My heart sunk, and my fears were confirmed as he hissed at me.

"This is a robbery. Give me the money. Now!"

Dread washed over me like a hot wave. Every muscle fiber in my body felt became numb and tingled strangely. Just as I felt like I was hopelessly paralyzed, my autopilot clicked on, guiding me through the motions while I watched myself. I sprung into action. My fingers hit the shiny, baby blue button on the register. Jackpot. The drawer ejected from the depths of the machine. The money tray bulged with cash, as my supervisors had somehow failed to pull it at scheduled intervals earlier in the day. All day long I had stamped numerous money orders for my customers that ended up totaling thousands of dollars. I began yanking stacks from the separated compartments, and the spring-loaded money clips snapped as they hit the plastic of each empty compartment behind the bills and personal checks I hastily liberated. My pulse pounded against my eardrums. I began shoving everything across the counter to the faceless stranger. He barked at me to hurry, and I sprinted to the second register behind my counter, leaving the first drawer hanging open like an empty mouth. He stood glaring at me, and I wondered to myself where he was secreting all of the thick stacks I slid to him. They seemed to just disappear into him as if he was a hungry amoeba. I heard his awful voice again.

"Lie on the floor!"

Great. This is it. Autopilot clicked off as my squirming stomach hit the floor and I could let myself collapse. As usual, my crazy brain began going places without my consent. I suddenly saw images of Robert Stack on an old episode of Unsolved Mysteries very calmly describing how employees of a store were lined up, bound with rope, and systematically shot in the back of their skulls, one by one. I suddenly realized that there is a bright side to everything. At least I wouldn't have to witness someone die or listen to their death gurgles. It would just be me, and hopefully he was lucid enough that he would do it quickly and correctly.

This is when the ridiculous thoughts kicked in. The voices began chattering in my head, mercifully overriding thoughts just too terrible to think. I tried to ignore them. I was suddenly aware of how soft the ergonomic floor mat felt underneath my left cheek and nose. It was quite comfortable, really. I thought of how you would never know that interesting little tidbit until you were robbed at gunpoint or had some sort of hypoglycemic spell and ended up on the floor like me. I found myself enjoying the coolness of its surface and felt fine grit between the mat and my skin, left there by my shoes earlier as I shuffled back and forth between registers assisting customers and ringing up their purchases. That was a happier time for sure.

Oh, shut the hell up, brain.

I now needed to determine where the monster was on the other side of the counter. Apparently, it was not my day to get shot. I listened closely and heard cash registers opening and closing in the front of the store. Were they being robbed, too? I heard no voices at all--just the now eerie "kachunk" of money drawers opening and closing. I very slowly lifted my head and looked for the phone on the shelf behind the counter. The spirals of tired, stretched-out cord hung down and pooled on the floor, but the phone might as well have been miles away. I couldn't reach it. I opted to roll over and sit up to assess my surroundings. As I began this maneuver, a bear of a man was suddenly standing over me. It was Dean, the old sourpuss pharmacist. The permanently pissed-off, carp like expression on his face had softened into one of genuine concern and alarm. It was then that we began our first conversation.

"Nancy! Did you fall?"

I felt blood rush to my face as I realized how strange it must look to find me lying down on the job like this. At least he didn't think I was taking a nap. I blurted out that I had been robbed, and his face went as white as his lab coat. He then seemed to magically vanish. It seemed that by the time I had lifted my now limp, adrenaline-ravaged body from the floor, there were people all over me like ants on an ice cream sandwich. Police. Coworkers. Supervisors. Even the manager magically appeared, obviously rousted from the comfort of a quiet evening at home. I was questioned by some highly irritating police officers who didn't seem to be speaking the same language, after which I found myself sitting at the white bistro table inside the mall in front of the store. One of my chain smoking coworkers had placed a cigarette between my lips and lit it. I was relaxed enough now that my body finally began release some tears, causing my coworkers to murmur, whisper, and critique my response to what had just occurred. I turned my head toward the wall of glass doors at the mall's entrance. The doors were apparently locked, and there were people staring through the glass at me as if I was on the wrong side of the bars at a zoo exhibit. I recognized a few faces but just looked back down at the surface of the table exhausted. Someone retrieved my coat and purse from the break room in the back of the store, and I found myself being escorted to my car by my boss. We exited the mall out into the damp, moss-scented darkness. He instructed everybody to keep away from me as we traversed the parking lot. I crawled into my little car, and he pushed the door shut behind me with a slam. I watched my boss walk away and disappear into the chaos inside the mall. I was alone in the dark, once again left to fend for myself and begin the drive home through the night.

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Blogger Lisa R said...

Crazy story, So you are not a big columbus day fan.....did they ever find out who robbed you?

10:06 AM  
Blogger Nancy said...

Lisa -- I just had the police reports pulled this year to find out, and they never did catch him. He robbed at least 2 places that night.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Tara said...

Wow - I've never been thru anything like that. How scary. This is probably a strange question - but did you continue working there after the robbery?

11:36 AM  
Blogger Nancy said...

Tara -- I was back at work the next day (with a horrible hangover). My boss wanted me to come back right away and let me work in the front of the store for a while until I was comfortable going to the back again. I worked there for another 3 years.

12:44 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

You are a brave woman. I would never have gone back. I worked at a local convenience store for years and this was one of my nightmares. Luckily it never came true. I am just sorry you weren't as lucky.

3:27 PM  



3:45 PM  
Blogger camille said...

Oh my word, I can't believe that happened. That totally had me on the edge of my seat. Yowza, Nance.

4:13 PM  
Blogger Katie said...

Put that story in your book...
I often go through scenarios in my head of what it would be like to experience somthing like that, you are very strong women to continue working there and not letting the robber take over your life.

4:34 PM  
Blogger kathi said...

Have mercy! What a tale, scared the crap about me. Girl, apparently you've always had your **** together.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Kerry said...

It's amazing how a single moment in time can definte how the rest of your life goes. I am amazed you were back the next day and continued working there... many would not, I am sure. You are a smart cookie for doing exactly what he said.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Rosemarie said...

My brother-in-law was held at gunpoint in an office supply store. He was a customer. I'm not sure he's over it. Very traumatic! I'm so thankful that you weren't physically harmed.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Michelle said...

oh my goodness, what an awful experience you had! I can't imagine being in a position like that where someone has a gun pointed on you; thank God nothing else happened to you and he left w/the money - sorry to hear they never caught him, and sorry you had to go through that at all.

8:40 PM  

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