Chapter 26: War Stories, Part 1

When we last left off, Connecticut Chris and I were about to exchange the stories that led each of us to an affinity for wearing the hood up.  I went first.

February of 2008.  My brother had come into town for three days.  The night before he left we got absolutely trashed at the Alligator Lounge in Brooklyn.  The next morning I was faced with a nasty hangover and an ambition to get something accomplished before working the dinner shift at 5pm.  Just several weeks earlier, I had been in the same exact situation, and ended up getting a start on the Mary-Louise Parker video I had been planning on making for some time.  What was the trick?  A little something I learned along the way called “walk it off”.

Basic idea: go outside, preferably in the bitter cold, and walk non-stop for about an hour.  Your body’s regulatory system will boost it’s metabolism at the 60 minute mark, and in the meantime you breathe out all that hangover nastiness that would otherwise just fester.  Walking has a great meditative quality, and also tends to get the creative juices flowing, leaving you itching to get back to that blank piece of paper that was torturing you just an hour earlier.

On this particular walk, I played my favorite game – “let the walk sign decide where you walk next”.  Not the most clever name for a game, but at least people unfamiliar with it don’t have to feel alienated as they ask how it goes.  Living in Jersey City at the time, I found myself walking in an area I normally only run in.  Although it was wonderfully cold, the sky was clear and the sun was working wonders on my psyche.  I was a few blocks away from the giant park, and figured I’d mosey on down that way for some top-rate wandering.  Due to the rules of “let the walk sign decide where you walk next” I ended up walking down the hill towards the park on a back residential street, as opposed to the wide tree-lined street with the giant statue of Abe Lincoln.  Sorry Lincoln, rules are rules, and the game is called “let the walk sign decide where you walk next.”

To my pleasant surprise, I ended up walking down the most amazing little street in all of Jersey City.  I couldn’t help but think of the beautiful Center Street in Geneseo, New York, the town of my old alma mater.  Every time I walked down it I would look at each unique house with its character and its big front porch, and I’d think to myself: what I wouldn’t give to live in a house like that. 

The thing is, I never really think that.  I usually dislike houses.  Some people see front yards perfect for barbecues; I see a lawn I’ll have to mow every week.  Some people get excited about the spacious living room with high ceilings; I see astronomical heating and cooling costs.  Some people admire the beautiful windows; I see yet another reason to be wary of the neighborhood kids playing baseball.  I’m not one to ogle at houses.

So it was a very rare thing for me to be so jazzed about the houses on this backstreet leading to the big park in Jersey City.  The blue skies and my rising rate of metabolism helped to create a sort of wonderland that I may as well have been skipping down.  Birds were even chirping, in February for crying out loud.

I was just starting to make a pact with myself that I would one day live on this street.  It’s very rare that I get excited about things that would involve any sort of adult-like responsibility, so needless to say I was really caught up in the excitement of it all.  I wasn’t expecting to find myself yearning for a future residence, nor was I expecting someone to grab my shoulder and jam something in my back.

Que?

“Don’t move” the ominously gruff voice said.  My mind still wrapped up in the magical street I was on that reminded me of my college town, I for some reason thought it was my buddy Alex Sovronsky.  Such a random assumption, I know.  When I was in college, Alex was the guy that would smear himself against the window of the Pizza Parlor you were eating at, as much for a laugh as for a “what the heck”.  Always brimming with energy, I for some reason had it in my head that the fellow that snuck up behind me on a gorgeous backstreet on a beautiful day must be him.  Who else would pull such a joke? 

I later conferred with Alex and he assured me that he would never do something like that.  I guess in small towns it’s fun to pull pranks like that, but Alex was from Long Island and it’s safe to say has always known better.

My first clue that it wasn’t Alex was when I started to turn around, grin on my face, the word “Alex!” on the tip of my tongue.  The clue came in the form of a violent thrust forward, hand firmly gripping the sleeve of my jacket. 

Alex wouldn’t do that.

Wait a second.  I’m not in Geneseo!  I’m in Jersey City, and Alex doesn’t live in Jersey City.  Come to think of it, I don’t know anyone that actually lives in Jersey City, and even if I did, they certainly wouldn’t sneak up behind me on this random backstreet.

“Don’t move!” the voice reiterated, jamming the extremely hard thing that felt like a gun even further into my back.

What.  Is going.  On.

It was at this moment that I realized that this was no prank.  I had a guy sneak up behind me and now I was at his mercy.

I had no idea what to do.  What could I do?  I was pretty sure you were supposed to do something in this sitauation, but then again this wasn’t supposed to be happening at noon on a Tuesday in February.  I’m pretty sure this was supposed to happen in the dark alley I always walked through on my way home from the PATH Train.  Perhaps if that were the setting it would have been easier for me to figure it all out.  I certainly wouldn’t have wasted time thinking it was Alex Sovronsky playing a joke on me.

It had been ten of the longest seconds of my life when I was instructed a third time “don’t move”.  Finally I had something to work with.  He didn’t want me to move.  I quickly thought about it, and came to the conclusion that I shouldn’t move. 

But wait.

I’m walking.  Should I stop walking?  Ah, crap!  I’d been walking the whole time and it didn’t seem to be an issue.  Based on the force with which he yanked me forward when I tried to turn around and look at him, it was safe to say he could’ve stopped me from walking if he wanted to.  So I figured it safe to assume he was fine with me walking, so long as I didn’t make any sudden movements or try to break free.

Or look at him.  That’s it!  That made sense.  He quietly crept up on me and obviously didn’t want me to see who he was.  I felt like I had an advantage in knowing one of the things was he wanted, an important and useful bit of information when it comes to negotiating.  This was going to be a hell of a negotiation, considering one of the cards on the table was that thing that felt very much like a gun in my back.

“Alright, turn this corner.  Do what I say or I’ll fucking kill you, alright?  Don’t fuck with me.”

Advantage, the other guy.

I could practically hear my heart pounding against my ribs as I noticed a narrow driveway just twenty feet ahead, practically hidden by a low hanging tree on one side, brick wall on the other.  If this was the corner that this guy was talking about then I was royally fucked.  The thought occurred to me that this fellow may live in this house, and was leading his unsuspecting prey to some sort of secret lair fully equipped with chains, shackles, and an array of instruments of torture.  This was how the story always went on the news.  If I turn this corner, I may have a new place of residence for the next eight years until he slips up one day and I escape.

Actor/Waiter Jesse Gavin reappears half naked and speaking gibberish at the VIP Diner in Jersey City after mysteriously disappearing almost a decade ago.

I wasn’t wild about this option.

The other option was the upcoming street, which was about sixty feet away.  Man oh man did I hope it was the street he meant.  For the six seconds it took before we reached the driveway, I felt all my senses kick it up into high gear, as I was fully aware of the sensation of simply being alive; something that you just kind of take for granted.  It’s the kind of feeling yoga tries to bring out in people.  I felt eerily zen as I was about to find out which corner this guy meant.  I just had to wait…

We passed the driveway and I felt my mind jerk out of it’s ridiculous state of zen.  What’s wrong with you, mind?  Getting all zen on me at a time like this?  As I realized that this guy was going to turn me onto the next street, I started to take inventory of what it was I knew of what was going on.  This guy had come up behind me out of nowhere and jammed something in my back.  He didn’t want me to look at him.  He wasn’t Alex Sovronsky.  He wasn’t bringing me to some secret lair.  He was looking for an opportune place to, in all likelihood, mug me.  My mind shifted into Irish mode.

Fuck this guy.  This couldn’t be happening at a worse time.  I had just had my bag stolen from me while on the train, just before I got sick and missed two days of work.  I was broke as a mo’fo, and the last thing I could deal with was losing my wallet, which I was realizing had about ninety bucks in it, on top of my unregistered MTA and PATH cards, adding up to about 130 dollars in transport currency.  Why hadn’t I registered my transport cards?!  I could hear that slogan about how quick and easy the registration process was mocking me.  I decided that I was not going to let this fly as I realized that this guy was stalling with an occasional “don’t move” or “don’t fuck with me”.

I got the sense that he was shorter than me.  I’ve had a few bursts of Irish rage in my life, and truly believed I was capable of successfully flipping out on this guy.  People have always joked that I was going to snap someday, and perhaps I could let this be the day.  This dumb jerk had no idea the amount of pent up rage in the fellow he decided to tail.

My plan was this: quickly turn around and knock the gun aside, grab his wrist and get the gun away from him, then pummel him until he is no longer moving, then call the cops.  The beauty of this plan was its simplicity.  When things get too complicated everything can go wrong.  Just ask Walter Sobchak

I was just about to burst into action when a tiny thought creeped into my head.  I wouldn’t call it a doubt, because I truly do put trust in my Irish temper, rather it was a realization that if something goes slightly wrong in my plan, I may be shot.  Given the fact that my plan was not a particularly well thought out one, there was a significantly higher probability that this might happen.

Damn you, brain!  Always making me puss out.

I made the decision right then and there that the money wasn’t worth the risk.  Even the opportunity to look like a tough guy, which, let’s face it, is something I’m usually in need of, didn’t seem worth the possible consequence.  Although I had just walked down a picturesque street with beautiful houses, the fact of the matter is that I normally don’t walk in this part of the city for a reason: a whole lot of halfway houses.  There’s a lot of people in this particular area that are in need of a fix and may not be rational about what they’re willing to do to get it.  Jogging isn’t as much of an issue.  Who jogs with a wallet on them?  

This guy was smart enough to go about it so I wouldn’t know what he looked like.  He’s clearly done this before.  He at no point told me he had a gun, rather he let the thing he was pushing into my back do the explaining.  It may or may not be real, and there’s only one way to find out.  That way may possibly result in getting shot.

Hmm.

I took a breath and finally spoke.

“I’ll give you whatever you want, just tell me what to do.”  I said.

“Alright, turn into this corner” he said, referring to a brick alcove to our right.  “Drop everything and run.  Don’t turn around, alright?!  Don’t fuck with me, I’m serious, I’ll fucking kill you!”

Emphasizing his seriousness with a little jerk, I took him at his word.  All I had with me was my wallet, which was fortunate.  As I was playing the old carefree game of “let the walk sign decide where you walk next,” I hadn’t taken along my iPhone, which I definitely would not have been able to replace at this juncture of my life.  I turned into the brick enclosure and reached for my wallet.

“Everything!” he reminded me.  Thanks for the heads up, my man…I damn near forgot.

I dropped my wallet and slowly started to jog.  After a few cautious strides I gradually accelerated to a sprint.  I was in the clear, and for the first time in over forty-five seconds I did not have a guy jamming something in my back.  It’s hard to think of it as forty-five seconds, because it felt like at least an hour.  I didn’t bother to turn around.  I had made the decision to put my life above trying to be a tough guy or a hero, and I wanted to get as far away as I could.  Time had slowed down so much that it felt like everything was in slow motion…

I remember the exact moment that time went back to it’s usual tick tock of the clock.  After fifteen seconds my path merged with that of a skinny man in spandex pants running with his dog on a leash.  He had one of those Winter Headbands.  You know, the kind that keeps the ears warm without putting your hair styling in jeopardy.  We ran for about eight seconds along side each other, when I came to the realization that this guy had more reason to think me ridiculous than vice versa.  Here I was in jeans and converse sneakers with a scarf draped over my wool coat, trotting along at a pace sufficient for an 8 minute mile.

“What an odd fellow” he must have thought, his spandex-aided stride unimpeded by air resistance.

Walking home, I was surprised to find myself in the best of moods.  Replacing the stuff in my wallet was going to be a pain in the ass, but at least it wasn’t a bullet in the back.  I found change in my couch cushions for PATH fare to work.  Waltzing in the door, my coworkers were quick to acknowledge my cheery disposition.  I told them the story of the pleasant back street and the unpleasant thing jammed in my back, and was greeted with wide eyes and big hugs.  Feeling the love, I winced as I heard a voice behind me.

“What happened?”

I realized I’d now have to tell the story to my previously blogged about manager, Jeff from New Jersey.  Unrelenting from his “no big deal” listening pose, he took in the entire tale before telling me what he thought about it.

“Dude,” Jeff started with a giant condescending grin, “that guy was holding a screwdriver”. 

As Jeff continued on, I slightly regretted not going Irish on the guy behind me…

Slightly…

My new version of the ready stance was to always have a hood up.  Not quite as effective as Jeff from New Jersey’s…

Tune in next week for the long awaited story of Connecticut Chris!

Lastly, apologies to all my dedicated readers for the lack of a Chapter last Monday!  I hope this ridiculously long one made up for it…

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