These days, I feel like writing and seem to enjoy it when I do so. As I don’t seem ready to tackle the larger writing projects, which float around like elusive butterflies in my subconscious, I’ve decided to “warm up” with some short stories – primarily personal anecdotes from the now distant past, or, journal-like entries from recent experience. Recent experience could include a story called “My Life in Coffee Shops” as this truly has become my preferred location for all of my writing activity and is where I am now…comfortably ensconced at a table surrounded by “the buzz” of a little grocery store/coffee shop hybrid called BeFresh, in Kitsilano. A store, not unlike the Herb & Spice Shop on Bank Street in Ottawa, where I apprehended an armed robber in the early 80’s.
I don’t recall exactly where I was headed, but it was a Friday night, I was in my mid 20’s, and I was walking north on Bank Street without a care in the world. I was, in all likelihood, going to a friend’s, to go to a pub, to try and meet girls.
The Herb & Spice Shop was our neighbourhood grocery store. This was the owner’s second location after his flagship store in the Glebe proved profitable. It was nearby and it was friendly, and I’d developed a first-name relationship with the staff. On this night, the sweet & bright Debbie T. was running the store and getting ready to close up to follow her own, youthful, Friday night pursuits.
As I approached the Herb & Spice, engrossed in my own plans for the evening, Debbie burst out the front door onto the sidewalk, scuffling with a rough-looking unshaven man in his mid to late 30’s. In the midst of their frantic dance he pushed her to the sidewalk and ran north on Bank – clutching a handful of money. “Stop that guy! He’s stolen our money”, she shouted.
I think a heroic act must involve some thought of the possible consequences of one’s actions – a conscious decision to act, despite foreknowledge that a threatening situation may contain risk of harm to self. That, is heroic and admirable. Often though, in the face of danger, when our reptilian brain is offering only limited choice: Door #1 labelled “Fight” or, Door #2 labelled “Flight”…we do not always have the metered luxury of thought. When friends or loved one’s are in peril, the rush of adrenaline shakes Mr. Lizard awake with the stark choice, “Are you going to run away, or are you going to step in? Feeling lucky?…punk?”
A small group, of maybe 2 or 3 individuals, who were slightly closer to the mayhem than I, gave chase. “Aaah…those three should be able to get that guy”, I thought, as my lizard slowly slunk back into it’s reptilian lair, “But this is exciting”, “And I like Debbie”, “And perhaps I can help”, “Safety in numbers”, “Maybe I’ll get free groceries”, “And it’s on my way”, I thought. All in a nanosecond. So I joined the pack, in hot pursuit of our prey – the evil-doer.
Not far from the Herb & Spice Store, on the next corner, was a pub called “The Hitching Post”, which I did not frequent. I was a Royal Oak guy with its lovely faux British pub feel (and Kilkenny on tap) so I had little reason to go to this watering hole, which catered to career alcoholics and the country music crowd. (I, and my friends, were – of course – too cool for that with our New Wave hair and obsessions). I don’t know what possessed the stick-up guy to enter this bar as a means to escape his pursuers but he did so by way of the side door – slipping into the dinghy, smoky, and noisy pub interior in a frantic bid for freedom. The 3 closest pursuers, who were hot on his trail, followed him doggedly into the bar, and I arrived, moments later, slightly out of breath as the Pub door closed.
“Those guys are bound to catch him inside the Pub”, I reasoned, “and, therefore, don’t need me to add to the pandemonium”…“I’d just get in the way”, “He’s probably already caught”, “I might unwittingly discover I like country music”…”Hmmm…I have an idea”, I thought, “I’ll go stand by the front door in case they don’t catch him – which is highly unlikely – and stop him there if he emerges, also, highly unlikely”. I strategically repositioned myself to the front door of the pub…and waited.
I didn’t have to wait long, and it wasn’t long enough to form any kind of coherent plan. The three pursuers had failed in their simple mission – catch the bad guy – and suddenly, here he was, bursting out of the pub, wild-eyed and breathless and clutching a handful of money. Mr. Lizard was abruptly & rudely awoken from his complacent slumber. “Fight or flight Georgie? What’s it going to be? C’mon…you’ve got…uh… less than a second to decide.” I pulled my right arm back, made an unaccustomed fist and punched the hold-up man squarely in the face.
Up to this point in life I’d never really had that all too common male experience of beating someone up. I was a skinny bespectacled New Wavish guy and this was the first time I’d struck somebody with force and intent in the face. My fleeting thought, for it wasn’t a plan, was that the criminal should somehow, easily and readily, succumb to my punches and crumple to the ground…unconscious. I just…wanted…to knock …him out.
“Not so quickly my effete friend,” spoke Mr. Reality, “The gentleman you’ve just assaulted has been in worse scuffles and received far more damaging blows from a life of petty crime and stints in the penal system. Your pitiful attempt at “punching” is likely just going to remind him of the injustices he suffered at the hands of a cruel father and will only serve to enrage him.” Stunned momentarily, Mr. Criminal leapt at me and grabbed my coat with his one free hand. We scuffled upright briefly but his unwillingness to let go of the cash and my height advantage gave me enough leverage to throw him to the ground, sit on his chest and punch him again – with the greater force of my now seasoned experience – directly in the face…twice.
While our scuffle was taking place, several things happened: the original pursuers exited the bar and now surrounded us as non-participatory onlookers, quite likely thinking, “Oh good…the skinny guy has him pinned…looks like he’s got it covered…what a great puncher…let’s just watch”; Debbie appeared out of the now-gathering crowd and grabbed the cash from the perps hand…freeing him up to fight back more effectively – which he did, and; a bunch of drunks, who had no idea what was actually going on spilled out of the bar and surrounded us while we fought. “Hey” said one of the Waylon & Willie listening bar patrons in his familiar beer-soaked slur, “Stop yer fightin’…get off that guy”, while “Mama’s Don’t Letcher Babies Grow up ta be Cowboys” emanated from the bar. Several sets of nicotine-stained hands reached down, grabbed me roughly from behind and pulled me away from “the guy”.
Pandemonium ensued as the original pursuers protested fruitlessly, Debbie shouted something inaudibly, and I stammered ineffectively to the alcoholic liberators. There was nary a hint of understanding or sympathy in their rheumy eyes – perhaps the robber was their friend and the stolen loot was intended to buy rounds at the pub. Recognizing an opportunity and without missing a beat, our street-smart hoodlum got up, glanced furtively around, and chose – unwisely – to run back into the bar through the open front door.
Like bloodhounds back in the chase, the original pursuers took off after their prey and ran into the bar in hot pursuit. The drunks, sensing that something exciting was unfolding, and likely feeling thirsty after all their strenuous activity poured themselves back into the bar to order more beer and obstruct justice. Debbie had disappeared, likely to return the $$ and get on with her evening, now that her role in this drama was over, and I, once again in very short order, found myself alone outside the pub as events were unfolding inside.
“They’re bound to catch him this time”, I thought, “no need for me to go in there…it’s a done deal…how could they miss him this time? That’d be crazy”…”But…if they do”, I thought, “I might as well go and stand guard by the back door as a highly unlikely and unnecessary, back-up plan.” I walked around to the side door and waited…again. I didn’t have to wait long.
I’m not sure if it was fear or surprise that I saw in his eyes when he burst, once again, out of the pub through the side door, but his internal Reptile was definitely giving him the “flight” command. His brief startled pause and the dismay of recognition made him attempt an evasive action but it was of no use. Once again, lacking any grand strategy or experience in the apprehension of evil-doers, I pulled my arm back, made a fist, and punched him square in the face. I was a one-trick pony who just wanted his opponent to succumb to the simple knock-out punch.
Panicky and enraged, and definitely not unconscious, he reached for my lapels while I put my violent “Plan B” into effect. “Perhaps if I just grab his head and repeatedly bash it against the brick wall he’ll crumple and I can sit on him until the police come…they will come won’t they?”
Plan B, on a determined, wily, motivated opponent was not having the desired effect. After four or five vigorous head smashings, he broke free of my grip and ran towards a cab, which had just pulled over to the curb to see what was going on. “Get me out of here!!”, he shouted to the bewildered cabbie, as he flung open the back door and threw himself into the cab.
I’m not sure, exactly, what script I was following then. It was all so primal, without a whiff of rationality or forethought. I was in the fight and was somehow still protecting my friend Debbie, my neighbourhood. Perhaps internal codes of conduct – good vs. evil – were playing out and directing my actions in this little street drama. Maybe I was just a young male jacked up on adrenaline and testosterone.
I reached into the cab, hauled my victim out, threw him to the ground, sat on his chest and punched him forcibly in the face. “Stop struggling or I’ll keep hitting you”, I said….“Where are those fucking police?”, I thought. Fearfully, eyes darting and weighing his options, he finally chose capitulation over struggle. I’m not sure who was most relieved that this ordeal was over. I sat on his chest…and waited. Fortunately, someone – maybe the cabbie – had finally contacted the cops…I could hear the sound of sirens approaching.
The police came, arrested the culprit, and took him away to be charged and sentenced. I wasn’t required to make a court appearance but I know from subsequent newspaper clippings that – W.S.T. as he shall be known – received a 3-year sentence. He was a 33 year-old guy from Hamilton, of no fixed address, with a history of recent hold-ups and break-ins and subsequent jail time. The day prior to robbing the Herb & Spice Store, he’d held up Hillary Cleaners on Alta Vista. Although he didn’t have a gun, he made the claim that he did while sticking his hand in his pocket and pointing it at the cashier…this is considered armed robbery.
…and for my efforts? I received thanks and a small bag of produce from the owner…and, perhaps, a slight elevation of esteem in the eyes of Debbie T., after all, I was her accidental hero.