I couldn’t place the ear piercing shriek at first. Everyone in the supermarket noticed it: shoppers stopped loading their carts, cashiers looked up from their cash registers, and I, ten years old, stayed at the magazine rack near the entrance, flipping through a copy of “Mad” magazine. We all looked around, startled, but nothing seemed amiss. Not a moment later, though, we heard the second scream and a wave of nausea rocketed through my torso. I felt dizzy. I wanted to vomit. Primed after the first shriek to listen more carefully, I knew then beyond a doubt who was screaming: it was my mother.
This morning, in our local newspaper, I was reading a piece by columnist Tammerlin Drummond titled “Robberies leave scars, erode sense of security.” In it she talks about a recent robbery that occurred two doors down from her home. At about 8:30 p.m. one night, two neighborhood kids came to the front door of their home to meet a pizza deliveryman. What they found outside was the deliveryman face down on the ground with two men pointing guns at him.
The two men ran off when the kids opened the door, and no one was injured, at least not physically.
Drummond writes of the lingering aftereffects, the residual anxiety and fear that won’t go away, of the once-quaint turned foreboding: “The beautiful trees I so admired could serve as convenient hiding places for predators to spring out.”
Fifteen minutes before the deliveryman was robbed, Drummond had been standing outside her home, alone, waiting for a friend to pick her up. Naturally she wondered what might have happened had she arranged to meet her friend fifteen minutes later.
Reading her piece threw me back in time to that horrible moment in Ralph’s Supermarket in Hollywood.There are few things as disturbing, as wrenching, as recognizing the voice of a loved one, not in its natural register or tone, the sound you hear every day, but in fearful, panicked distortion. It is horrifying and disorienting, unnerving, and unnatural.
It took me another fraction of a moment to realize the sound had come from outside – the parking lot.
I ran toward the front door and slid on my belly head first under the chrome turnstile that marked the entry to the store. And that’s when I saw my mother, her face contorted by fear and shock. She had run back to the market, caught sight of me on the floor, and although she didn’t say it, and perhaps didn’t even think or feel it, all I could see in her eyes was, “Where were you, Chato?!”
I felt terrible. I had let her push the cart out to the parking to unload the groceries by herself. I was absorbed in my magazine, and didn’t think, “Oh, mom’s done shopping, time to help her load the car.” No. Instead I watched her leave, figuring she’d come get me when she was done. I didn’t consciously articulate the thought at the time, but it was clear to me what I was really thinking: this single woman alone at night could load the groceries into the car without my help. Why should I bother? She can manage.
And it was there, outside, with the trunk of her car open, that a young man crept up from behind and grabbed her purse.
She later told me she wrestled with him for a moment, but he quickly overpowered her and ran off. She was deeply shaken. He pulled so hard her arm and shoulder were sore for a week. Her personal space, her sense of security, her trust that nothing would go wrong while doing something as mundane as shopping for groceries with her son, had been shaken to the core. The purse and its contents, of course, were replaceable. Her peace of mind, and my shame at being unable to protect her, were not.
It would take a few more years, but we eventually moved to the quiet, safe suburb of Glendale. After that incident, everything was different. Months and years later, it continued to erode her sense of calm and safety, until she could bear it no longer.
I wonder if Drummond will eventually do the same, will leave behind the pretty neighborhood trees which have suddenly become menacing, will avoid waiting outside alone again.
I suspect she won’t. I suspect this because she concludes her piece with this observation: “Whether a robbery occurs in an Oakland neighborhood (might as well be Hollywood), or a shopping mall in Pleasanton (Glendale), it leaves a scar on both the victim and the larger community.”
In other words, we take our trauma with us. My mom rarely spoke of the purse snatching after it happened, but it was a watershed moment, a moment that never quite left us, an ongoing ripple that changed the course of our lives, a moment that, 37 years later, compels me to relive it anew now.
That awful scream is forever etched in both of us.