We often hear strange snippets of conversation as we walk through public spaces. When was the last time you overheard something so interesting, ridiculous, or disturbing you really wanted to know what it was all about?
I was just about 12 years old, living in Portland, Oregon, in a nice residential neighborhood not too far from the downtown area. I was on a mission. Mom needed bread and milk, and I was assigned to the project. It involved walking about three blocks to the neighborhood grocery store.
The day was balmy. Summer in Portland was a treat for the body, soul, and mind. Not much humidity, no mosquitos, and the temperatures were moderate. I enjoyed the walk, making up all sorts of stories in my head as I strolled past houses tucked behind all different kinds of fences, shrubbery, trees, and glorious roses. Portland, City of Roses! I could smell them easily as they perfumed the air.
Things looked pretty normal as I neared the grocery store. It occupied maybe half of the block, including the parking lot, which was maybe a little less than half full. By today’s standards, it was just a little store. We didn’t have Costco, Sam’s Club, or BJ’s back then.
Without a worry in the world, I waltzed in through the double glass doors and headed for the bread aisle. I didn’t need a basket or cart for my two little items. The money was in the back pocket of my cut-off jeans, and I patted it as I walked to make sure I hadn’t lost anything.
As I continued toward the bread, it slowly dawned on me that the store was awfully quiet for the number of people who were there. Folks were standing still with their carts, looking toward the front of the store but not moving around, not selecting items from the shelves. It was almost as if they were playing freeze tag, and I was “It.”
Suddenly I heard a hissed, “Hey! Little girl!” Now, that was a big insult, and I was immediately on guard. When you’re reached the age of 12, you don’t want to be called a little girl any more. I turned my head toward the whisper. One of the store employees was glaring at me, and as far as I knew there was no reason for him to do that.
“What?” I said, not terribly friendly.
“Just stay still! Didn’t you see the guys in front of the store with the guns? There’s a robbery going on! Now just stop, stand still and don’t say a word!”
Right. Tell me there’s a robbery, there are men with guns, don’t say anything. Right.
“Don’t be stupid! Do you want to get us all shot? Shut up!”
Well, ok, if you put it that way. I stood still, shut up, and waited.
Whatever was going on up front, we couldn’t hear it back where we stood. The man who had spoken to me pointed up at the security mirrors in each corner of the store, and sure enough I could see two men standing near the checkout stand, masked and holding guns. I was finally getting scared.
After just a few minutes, though, we watched as the men, who had been joined by two more, turned and ran out the front doors. It took a few minutes for us to figure out it was over, and that we were safe. It was only seconds before we heard the wail of police sirens, and a couple of cruisers squealed up to the front door. Police officers came running in, and told us no one could leave until they’d spoken to all of us.
I really couldn’t help them. I hadn’t noticed the thieves when I entered the store, and saw them only in the mirrors. They would be very hard to identify because of their masks and nondescript clothing. So they took my name, address, and phone number and let me go on back home.
I got home a lot faster than I had gotten to the store!
“Mom! You’ll never guess what happened. . . .”