A GUN FOR PROTECTION?  A Timely Story

My father’s store was founded in the 1930’s in a relatively prosperous section of Philadelphia.  As told to me, crime was not an issue during the first several decades of business.  However, by the time I was old enough to be aware of such things, in the 1960’s, crime was an ever-present concern.  Both society and the neighborhood had changed.  As a result of various “redevelopment” schemes, vacant lots blighted the street;   the surrounding residential neighborhood was grim.

As a textbook introvert, I was stupendously ill-suited to working at the store.  I disdained nearly every aspect of it, from being obsequious to the customers (commonly known as “sucking up”), to breathing second-hand smoke, to straining to converse with my father’s employees.  Fortunately, I was only required to work in my teenage years when Father’s Day or Christmas loomed, and the volume of business increased.  My older brother, David, by contrast, was a social being who thrived in the retail environment.  If the street and local economy had not changed, perhaps he might have used his gregarious skill-set to continue the business.   But that is a different story.

Due to my limitations of age, temperament and personality, my main role was as an extra pair of eyes.  I would feign melting into the background while, at the same time, try to make anyone who might consider shoplifting conspicuously aware of my presence.  It was confusing.  One had to project a welcoming expression while exercising vigilant suspicion.  In politics, the phrase is something like:  “Trust, but verify.”  I had a similar task around the cash register when one of the employees might linger too long over the open drawer.  Eventually, when it was completely clear I had no aptitude as a salesman, my father was happy to have me handle the cash register and perform my surveillance duties from that vantage point.

Happily, I never personally witnessed a criminal act at the store.  Either shoplifting did not occur as often as my father feared, or I was not nearly as good at watching as we both thought I was.  Unfortunately, during the slow times of the year, when my father was alone at the store with just one salesman, for hours at a time, robberies did occur.  Every several years, while I was growing up, my father would be robbed, sometimes at gunpoint, of the contents of the cash register.

We also had some middle-of-the-night calls from the police when the store was burgled.  These were truly terrifying events, especially when I was old enough to drive my father down at two or three in the morning to turn off the ringing alarm and assess the extent of the burglary.  We would be met by a policeman at the door; they were always confident that the crook(s) had left the scene, carrying whatever merchandise they were able to carry, but one never felt certain.  It was creepy to be in a room, sometimes ransacked, usually beside a broken window, that was so recently violated.  Each nook or cranny might harbor a lingering thug; each floor squeak or footstep activated more adrenaline.

My father’s defense against the threat of crime was decidedly low-tech.  He owned a large pistol that someone had given him long before I was born.  He did not believe in guns, however, and did not know how to shoot, or even load the gun.  It remained hidden in a corner of his office at the rear of the store for as long as I was sentient.  For all I know, the gun might have seen action in Bonnie & Clyde’s era.  The concept of actually confronting a robber with the weapon was not even considered.

There were gates pulled in front of the store each night to dissuade the casual burglar.  One could reach between the bars and break the front glass to grab whatever was in reach, but the potential haul was not worth the trouble and the minor risk of capture.  It was easier to climb up a ladder in the alleyway beside the store and break into the storage rooms on the second floor.  There, one could find piles of out-of-season merchandise that a down-on-his-luck criminal might be able to re-sell at a flea market.  For instance, one nocturnal crook made off with nearly one hundred pairs of shorts, in January.  We almost felt sorry for him.

The real threat was the broad daylight, armed robbery, with its possibility for confrontation and violence.  The only physical deterrent to that was a video camera, circa 1935, that was squeezed between packages of underwear behind the cash register.   We positioned the lens to be visible to a customer in front of the cash register.  We thought there was a chance that an extremely ignorant crook might fear the antique was actually functional and recording on a constant basis.  In retrospect, this is laughable.   (In truth, we all knew the camera was useless and, actually, embarrassing, but no one would ever say so).

The only actual deterrent to crime was the possibility that police would walk in while a crime was in progress.  To that end, my father was friendly and solicitous to the long-time cop on the beat, an amiable African-American named Officer Seals.  I perceived him as a mountain of a man, a pillar of strength.  He was built like the football lineman he once was, and he projected safety and fearlessness.  In any event, Officer Seals was plied with donuts and coffee in the morning and soda in the afternoon.  If he would come in around lunchtime, my father would offer to order him a sandwich; anything to keep him hanging around.

Like my father, I craved Officer Seals’ presence.  He was cheerful in a place where sincere laughter was rare.  He allowed for a welcome relaxation of vigilance.  My father and the salesmen vied to talk to Officer Seals like high school boys competing for the attention of a cute girl.  One time, in the mid-1960’s, when I was about ten, my father came home and glowingly explained how Officer Seals arrived as a sullen young customer turned nasty.  Hearing the man’s tone, the policeman grabbed him by the collar and lifted him off the ground.  “Don’t you ever talk to Mr. Sanders like that!” he is said to have yelled.  He dragged the malefactor out the front door and literally kicked him in the ass, sending him on his way.  For the next several years, this heroic deed was brought up every time Officer Seals appeared; my father wanted him to know his actions were appreciated.

Finally, in the waning days of the 1970’s, my father, now in his seventies, was planning to close the store.   Officer Seals, too, was slowing down.  His sculpted muscles now sagged.  Still a mountain of a man, the metaphor now conveyed more softness than strength.

Instead of opening the store seven days a week from nine to six as he had done for over forty years, my father was now opening only five days a week, and closing before dark.  The street was simply too forlorn; business was too slow.  Often, only one employee was present, and if that man went to get coffee or was late, my father manned the store alone.  It was during one of those moments that the worst-case scenario arose.  A robber in a ski-mask, who may have watched the only employee depart, burst into the store.  He brandished a gun at my father and demanded he be taken back to the safe my father had in the office.  How he knew about the safe, we never knew.  There, he pistol-whipped my father and made him, trembling, open the safe and hand over an envelope of cash and some jewelry.  He grabbed my father’s ring off his finger, which included a diamond, and hit my father one more time to show he meant business.

“Don’t you call the police, old man,” he yelled, “or I’ll come back and kill you!”  At that moment, Officer Seals arrived at the front of the store and realized what was happening.

“Freeze!” he shouted, as he crouched among the underwear, fumbling for his revolver.

The robber raised his gun and fired at the officer.  His shot missed and he ran towards the exit.  He fired again, shattering a display case.  Officer Seals finally got ahold of his gun and fired three shots.  One barely missed my father; one brought down plaster from the ceiling; and, the last one killed the “surveillance” camera that impotently observed the event.  The robber disappeared.

After a few minutes, my father emerged from the office and stumbled over to Officer Seals, who was sitting on the floor, leaning against a stool.  He appeared to be hyper-ventilating.

“Are you okay?” my father asked, holding a handkerchief to stop his own bleeding forehead while shaking the officer’s shoulder.

“Thirty years,” he said.

“What?” said my father.

“Thirty years,” he repeated.  “Thirty years.  I never shot my gun in thirty years.”

Officer Seals had to be helped up and given a tall glass of water.  The policeman’s heroism was appreciated though his marksmanship and intestinal fortitude had been vastly overestimated.  My father smelled a terrible odor and could not imagine what it was.

My father’s employee returned from his coffee break and called the police.  A young pair, who looked like newly-minted Marines, arrived and took my father’s statement, all the while attending to Officer Seals.   The robbery helped my father overcome his reluctance to finally close the store several months later.  Officer Seals went on disability to calm his nerves before transferring to a desk job at the precinct to finish his career.  My father sent him a gift package in appreciation and, for several years, they met periodically for lunch or coffee.  They reminisced about the “good old days” when the street bustled with happy shoppers.   They always came around to the final incident.  As the years went by, the actual memory of the trauma became hazy, and all they could remember distinctly was their mutual survival.

“I was quite a gunslinger,” said Officer Seals.

“Yes, you were,” agreed my father.

    

     

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