Friday, April 25, 2014

Gun Play


My mind told me that what sounded like a gunshot could not have been a gunshot. It was loud, that was for sure, but didn’t quite sound real. Then I recalled stories of people reporting real gunshots: “it didn’t sound real, more like a pop, pop, pop, sound.” But in the nano-second it took my brain to construct that thought the sound of kids giggling started. Someone sitting behind us must have slammed a book closed or two books together. Something like that. So we ignored it with barely a pause in our conversation.

It was a Thursday late afternoon as we rode a yellow line Metro train to Crystal City. A few months earlier Lori won a $175 gift certificate for the restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton. I also had a lingering matter to attend to since Amy’s death – an old retirement account from a job she had in Florida before we even met. To close it out required a special signature guarantee. My bank happens to have a branch across from the Ritz-Carlton where I could get this done. Admittedly this was an odd juxtaposition of events, but after nearly four years I thought I’d save a trip from Maryland to Virginia and finally take care of this chore once and for all.

Bang, bang, bang.

That was definitely not a book slamming shut. Lori and I looked at each other and noticed others looking up. There was the same giggling from behind. It was inconceivable that someone had actually been shot so I turned around and saw about 5 or 6 kids, barely middle school aged, maybe younger, goofing around.

Bang, bang, bang.

One of the kids, a boy maybe 8 or 9 years old, ran up the aisle, holding straight out in front of him, a clear plastic with green neon trim cap gun. Bang. Bang. Bang. He shot at no one in particular as he ran by. Except for the playful colors, it looked like, to me at least, a large pistol. Then another boy, a little older, chased after him. Bang, bang, bang, and more laughter.

I haven’t seen a cap gun in years. I can’t remember if I had a cap gun or not, maybe a brother did, but I remember unrolling the paper strips of caps on the sidewalk and pounding them with a hammer. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang! A friend of mine had a silver metal cap gun that used the plastic ring caps type of ammo. They were better and louder than the paper roll kind. As kids, we’d run around in the peach and apple orchards in south Jersey where we grew up and play all sorts of war games and such. We also played with bottle rockets, and BB guns, and set plastic model planes on fire. I remember one hot summer day when we were about 14 or 15 goofing around and pointing a cap gun at my friend’s younger brother and pulling the trigger. The tip of the barrel was maybe an inch away from his bare chest. Bang! He recoiled in pain. I first thought he was joking but then I noticed the black speckles and pinkish-red powder burn on his skin.

Our train car was now completely silent except for the ongoing play gunfire and laughter. It was early rush hour and we were headed the other direction so our metro car wasn’t full, but it was also not empty. I looked around again this time for a parent. These kids were having fun but I was not, Lori was not, and by the look of the others on the train, they were not. Someone really should tell these kids that here and now this is not the best place or time for this kind of play.

Bang, bang, bang. I looked back. Again looking for a parent and seeing none I thought maybe I should get up and say something. Sure, boys will be boys, but this is not 1970’s rural south Jersey. This was 2014 urban D.C. But I didn’t get up and say anything. And it wasn’t so much my sympathy with “boys will be boys” and that I played similar games when I was a kid. It was because these boys were African American and I am white. I could get up and gently explain that perhaps a Metro train car is not the best place to play this game. I could gently suggest that unfortunately, but perhaps, in this post Trayvon Martin world, some person with a real gun who was more nervous from their play and skin color would get involved. Or maybe, and perhaps my real fear, if I stood up, the parent who was there all along, whom I hadn’t seen, would stand up to tell me this was none of my business.

We came to a stop and the kids jumped out onto the platform. Bang, bang, bang. Bang, bang, bang. They sprayed pretend bullets at the stunned people waiting to get on our train.

I wondered how the story in the Washington Post would go if a Metro security officer shot one of these kids dead. Black kid, white officer, toy gun, shooting. No good comes of this.

They hopped back on as the doors closed and Lori decided she wanted to get off at the next stop and get on another train.  I hesitated. It sounded like a rational move. But I convinced her otherwise. We were running a bit late and I while the gunplay was nerve wracking I was also nervous I wouldn’t get to the bank in time. I also didn’t want to be one of those white men. And I’m not even sure what that means exactly: “Those White Men.” I’m not a racist, I reminded myself. At least I don’t want to be a racist. And being scared of black kids? That’s not me, right? That’s George Zimmerman and others like him. That’s really not me.

But I was scared.

The train pulled away, there was more laughing and more bang, bang, bangs.

I looked around again and caught the eye of an older black woman. We held each other’s eyes just long enough to silently share our respective fear and concern. She pursed her lips and subtly shook her head as if to communicate to me that she too thought this was wrong and that it was okay for me, a white guy, to not be happy by all this. At least that is what I wanted her to be silently communicating to me because then I would not be one of those white men. I also sensed her uneasiness with what to do. And was that a little bit of shame I detected in her for also not getting up? I’m not sure if that was her shame, or mine, on her behalf, or what. But regardless of our imagined, projected, and real emotions, instead of anyone getting up, we all just decided to do nothing. We all sat there with our individual fears and prejudices, while these boys had fun laughing and playing with their toy guns.

The kids eventually did get off the train and we did too. I got to my bank branch in time with all the paperwork I was instructed to bring only to learn that I also needed a death certificate and a recent account statement. Of course I did not have a death certificate with me, not this time since the instructions I had didn’t include that detail. And since the account was frozen nearly 4 years ago when Amy died, I had an old statement, not a recent one, that is, within 90 days.

Sure, it is my own fault for waiting this long. But the psychic energy level required for me to get through Amy’s death paperwork is quite high. And now I was going to have to make more calls to banks, get more documents and do it all over again.

I met Lori at the restaurant. She had walked straight there from Metro while I went to the bank. We ordered a bottle of champagne. Not to celebrate, but to drink.


  1. Caps on the sidewalk during the Pitman 4th of July Parade was a big deal. Caps in a Metro...a whole different kind of big deal as you indicated. I've been sitting here trying to decide what I would have done in you place? Probably the same thing. Was in SJ in your neck of the wood a few weeks ago and thought about you. I've played "war games" in peach orchards too.

  2. Thanks for the comment Ed and thanks for the memories of the Pitman 4th of July Parade. We'd ride our bikes there and hope to get candy. Then at dusk Dad would drive us back and we'd park along Lambs Road, sit on the hood of the car, and watch the fireworks over Alcyon Lake.

  3. Race aside, you touched on another hot-button issue in our time: whether or not it's still all right to say something to other people's children. I tend to speak up anyway, but I'm very aware that I run the risk of getting my head bit off by some irate parent who thinks it's a crime for anyone to chastize his or her precious offspring. Having grown up in a time and place where any adult could say something to a child and not be pilloried by the parent, it feels weird to me to have to bite my tongue sometimes, so I'm sure the fear of being reprimanded by a stranger has been enough to get me to hold back sometimes nowadays...