My mother sent me to the store for a pack of cigarettes. In 1983, I was never carded, people just took things at face value, assuming an eight-year-old boy wasn’t addicted to nicotine, and if given a dollar, he most likely would spend it on a Hot Wheels car or a Bigfoot ice cream off the ice cream truck. Only every now and then would I be asked, “These are for your mother, right?”
My childhood friend, Fat Chris—a nickname my dad gave him—had been at my house watching cartoons, and he agreed to walk with me to Uncle Charlie’s. Owned and operated by an Italian family, Uncle Charlie’s was a little neighborhood store, about two and a half city blocks from the house where I grew up, in northeast Kansas City, Missouri.
When Fat Chris and I arrived, the front doors were chained, the lights inside were off, the parking lot was empty. Uncle Charlie’s was closed on Sundays, a fact unbeknownst to Fat Chris and I, but not to my mother, who’d specifically told me to go to Amoco and come straight back. Amoco, however, was five blocks away, a distance Fat Chris did not want to walk. I disobeyed my mother because I didn’t want to walk to the store alone.
Befuddled, standing there in front of Uncle Charlie’s, having just walked more than two blocks uphill, in the opposite direction of Amoco, where we were supposed to be, Fat Chris and I were approached by two grubby-looking teenage boys. One of the boys had something long and thin wrapped in a black trash bag tucked under his arm. Pointing to the object under his arm, I asked, “What’s that?” “It’s a pellet gun,” he said. “Can I see it?” I asked. “Not here, follow me and I’ll show you.”
Fat Chris and I followed the two boys behind a car mechanic’s shop half a block up the street. Behind the shop, an eerie feeling came over me when the two boys boxed me in between them. The boy holding the object - still wrapped in a trash bag - told me to empty my pockets. Like a scared animal reacting to the threat of danger, I took flight, attempting to escape the threat I now saw, only to be grabbed by one of the boys and spun around with lightning speed, then released to crash violently into the cement wall. Dazed, and confused by the jolt of reality, I came to my senses when the boy—ripping the trash bag off his secret object to unveil a pair of bolt cutters—threatened, “Empty your pockets or I’ll cut your fingers off.”
I reached into my left pocket, pulling out two bills, a one and a five—the dollar my mother’s, the five my weekly allowance—and threw them on the ground at the boy’s feet. The boy who’d threatened me picked them up and hurried off, his cohort right behind him. Fat Chris just stood there, petrified, watching the robbery unfold.
Walking home, confused, humiliated, guilt-stricken, and angry, I could not keep the tears from flowing, stinging my eyes and taking my breath, much as my innocence had been taken. That day, the world turned upside-down, no longer a place of fun, mystery and adventure to me, but a place of uncertainty, danger, and violence.
Z.A.SMITH DIARY OF A PRISONER: EXPRESSIONS OF AN ASPIIRING ARTIST OF LIFE
Author of Smith's Guide, law books