Strange things go through your mind when you watch someone get shot. Matters of life, death, vengeance, punishment, redemption and mercy all swirl around in the blurry stew that is your sub-conscious mind.
For instance, you will recall in those first dizzying moments the old saying that there's no such thing as an innocent victim. That somewhere between crime and punishment reside certain truths, wrapped as they are in mystery. The lone man – whatever his intentions – who runs into trouble on the wrong side of town knows this all too well.
But it's not until it's all over – when the dust has settled and the blood has dried – that your thoughts turn to the aggressor. You will wonder, perhaps for the first time in your life, if, just maybe, the victim got what he deserved.
Bearing witness to violence raises a lot of questions and I’m not sure I have any answers. What I do have is a story.
It all started in a K-Mart parking lot. Understand, the store in question isn’t as classy as your typical K-Mart. And I say that with all the reverence of a man whose first job was running a cash register at one of these fine places. Trust me when I say you haven’t properly rung in the Fourth of July until you’ve had a monstrously fat woman hand you a soggy twenty that had spent the afternoon wedged between her bra and left breast.
Anyway, I was sitting in the parking lot eye-balling whores. One hundred percent true. The K-Mart on Cleveland Avenue resides between the interstate and a worn-out crack motel called the Palace Inn. Believe me, I have been to some places. Dirty and dangerous, rank with the stench of death and desperation, but I have rarely been somewhere as bad as the Palace Inn. But still, the whores there had a good deal. Situated as it was near the highway, all they had to do was wander around the parking lot and wait for the depraved, and a smattering of truckers, to come calling.
And they did. Day and night these skinny, worn-out white women would wobble down the hill, pick up a John, lead him up to the Palace Inn and then return, thirty minutes later, for another round. I couldn’t get enough. I’ve spent hours watching this parade of second-hand sex march on by, all honking horns and dancing clowns, happy as can be.
The downside to whores, of course, is that they attract the unsavory.
Drugs, drugs dealers, drug users and those who understand that, just as smoke precedes fire, money precedes drugs.
So I was sitting in the parking lot feeding stray dogs and bearing witness to the decline of an entire segment of the population when two men began arguing. I’d been vaguely aware that someone in overalls was standing about twenty yards to our right but paid him little mind.
I paid him even less when the argument started. Mainly because arguments, or at least the injuries they create, make up a huge part of our day. Say two guys are remodeling a house. Neither is making much money, both have marital problems, drinking problems, drug problems and one guy drops his end of the piece of plywood they’re carrying. An argument ensues and one of them pulls out a box cutter and slashes the other across the chest.
Or, perhaps, it’s two drunks hanging out at a liquor store. Best friends, known each other all their lives, when an argument starts over a lotto ticket or a half-finished pint of gin and before anyone knows it someone’s been slapped over the head with a hunk of concrete.
In both cases the loser will throw up his arms, his face streaked with tears, and claim to be an innocent victim. Will I help him? Naturally. Will I feel terrible for him? Probably not.
And anyway, it’s best to keep clear of arguments in-progress. Tammy and Darryl taught us that. So, my partner and I were talking when we heard a soft, harmless POP. Movies have given you the wrong impression. Guns, with the exception of really big ones, do not sound as though they’re firing a chunk of molten lead capable of ruining or even taking your life. They sound, well, harmless. So much so that even though I saw it, I still turned to my partner and said, ‘Did he just shoot that guy?’
The answer to that question, by the way, was yes. The guy in overalls, the one who’d been standing not twenty yards to our right, had shot the second man. Right in the throat. There was a brief pause as I, my partner, the victim, hell even the damn shooter, all froze as though trying to process what had just happened.
Finally the moment passed and the victim, in a funny, hobbled sort of way, started running. I turned to my partner. ‘Where’s he going? He got shot. Where’s he going?’
You would think, given that we’re an ambulance and probably exactly the sort of help he was hoping for that he’d be running our way. Nope. He was running sort of willy-nilly across the parking lot. Left hand over his throat, right hand flailing out to his side, he darted past the exhausted whores and the horny Johns, totally unnoticed by everyone except the stray dogs who in their weird animal kingdom way knew something was definitely wrong.
I knew, obviously, that we should be helping this man but our status as witnesses to the crime opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Mainly, would the shooter try to shoot us? I have a friend who worked for years on an ambulance in Compton. Of all places. Compton, home to Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube, birthplace of gangster rap – which, I’d like to say for the record is far superior to the Puff Daddy-inspired sample-happy crap that came around in the mid-90s. Compton, even real estate agents admit, is a bad place.
Anyway, my friend said one night he and his partner were driving around when they stumbled upon a guy who’d been shot. Being paramedics, they hopped out and were getting ready to start working the guy when a voice from the shadows said, ‘Y’all best let that motherfucker die.’ They quickly hopped back in the ambulance, drove off and radioed dispatch to have the police come and investigate a murder.
I myself have spent tense moments barricaded inside an apartment while an angry boyfriend pounds on the door trying to get in and finish the beating his girlfriend so rudely interrupted when she cracked him with a pan and fled to a friend’s place to call 911.
As we watched the victim flee, it was my partner who first raised the question.
‘Why do you think he did it?’
I laughed. ‘Hell, I’d run too.’
He shook his head. ‘The shooter, I mean.’
Quite frankly, until that moment I hadn’t even considered motives. There are, I’m sure, a million reasons to shoot someone but it seemed to me at the time there were more pressing questions – just how far our future patient was going to run pretty much topping my list. Not so for my partner.
It was all strange me to me. ‘Which part?’
‘Look at him. He’s not even running.’
By ‘him’ he meant the shooter and sure enough, he wasn’t running. He simply tucked his little .25 back into the bib pocket of his overalls and took a seat on the back bumper of his van. This, if you’re keeping score, is the cue we needed that our intervention wasn’t likely to draw any fire so we put the truck in gear and eased across the parking lot.
As we pulled up alongside the patient I unrolled the window and entered into one of the strangest conversations I’ve ever had.
‘Hey buddy. How, uh, how you doing?’ Come on, what do you say to a guy who’s been shot in the throat and is running for all he’s worth across a parking lot packed end-to-end with scrawny crack whores and jittery sex-starved truckers?
Evidently, you say nothing because he gave me a single glance – sort of a cross between thirsty man in a desert and cornered possum – and kept on running. I turned to my partner who just shrugged. I leaned out a little further.
‘How far do you plan on running because I’m really thinking we should get you in here and get you some help. Maybe even take you to the hospital. You know, being shot and all.’
He turned to me now as though seeing me for the first time and finally stopped. I’ve never knowingly been in the crosshairs of a rifle but I can imagine what it’s like. There was a strange tingle at the base of my neck as I stepped out and grabbed the patient’s arm. Somewhere not far behind us was the man who’d shot this guy and for all I knew he was presently drawing down with his .25 – a gun if not exactly feared for its earth-shattering firepower, known the world-over for being woefully inaccurate.
We quickly hustled him into the back of the ambulance and began conducting what you’d call triage. Basically all that means is you give the guy a once-over, identity life threats and determine which one poses the biggest threat. His wound being straight in the throat and an open and working airway being the most important part of maintaining a living patient, we didn’t have to do much triage. After a little poking around I learned the bullet had passed through his throat, just below and to the left of his Adam’s Apple and exited through his right shoulder blade.
‘Do you feel you can breathe alright?’
‘Can you talk?’
‘Can you do it? Just so I can see?’
‘Yeah.’ A little breathless, maybe a little desperate but he had been shot in the throat.
‘You hurting anywhere else?’
‘Okay. What happened?’
‘Fucker shot me.’
Seriously? That’s what you’re gonna say? I think, of all the variables, that part we got.
‘I know but…why?’
‘No fucking reason. Shit, I was askin’ him if he needed some help and next thing I know he shoots me in the neck.’
Perhaps not the most plausible explanation but people have done worse for less. Years ago I was called out to a house late at night. Since people tend to get squeamish when talking about injuries to children I’ll spare you the details but I will say that when it was all over I walked out of the children’s hospital to find my partner – a man with over a decade of EMS experience – standing quietly in the parking lot. He was staring off to the east, smoking and watching the first blue streaks of dawn creep into the sky. After a minute, he flicked his cigarette across the lot, turned to me and said, ‘There are some brutal motherfuckers out there.’
Though our patient was breathing and talking and appeared to be, all things considered, the luckiest person alive, I figured it best to get him to the hospital sooner than later. My partner nodded and soon we were rumbling down the highway, weaving around the afternoon traffic with the sirens blasting as I cut off his shirt, checked for other holes, listened to his breath sounds and started an IV.
A few minutes later we were in the trauma bay where chest x-rays proved what we had already suspected – despite being fired into our patient’s throat at pointblank range the bullet had somehow missed not only the numerous vessels running up and down his neck but also his rather large and incredibly important trachea.
Medically speaking, the questions had been answered. Practically speaking, nothing had been answered.
Who was he and what was he doing there? Did he live in the motel? Was he a pimp, a John, an addict or was he just a guy who showed up at K-Mart hoping to grab something on blue light special only to get shot in the neck?
Why was he shot? Who shot him? And did he really not see the ambulance?
I was unsatisfied.
As we headed outside I saw a cop car pull up near the ambulance bay. The cop got out and wandered over, casual as can be, and said ‘You guys just bring in a shooting from the, uh, you know, K-Mart?’ Yup. He started to ask if the guy was gonna live, what his name was. Blah, blah, blah. I wasn’t having any of that.
‘Did you catch the guy who shot him?’
‘I’m not sure catch is the right word. He was sitting there waiting for us.’
But the cop was just as impatient to get answers to his questions as I was and continued on. I followed him.
‘Guy says he was standing by his van when your friend came wandering down from the Palace Inn and tried to rob him with a screwdriver.’
‘Yeah. So he shot him.’
‘Yeah that part I got. Did he say what he was doing there?’
‘Say why he didn’t run?’
At this the cop finally stopped walking. He turned to me with a look that suggested I was perhaps too dumb to understand, but he was willing to try anyway.
He said, ‘You don’t run if you’re innocent.’
After that he disappeared. No doubt he headed straight into the trauma bay and slapped a pair of handcuffs on our patient.
My partner and I got into our ambulance and drove off but the whole thing kept swirling around in my brain. The whores, the shooting, the victim running away while the perpetrator casually tucked his gun away and awaited the arrival of the police. The stray dogs who from the very start had identified the victim as the guilty party.
I’ll never know why that man was at the K-Mart. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Someone tried to rob him and he did what so many of us have wanted to do so many times – he took the law into his own hands.
Was he guilty? I don’t know. But he sure as hell didn’t run.