Held at Gunpoint
When he pointed the shotgun at my chest, I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes. I didn’t bargain with God for another chance at living. I didn’t fight; I didn’t run; I didn’t think at all.
Friday night was the first time I was ever held at gunpoint. It was also the first time someone tried to sell me cocaine. Both of these things happened within blocks of the University of South Carolina campus.
It had actually been a pleasant night up until about 1 a.m., when we faced death. Heading out for a sort of trial night on the streets, Matt and I had taken a long walk through town with backpack and sleeping bags in tow. It wasn’t as cold as it had been on previous nights, and we were bundled like children of overprotective parents. I wore five layers, if I recall correctly.
We saw the stark contrasts in different parts of our city, watching theme bars and banks give way to liquor stores and payday lenders. We tried our hand at dumpster diving, coming up with some bitter chocolate baking cups and a mostly-full peach-mango drink.
Early on, a man rode by on a bike near the corner of Harden and Gervais, slowing down with squeaky brakes to make a casual offer:
“Hey guys, I got weed, pills, and coke,” he said. “What’s good?”
We politely declined and headed on.
I’d picked out our sleeping area beforehand, and I thought we were safe there. It was a fairly well-lit park between an all-girls dorm and a busy intersection, and it had a gazebo that would keep us covered in case of rain or snow.
As we laid ourselves down on the park benches, three guys approached us on the path. I kept still and hoped they wouldn’t give us any trouble, figuring the worst we’d get was a heckling by some sons of Southern gentry.
When they were within feet of the gazebo, one of the guys said, “What you got?”
We quickly realized this meant they wanted our valuables, so we stood with our hands raised and complied. We told them we had nothing they’d want and offered our bags to be searched, and then they pulled out the guns: a pistol aimed at Matt and what looked like a sawed-off shotgun aimed at me.
From there, it was a blurred rush to go through my five layers of clothing and turn all my pockets inside out. They took what little we had to offer — pens, books, gloves, an apartment key — and threw them aside, thunking and tinkling off the gazebo ceiling and concrete floor.
When they were convinced that we really were worthless, the one with the shotgun gave me an open-palmed smack and pushed me onto the bench, and Matt got two pistol-whips on the back of his head.
And then they were gone, sprinting toward the Pickens Street gate and then off into the quiet Columbia night.
After jerkily searching through the shrubs to find my key, we hoofed it back to our apartment and called it a night. We phoned the police and stayed up ‘til 3:30 filling out paperwork and answering their questions.
We never got a good look at the three guys’ faces. We could tell they were black and roughly our age, but beyond that everything was obscured by black clothing and bandanas. They seemed jumpy, though more in an amateurish than a drug-addled way. They were nervous, maybe more than we were.
There’s a lot that can go wrong in the city. I know that. I just never pictured it happening within my comfort zone. We like to salve our fears by thinking that all violence, prostitution, and drug-dealing takes place in that far-off world of Other, the part of town that social workers call “troubled” and sorority girls call “sketchy.”
Last night, that mindset came tumbling down. There are no walls. The only thing separating the well-to-do undergrad from the ghetto-raised youth is a couple of city blocks.
What does this mean for me? Honestly, I’m less at ease, although I slept soundly once I was back in my bed. Maybe I’ll have a hard time revisiting that gazebo, which is where I used to stretch before my morning runs. Maybe — and I know this is wrong — I will view my African-American neighbors with suspicion for a while.
But Matt and I agree on one thing: We are undeterred from this homeless project. If anything, this was an appropriate introduction to our upcoming week on the streets. I hear homeless people telling me all the time about getting mugged where they sleep, and it always baffles me. If you’re going to hold people up, why go for the ones with almost no possessions?
I still don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know what it’s like to stare at a gun barrel in the middle of the night with nothing to defend myself and no one to call the cops for me.
I read in my Bible this morning how David said he was like a green tree in the house of God and how he called the Lord the upholder of his life. It’s hard to know where to find security, but I’m finding it in prayer right now.
If I ever meet those three men again, I like to think I will forgive them. Who knows what they’ve been through, and who knows how long they’ll waste away in prison if they’re caught?
As for us, we will be careful. During our homeless week, we’ll find our way into a shelter every night instead of sleeping outside. We will leave our keys with someone else. We will always keep our heads on pivots.
We will never take life for granted.