Wednesday, February 18, 2009

THE SCENE OF THE CRIME

Today is the two-year anniversary of a defining moment in my life, one that's right up there with watching the second tower go down, seemingly in slow motion, from the vantage point of Sixth Avenue in New York City, on September 11, 2001. This other day that will live in infamy? February, 18, 2007, the day I was robbed in my apartment by three men at screwdriver point. Yes, you read that right. Screwdriver point!

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and I was returning home from picking up my lunch at my favorite neighborhood café. I was in a fantastic mood, mid daydream, thinking about the really cute lawyer I'd met the night before, and what I'd wear for our date that evening. When the elevator opened on my floor, the door to my apartment was open, and three men were standing there waiting for me. They were dressed like workers, so at first I assumed that there was some problem in my apartment, perhaps a leak, and the super had let them in so that they could fix it.

But then they started motioning for me not to say a word and began approaching me. At this point, I still didn't know what was going on. Perhaps they had received some tip that there was a burglar in my apartment, I thought, and did not want him to know that we were there, about to pounce on him. Yes, a ridiculous assumption, I know, but in situations like this one, the mind works in mysterious ways and responds in ways you never thought probable.

When they grabbed me and began to drag me into my apartment, my next impression was that they were part of some movement to kidnap all expatriates. I'd say that I'd watched too many action movies, but I generally avoid them like the plague. All I knew is that I had to save myself. So I fought back. I fought like hell. Three against one. At the time, I spoke very little Spanish, so I couldn't really understand what they were saying. But the sight of one of them threateningly hovering a screwdriver over my face told me everything I needed to know. So I fought harder. Soon we were on the bathroom floor struggling. I looked out the window and thought about my mother. Although we had been estranged for more than a year, I thought to myself that I couldn't do this to her. I couldn't die on my bathroom floor in a pool of blood. So I fought. I managed to get the screwdriver from the one guy by grabbing it by the blade (securing myself a permanent scar between the index and middle finger of my left hand in the process) and tossing the weapon behind the toilet.

And I fought some more. They'd taken my belts from my closet and were beginning to tie one into a noose. Oh no, I thought, they're going to hang me from the shower curtain rod (never mind that it's adjustable--now was not the time for rational thinking). Just when I began to think that maybe it was all over for me, it dawned on me: They weren't out to kill me. Come on, I thought, three against one; if they wanted to eliminate me, they would have done so by now. They were robbing me. They were freaking robbing me! "Take what you want!" I shouted. "And get the fuck out of here!" Bastards!

They seemed to understand. They used one of my belts to tie my feet together and another to tie my hands behind my back. They gagged me. They tried to blindfold me, but always the diva, I wouldn't let them. They didn't insist; they left me in the bathroom and went back to their business. It took me less than a minute to untie myself, and I considered going out and fighting some more. But common sense prevailed, and I waited until I heard them leave, locking me inside the apartment, before I emerged from the bathroom.

I ran to the balcony and started screaming: "Help! Help! I'm being robbed! They're coming back to kill me!" Luckily, some people were sunbathing on the roof of the apartment building below, and they called the police. I surveyed the damage. They'd stolen my TV, my laptop (it was time for an upgrade anyway), my DVDs, my portable DVD player, a bedspread (?!), a little cash, my cell phone (with the lawyer's phone number--so much for our hot date!), and my wallet (I only received my replacement driver's license a few weeks ago), but no books (do Argentines even read?) and not my iPod, which I'd refused to give up in the struggle (diva strikes again).

The cops arrived shortly thereafter and were able to enter the apartment because the men, interestingly, had left the key in the lock (a sign that this was an inside job, possibly arranged by people who had worked on the building, which had just been constructed, and therefore would have had a key to the front door; also, after the dust, and my head, had cleared, I figured that a fourth partner downstairs had warned my three attackers of my imminent arrival). The police were not much help. As is so often the case in Argentina, they were more concerned with procedure and filling out forms than fighting crime.

I could go on and on about the cops, but I won't. I am told that pretty much everyone who lives in Buenos Aires has an experience like this at some point. It's almost like a rite of passage. So the police, many of whom are former, even current, robbers themselves, don't treat it like a big deal. Neither did some of my Argentine "friends" (now ex-friends). It was a learning experience. A woman who lives in my building who also was robbed that day but was fortunate enough not to have arrived home in the middle of it told me that in a month, I'd be back to normal, I'd forget that it ever happened. She was only half right: I was back to normal. But I'll never forget. I spent the next week in a rental because I couldn't bear to return to the scene of the crime. And when I finally did, I had to go to the parrilla across the street and ask one of the guys who worked there to accompany me up to my apartment--just in case.

Two years on, long after the cuts and my bruised ribs have healed, I've moved on. Now I can tell people the story and laugh at my chutzpah. If anyone had asked me before the incident how I would have reacted in a robbery situation, I never in a zillion years would have expected myself to actually fight back. But that's exactly what I did. I learned a lot about human nature, who my real friends are, who my casual friends are, who my fair-weather friends are, and who just doesn't give a damn (you know who you are--and if you don't, I do). But most importantly, I learned a lot about myself and what I have inside of me.

The incident changed me forever. I'm harder now, less trusting, something of an angry not-so-young man and ready to fight if someone crosses me. Perhaps I've always been like this, but something just needed to bring these qualities to the forefront. I'm grateful that time has healed all the wounds, physical and emotional. And just in case anyone ever tries to pull this little stunt again, I've installed an alarm system that would wake a deaf person on the other side of town.
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