Fourteen years ago today I almost died.
I’d been living in New Orleans one month. One night after getting off work at the French Quarter restaurant where I waited tables, I decided to walk to one of New Orlean’s famously-creepy above-ground cemeteries. I wanted to make chalk rubbings of the crypts on some butcher paper I’d taken from the restaurant. It was about eleven o’clock.
I know what you’re thinking: and yes, I was an idiot. I don’t remember why I thought this particular activity would be a good idea, or fun, or why I wanted to do it at night. I should have known better—and so should have the friend who accompanied me. He’d lived in New Orleans a long time.
But like I said, I’d been there for one month; I’d known the guy for even less time. Later, I would come to realize that good judgment wasn’t really his thing.
Anyway, on the evening of May 12, 2005, we found ourselves on the wrong side of Canal Street with a roll of butcher paper. As we moved further into the dark neighborhood, I noticed two figures approaching. Their stride was tense, purposeful. Something inside me said to turn and run, to at least cross the street, but I didn’t listen to my intuition.
When the men got closer, I tried to step aside to make room on the sidewalk, but they split and moved around the outside of us, like a pair of wolves. At the same time, they bumped our shoulders, hard. I turned to offer an apology, and when I looked up, I was staring down the barrel of a gun.
“Gimme your bag,” the guy said. I handed it over, tucking my face into my shoulder. I wanted him to see me not looking at him, not giving him any reason to pull the trigger. I saw my friend behind him, silhouetted by a streetlamp. He was kneeling on the sidewalk with a gun to his head.
I thought about my mom. Six weeks earlier she’d flown out to Phoenix to drive halfway across the country with me in my beater Honda without air conditioning and my yowling, miserable cat. All that trouble, and I was going to die for a night’s tips.
“Get on the ground, face-down,” the guy told me. I did as he said, and he patted me down, rifling my pockets and fondling my ass, and going Mmm. My stomach puckered and shrank inside me like a slug in salt. I had no idea what was happening to my friend. I hoped he wouldn’t do anything stupid.
“Get up and don’t stop running,” the gun-guy said. We did. As soon as we could, we turned down a side street. When was it okay to stop running? I wondered. Should I run the whole way home?
At Canal Street we stopped, clutching our knees and gasping for breath. “We have to call the cops!” I told my friend.
“What for?” he said. “They won’t do shit.”
I wasn’t interested in this perspective. I’d just been robbed at gunpoint; the police should be informed. I was insistent on this point.
“Do what you want,” my friend said, shrugging.
I called the police. A few minutes later a squad car met us. The cop got out looking annoyed, like we’d woken him from a nap. After he took our statement, he asked what we wanted him to do about it.
I couldn’t believe it. “Look for the bad guys or something.” I said. He nodded, assuring us he would do that, and drove away.
I told my friend to fuck off, and went home.
Only I couldn’t stay in my apartment, I was too amped up on adrenaline. In fact, I didn’t sleep for the next thirty-six hours. I needed to be with people but it was the middle of the night, in a new city. I had exactly two friends, including the one I’d just told to fuck off. The other one was probably asleep.
The obvious choice was to go to an all-night diner. Oh-Thank-God-I’m-Alive Day was born. For me, it’s a high holy day.
I ordered bacon. I ordered a stack of chocolate-chip pancakes and drenched them in butter and syrup. I ordered an omelet and two Dixie beers, one for each trembling hand—because eating and drinking is what alive people do. “I just got robbed at gunpoint,” I explained to the waitress. She nodded solemnly, and I felt as though I’d passed through some kind of bizarre New Orleans hazing. I’m one of them now, I thought. I lived to tell the tale.
I don’t know why I lived. Maybe it was luck. Maybe the guns weren’t real. Maybe they never intended to shoot us. Maybe the Great Whatchamacalit was looking out for me, or maybe it was because I didn’t look the guy in the face. (Later, this would mean I could not pick him from a photo lineup when the police caught a suspect.)
I’ll never know. But I am glad I didn’t die, and I’m grateful to whatever saved me. So every year on May 12, I celebrate. Cheers. Here’s to living to tell our tales. And happy Mother’s Day to my mom, who didn’t hear this story for a long time after it had happened.