This past February marked a rather ominous anniversary that I share with my wife.
No, I’m not talking about our wedding anniversary. I’ve never regarded that date as anything remotely ominous. My conclusion after nearly eighteen years of marriage is that marrying my wife was without a doubt one of the very few genuinely wise decisions I ever made.
It was in February twenty years ago, back in 1997, that she and I were face down in an alley with guns pointed to the backs of our heads.
Yes, I’m serious. That really happened.
The evening had been pleasant enough. I took my wife, who I had been dating for only about a month, out to dinner and then to a play. This was in Chicago, where we still reside today. A friend of hers, a local actress, had a role in the production, which was performing at the Victory Gardens Theater on North Lincoln Avenue. We enjoyed the play, and then the three of us all went out to a nearby bar for a few drinks. Being as young and indestructible as we were in those days, we were out quite late.
I’ll never forget that night for as long as I live.
It was about 3 a.m. when we parked my wife’s car. We had decided to go to my apartment, a place that I was sharing with some old college friends at the time, rather than to her tiny studio apartment. We drove around for a good fifteen or twenty minutes looking for a place to park. Finding an available space at 3 a.m. on the north side of Chicago is not easy. We finally found a spot on a street that ran parallel to the street I lived on, which was just one street west from where we parked.
It was also near a very well lit alley behind a major chain department store, which provided a shortcut to the street where I lived. I instinctively proceeded to walk past the alley, toward the major street in front of the department store. I thought it wiser to take the longer and more circuitous route around. I didn’t trust alleys at 3 a.m.
“Where are you going?” asked my wife. “Let’s just cut through the alley.”
“I don’t think so,” I replied. “Do you think it’s a good idea to walk through a deserted alley at this hour?”
“But it’s just as well lit as the street.”
I walked back to her and peered down the alley. She was right. It was entirely bathed in the light provided by the large lamp posts on either side. I reflected for a moment. It should only take a couple of minutes to walk through and reach my street on the other end, I thought. Sure, it would be fine.
We had been walking through the alley for barely a minute, holding hands and having a chat about the pleasant evening we had just enjoyed, when the slow-motion film began playing before our eyes. Two hooded figures seemed to materialize out of nothing, running toward us from the direction of the street we were walking to. My first thought was that they were a couple of mischievous youths running around in the wee hours, and that they would run right past us in their pursuit of whatever youthful late night pleasures they were after.
But as the movie continued in slow motion, frame by frame, I saw each of them reach into the back of their pants and slowly withdraw handguns. They stopped us midway through the alley, the end of each barrel staring right into our faces.
“Get down!” one of them demanded in a harsh whisper. Seeing as how we had little choice, we did as they demanded.
My wife became very upset. As she and I laid facedown on the cold, snowy asphalt of the alley, a million different thoughts rushed through my mind as I debated with myself as to what I should do, if anything. I managed to turn to look in her direction as she laid by my side. I saw the long barrel of a pistol held right to the back of her head. I softly reassured my wife that everything would turn out okay.
The young man who assigned himself to holding his gun at the back of my head repeated my words in mocking fashion as he searched my overcoat. Then he asked me if I had any money on me. As I had just spent whatever cash I had at the bar, I replied in the negative.
“If I find any money on you, mother——, and you’re lyin’ to me, I’m gonna blow your f—– head off!” I meekly assured the young man that I had nothing on me but some loose change.
“Let’s just pop caps in they heads now!” said the young hoodlum who had his gun aimed at my wife.
“Nah, nah, don’t shoot ’em,” answered the hoodlum who stood over me, and who apparently was cast as the voice of reason, the “good cop,” so to speak, in this sordid drama.
These criminals probably took all of four or five minutes to rob us. But it felt like hours. And in that span of time, I contemplated all the possible outcomes of this scenario. There was a fleeting moment–and this was the first time in my entire life that I felt this, and thankfully I’ve never experienced it since–but there was a fleeting moment when I was convinced that my wife and I were about to die.
“You are not going to die. You are going to be okay. They will take what they want and leave.”
I can’t say that it was exactly a voice that I heard. It was more like a feeling than an actual voice. But somehow, something, in some fashion, communicated to me that if I didn’t make any attempt at heroics, we would get through this situation alive. Maybe it was some part of my mind that had completed a consistently rational assessment of what we were going through. Maybe it was something else.
Then again, maybe it was a voice.
“Now stay there and don’t get up until you count to 100!”
My wife and I started counting to 100 together. By the time I got to 7 or 8, I heard their footsteps trail away to the direction of the street at the west end of the alley, the street I lived on, then the sound of a car screeching away. Relieved, I gently took my wife’s arm and helped her to her feet.
We survived. We got to my place and called the police. An officer came and took statements from us.
And that night I told my wife for the first time that I loved her.
Now, all these years later, now that I’m in middle age and our son is nearly twelve years old, my mind often wanders back to that incident. Sometimes I find myself walking down that alley in my dreams, back on that cold winter night, and I see the whole thing happen all over again. I see my younger, late-20s self on the hard, icy ground with that young lady who was my wife, quietly reassuring her that everything would turn out okay as two young thugs lord over them, pointing guns at their heads.
How did I know that everything would be okay? Perhaps it was simple enough to reason out. We were in a large city, near a high traffic area, even for that late hour. We were right next to an apartment building, right underneath a window, possibly someone’s bedroom window. Surely our assailants understood that the sound of gunshots would quickly draw unwanted attention and the police could possibly be at their heels before they knew it.
But then again, the young man–the “reasonable” one of the two–who was threatening to blow my head off if he found that I was holding back a few bucks from him seemed a little too eager to prove something to his friend, and his friend likewise. It didn’t seem quite a statistical impossibility that either of them would choose to take his chances and shoot us. Perhaps that act would have carried some extra weight with whoever was waiting in the car in the street at the end of the alley.
I’ve never been one to be much for religion but the only conclusion I can reach is that I had faith. For whatever reason, I had faith that we would get through the ordeal and continue to live our lives.
When I think back on that time, I realize that I need to be reminded of that every so often–to have faith.
To believe that everything’s going to be okay.