A moment that changes your life
|Don’t Call the Police
When they offered me Assistant Manager at Denver’s Colfax Avenue Burger King I was a bit reluctant. It was a rough part of town, but the police came in for dinner pretty regularly and I’d even started dating one of them, which kept a car in our parking lot most nights. This Burger King, they told me, was one of the tough ones. The crew came from the neighborhoods which were Black and Hispanic. They worked harder than the kids I’d had in upscale Cherry Creek, showed up on time, offered to work more hours. I was frankly surprised, but pleased. But, we had more than our share of homeless, drunks and belligerent. All of which I’d learned to deal with more or less.
The first thing I noticed that night was the sound of the broiler shutting down behind me, twenty minutes before closing at midnight. I turned to the crew through the window and three wide brown eyes looked back at me. One pair of hands were frozen on a Whopper, half finished, one filling a coke at the drink station, one holding the salt shaker over the fries. I thought of mimes, frozen, then jerking in movements.
“Ben!” I called back to the lead whose hands now put the top of the bun on the Whopper in slow motion. “Why’d you turn the broiler off?”
His eyes shifted beyond me and he raised his eyebrows, dipping his head in a slight nod.
I turned back to the cash register to find a tall black man looking at me.
“Oh!” I said. “Sorry, didn’t see you come in.”
I hoped Ben had some meat in the steamer because this guy looked like he might be a linebacker for the Broncos, the kind of guy who ordered two Double Whoppers. The silence in the kitchen made me frown and I took another glance.
The prevalent smell of french fries and freshly cooked hamburger wafted through the opening, but that was the only movement. Then, two people exited the dining room through the side door. Which was okay. It was late, we were about to close and I felt the effects of a split shift in my lower back and gritty eyes. In fact, I thought, not for the first time, if I didn’t get a promotion to Manager soon, I may just have to go looking for some other kind of work. At least being a secretary didn’t requiring opening a store, taking four hours off, then coming back for the closing shift. On the other hand, the money was much better here, especially if I could make Manager. Maybe I could move to a nicer apartment, get the car paid off, feel like I was moving up.
“What would you like?” I asked the man in front of me. His blue suit, complete with a blue vest, contrasted with his dark skin and he smelled of Aqua Velva, something I hadn’t smelled in years. “I’m afraid we’re out of Yumbos,” I added.
“What’s a Yumbo?” he asked, not yet looking at me, still surveying the restaurant.
“Ham and cheese sandwich,” I answered. “Are you looking for someone?”
“Are you the manager?” he asked.
“Assistant,” I answered. “Is there something I can do for you?” my tone shifted with impatience. I am not a night owl. I wanted to go home, to take off the smell of cooked meat, to have a glass of wine and crash.
“All the money in the drawer,” he said, finally looking at me.
I blinked. Did he just say that? I couldn’t believe it. “What?”
He leaned down until our faces were a foot apart. “Give me the money in the drawer.” His breath smelled of beer and bourbon.
I’d just pulled the drawer; there probably wasn’t $20 in it. Should I tell him that? No. He’d want me to open the safe.
“Now,” he said. I looked at the end of a gun creeping out from under his jacket. One barrel sat on top of another, and appeared, from my perspective, as two stacked metal “O’s”
I looked up at the man, back at the gun. This couldn’t possibly be happening. This man was well-dressed, maybe a little drunk, but holding up a Burger King for a few bucks? Would he really shoot me? How stupid would that be? And the crew? Could they see him, identify him? Crazy man, taking a risk like this. I sighed. They’d taught us to give them the money.
I punched the button to open the cash drawer. It flew open with a clang that echoed, something normally drowned out by the broiler, the fryer, the drink station and customers. Now, it sounded like the bells of St. Mary’s.
I pulled the bills, looking at the change. Should I give him the change too? Maybe the quarters?
He snatched the bills out of my hand.
“Don’t call the police,” he said, waving the gun, making his jacket shimmy.
I studied his face. “Okay,” I mummered.
“And you never saw me.”
“Okay,” I repeated, frozen to the spot, wondering what to do next. Was he going to leave now? Would he threaten the crew who apparently saw all this coming but couldn’t warn me? Were there other customers witnessing this? I couldn’t rip my eyes away to check.
He turned and ran out the front doors. I sank behind the counter, crawled to the corner where a phone hung on the wall and dialed 9-1-1. If the man shot now, he would hit the brick exterior of the building.
When I hung up, Ben stood beside me, hands on hips.
“Holy shit!” he exclaimed. “What took you so long?”
“So long?” I asked.
“To give him the money!”
I thought back. Had I taken a long time? It didn’t seem so.
The wail of sirens sounded in the distance.
“I don’t know.” I shook my head from from side to side. “Was I that slow?”
“You don’t know how a man carrying a gun looks?”
I blinked. “No, I guess not.”
“Could’ve had you all over the wall.”
“What?” Shot, yes. All over the wall?
“You don’t know what a sawed off shotgun looks like?” He said this as if I couldn’t identify a cat as a cat. I realized this might be a reality of his life.
Probably a reality in the lives of the crew, in the lives of the people leaving the dining room.
I swallowed the bile coming up my throat. “No, Ben.” My God, I thought, I could have died over $25. Tears threatened and I gulped them back too. “I had no idea.”
The police arrived and questioned me, finding it incredible the one night they’d not come in all week being the night I got robbed. A time was set for me to come to the station the next day and look at mugshots. Sometime in there, the crew signed out and went home, telling the police they hid behind equipment and didn’t see the man.
As I turned out the lights, Ben came out of the kitchen.
“You okay?” he asked.
“I think so.” I grinned at him. “More rattled after than during, you might say.”
“You going back to the Cherry Creek restaurant?”
“You think I should? White girls don’t belong in this part of town?”
Ben folded his arms. “I think you were pretty damn cool with that gun pointed at you.”
“You saw him didn’t you?”
“We all did.”
“You didn’t tell the police that.”
He cocked his head. “You really don’t know, do you?”
I cocked my head back. “Educate me.”
“They catch him, it’s ‘cause of a white chick that don’t live around here. If we rat,” he paused, “let’s just say it might not be good.”
I nodded, trying to understand a world where going to the police was a bad thing.
“So,” he went on. “You going back to Cherry Creek?”
“No,” I said. “I like the crew here.”
“Good,” he said. He picked up his duffel bag. “Never thought I’d say this, but we like you too. Especially after tonight. Gonna be talking about this all over - how the white chick stood her ground.”
My heart swelled with the compliment from this hard young man and I found myself speechless.
I watched him walk out, to walk home as he had no car. Stood my ground? Did I? Did I risk my life? The crews’? I’d never know, but tomorrow, I’d grill Ben about what to look for, what kept him aware. Stuff a white chick like me might never otherwise learn. And to earn the respect of this crew? No way I could leave them for a typewriter and a desk.