The first job I had as a teenager was in a grocery store in my small Florida town. I started out bagging groceries and putting them in customers’ cars. In time I graduated to such responsibilities as stocking shelves and changing prices on merchandise. This blog entry recounts an unexpected – and harrowing – episode that occurred during my grocery store years.
One humid summer morning I was among a handful of employees scheduled to come in before opening time. Besides me, a few twenty-something stockmen, the head cashier and the older woman and man that ran the produce department accompanied Mr. Lopez, the assistant manager, inside. Mr. Lopez and I led this little parade toward the store office. (Hourly employees like me punched time cards inside the stock room adjacent to it before starting work.)
We recoiled when a man jumped up from behind the office counter. Decades later I still see him clearly: a big guy, he had long, stringy brown hair, a red face and an angry expression. What really caught our attention was the pump-action shotgun he pointed at us. The black hole of its sawed-off muzzle looked enormous! He pushed us into the stock room, threatening that anyone crossing him would be shot. Mr. Lopez was told to remain in the office.
At that time non-refrigerated merchandise was delivered to the store on large, heavy, wheeled metal carts that were difficult to move when empty, let alone when they were full. The robber had pushed together and tied several laden carts in the “back room,” effectively bottling us up. It would have been impossible to attempt an escape without his hearing it.
We listened in worried silence as, just a couple feet away, the stranger yelled at Mr. Lopez to open the store safe. Mr. Lopez fumbled the combination several times; whenever he started to enter it again the big man said he was losing his patience, and would pull the trigger if the safe wasn’t unlocked right away.
Hearing our boss plead for his life, saying over and over that he had a wife and children, led the young men among us to speculate that perhaps the shotgun wasn’t loaded. They discussed how they might rush the small office, taking the gun man by surprise and overcoming him. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and Mr. Lopez managed to unlock the safe. The thief took off with “an undetermined amount of cash,” hopped on a motorcycle he had stashed behind the store’s freight door, and zoomed away.
To say that all of us were unnerved by this incident would be an understatement but ere long it faded into the past. When the robber was caught it was revealed that he was an employee of the same supermarket chain: his knowledge of the store’s layout had come in handy as he planned the heist. For me a measure of closure came when I picked him out in the first and only lineup in which I have taken part.
I don’t know that there is a moral to this story. If anything, it shows how indelibly a stress-inducing event can imprint itself on a person’s memory.
Oh, and the shotgun was loaded.