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Grocery Boy Daze

    I stamp the prices in purple ink on the cans: ka-chunk ka-chunk ka-chunk with my trusty stamper. Then I pull the old stock forward on the shelves and put the new cans in the back, the way I was shown; always rotate your stock. OK, sometimes you would notice with glee that some of the cans of Spanish capers appeared to be about a decade old; you would just wipe off the dust and put them back.
    When I'm heaving 40 pound boxes of canned juice off the rollers onto the stacks in the stockroom, or pushing a loaded hand truck down an aisle, my stamper sits in a holster on my belt like a pistol. Certain items like sugar frequently need re-stocking; the 5 pound bags come in bales weighing 60 pounds. But I am Grocery Boy; I eat roast beef for lunch, from the deli counter.
    Afternoon rush: my dolly is piled with cases and parked in the aisle; customers are going around, as I'm plying my box cutter and stamper; stocking the shelves like a well-oiled machine. The PA squawks, "Solomon, out for carriages!" or "Solomon, up front to bag!" I drop everything and go; another busy Saturday.
    The first bag I ever packed for a customer at the register was a triumph of geometrical perfection. I proudly hoisted it into the woman's cart and started filling the next bag. "Certainly!" I told her, "I will be very careful of your tomatoes." Then when the lady tried to heft the bag I had placed in the cart, she cried bitterly, "Do you think I am Superman? How can I lift this?" She reviled me with a surprising stream of invective, outraged at my insensitivity. Of course, I apologized immediately and re-bagged everything into four separate bags, which mollified her only slightly. Her recriminations and mutterings followed behind her as she toddled out, pushing her carriage. The boss was watching the whole thing; he shook his head. "You'll learn."
    When you're in the aisle with your white apron and black pants, you can become the target for a customer's anger when they can't find something. "You sure hid the canned beans pretty well,"
they would accuse me. I would tell them, "Aisle three, one-third of the way down on your left."
Why would people think we were trying to hide things?
    Usually they were more civil: "Excuse me, what shelf is your lard on to?" I could always tell them where a thing was, having an excellent visual memory of all the stock.
    One time as I was stamping a case of cans, the ink pad popped out of my stamper and skittered across the floor in front of a perambulating shopper; its metal frame going clicketty clicketty on the hard linoleum. "It done hopped away!" she said with a throaty chuckle. Fifty years later, I still say that: "It done hopped away!"
    Being a grocery boy could be tedious, and sometimes physically hard, work. My friends would come in for snacks, chat with me for a minute, and then head out to their ball game on a nice Sunday afternoon. No ball game for me that day. But looking back on those teenage years so long ago, I do feel a sense of gratitude for a solid life lesson learned, over those four formative years.
    One hot afternoon we had just finished unloading a truck, heaving the cases down onto the rollers and up onto the stacks in the stockroom; a synchronous team of sweaty brothers. Now it was quitting time, Miller time. We took off our grimy aprons, and one of the guys jerked his thumb up towards the translucent skylights in the roof of the truck, which let daylight into the cavernous interior. "Don't forget to turn out the lights when you leave, boys."

Abducted

This happened six days ago; it's not fiction-

     As we walk under a streetlight, my abductor pauses by a black SUV idling on the midnight street; he is peering fixedly at the driver inside. I comment, "Don't stare at him; you'll make him nervous." This is funny because the kid at my side is shadowing me with a knife at the ready; I have no idea if or when he will try to use it, and I can't run very fast anymore since I broke my leg a few years ago. The driver in the SUV rolls down his window and they begin conferring in low tones, and I realize, oh, they are discussing drugs: the driver isn't nervous, he's waiting there on purpose. On the street, they call it fen; the police call it heroin. But no deal, this time. We keep walking. There is almost no one on the street there, around midnight.
     The kid compels me to accompany him into a strip club: I ask the bouncer, "Can you give me a slide on the 10 bucks [cover]?" I am feeling peculiarly whimsical; I'm wondering if they think we are father and son. Not many graybeards in this place. The bouncer tells me, very kindly, "No, I'm sorry we can't do that; we have to pay the performers." The bouncer has kind eyes, and he looks steadily at me as he tells me this. The kid says, It's OK, I've got you. He pays the bouncer for us both, after showing his ID, and we walk in to the dim interior; music thumping unpleasantly in my ears.
     The kid–man can easily catch me if I try to bolt; he is shadowing my every move. I would rather not try something and get stabbed in the confusion while people try to figure out who is who. The kid has demonstrated quite graphically that he is desperate and is not going to let me get away; I am his ride, and he doesn't care who else he sticks with that knife. At this moment he is desperate, not just for escaping the scene of his crimes, but to get more drugs. We have been two hours on the road at this point; I have decided that since nothing else is at stake right now except my own skin, I'd better play it safe. And there is my ever present reflection that, even if I get away he knows exactly where I live: if I can ditch him and get back home, and if he should also elude capture, I will be perpetually looking over my shoulder in my own house. Paranoid, perhaps, unless you consider the moment two hours previously when I had been suddenly confronted in my own living room by a stout 4-inch blade held in my face by a raving wild total stranger; this is an image that I doubt I will ever get rid of.
     We go over to the bar; the kid orders, and turns to me with a bottle of beer for himself and a glass for me. "You are drinking Red Bull and vodka," he tells me; "Drink it." I take a sip; my heart, already pounding, begins to pound harder after a few sips. The kid is conferring with a succession of the seedy patrons, black and white; I can't hear what they're saying because of the thumping music, but I know he is trying to score drugs. The kid's eyes are bloodshot as boiled beets. Presently he moves over to the stage, motioning me to stay close to him. I can't see the knife but I know he's got it very handy. He begins playing with one of the "dancers", tossing large sprays of dollars onto her and onto the stage; the dollars flutter down and one falls on the floor by my feet. I pick it up and toss it onto the stage. The kid has an idiotic smile on his face as the dancer writhes closer to him, crotch foremost. I don't know if the other patrons notice me at all, or think that it is strange that I am looking so distracted. I am calculating: can I make it back to the car before he catches me? If I raise an alarm and shout a quick account of the situation, am I going to get out of this without being slashed? Probably not very good odds in a place like this. The kid had already shown me the deep self-inflicted wounds in his arm, and in his hip; back at my house, with one hand holding the knife, with the other he had pulled down his pants far enough to show me those; the cuts were numerous, and they were fresh; the kid is obviously suicidal and psychotic; as far as I can tell, completely unpredictable. My immediate plan is just to keep him calm, to be his friend, in so far as that is possible. All the patrons seem very comfortable to be in that place; they all comfortably meet and hold my eyes, if we happen to cross; this friendliness strikes me as incongruous in this place, in this situation, but it is oddly nourishing. But I am getting increasingly impatient, and soon I punch the kid's shoulder and shout into his ear over the music: "You should be saving your cash; you are going to need that. Straighten up, man. Come on, we have to hit the road." He replies,"Five more minutes; we'll leave soon." He has already used up almost $100 of the $500 he stole from his mother several hours ago, after breaking her arm and tying her up. 
     That is one of the many things he had told me in his initial raving, during our sudden confrontation back in my living room. He had entered my house through the unlocked back door while I was practicing piano, after he cased the house very thoroughly, going around it in the darkness and checking all the windows to make sure that I was the only one home. Another of the things he had told me - this was after he had been pointing the knife and shouting, "Do you like getting cut? Do you enjoy pain?" - is that he had just eluded a chopper that they had put in the air after him. He had made me sit on the couch, the knife inches from my eyes. "Do you have any idea how terrifying that is?" he had asked me wildly. I told him (and there's no doubt that the irony was completely lost on him) that I could imagine that it was. Then, in a calmer voice he told me, "That thing you played on the piano made me cry, man."
     I was puzzled: a few minutes ago, obviously unaware I had a "visitor", I had been going over and over a phrase from a piece I'm trying to learn that I can't play yet, a Chopin waltz that is well above my skill level. I told him, "That was just a thing I can't play, that I'm trying to learn." He said, "No, not that thing; that was fucked up. I mean the thing you played before that. It made me cry, man." I thought back to what I was playing earlier; it had been some Bach, which I can play alright, with a few mistakes. He had been listening out there for awhile.
     Then still holding the knife, he had asked me if anyone else was coming to the house. My alarm increasing, I had told him my wife was due back at any minute. He came to a sudden decision: "Get your things: whatever you need; you'll be gone for eight hours; you're driving me to New York. Hurry up. Now!" he told me, "I don't want to have to tie anyone else up." I hurriedly got my jacket and gloves, dreading to see my wife returning, and we went out the door to the car; he staying within a foot of me all the time. I have weapons in the house, but in my agitation I couldn't even think where they were, which one I could try for; anyway, there was nothing I could get to, and now the point was moot; we were out the door, and we headed out onto the highway.
     As we drove, he became more relaxed; he asked me what books I have read. We talked about Dostoevsky, Hawthorne, Kerouac; we talked about life, and what makes life worth living. For him at that point, there seemed to be nothing. He told me he has a stack of letters to his ex girlfriend, which will never be sent. I suggest that he should send that letter; maybe she is thinking of him too. He rejects the notion. I have to occasionally ask him to define a word he uses. This is astonishingly rare for me, as I have a huge vocabulary, but his is bigger. He is well educated and very intelligent. He recently got kicked out of the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy, for doing drugs. I notice that there is a frayed rip on the sleeve of his coat; I find it curious that he would be wearing an old coat like that.
     No need to tell all the things that happened in the five hours we were together; suffice to say that it was surreal; at times I felt like I was opening my heart to an old friend and vice versa, although the dread was always present. He smoked cigarettes during the ride, and I would ask him to just crack the window an inch. He would say, "Sure, man." and do it. I begged him not to make me drive all the way to New York; to let me drop him at a bus station. He agreed. We stopped in a couple of cities, but nothing was working for him, and then he suggested New Haven, where the commuter rail runs frequently. We headed there. But then the mood became much more tense again, in the few minutes before I dropped him at the New Haven commuter station around 1:00am; this being the moment of greatest danger for himself if he let me go, and consequently dangerous for me since he might decide not to. I had no idea what it would be until the last moment. During our ride, he had repeatedly demanded assurances that I would make no signal, or give any alarm, and I had had no choice but to give those assurances. But he did let me go, and as he got out of the car he turned back and said, "I hope you have an easy ride home. Don't call the cops too soon. Thanks for the ride." He got out of the car under the streetlights there by the station. I blasted off and did not look back.
     My reasons for not going straight to the cops are complex. My first thought was to get home as soon as possible. I was still so shaken up - not thinking straight - that one of the possibilities that occurred to me was that I would not report the incident at all, for the several reasons that I have already expressed in this story. In my state of shock, it actually did not occur to me until 15 minutes before my arrival back home, that the kid's mother might still be tied up, and maybe even dying. So my ambivalence completely disappeared at that point, and when I arrived home shortly after that, at 4am, I woke up my wife, briefly told her the story, and we called the police.
     My wife had known that something unusual was going on, because on the outbound ride, the kid had had me stop to phone home. This was his idea, as a safety measure for himself. We had carefully worked out what I would say, and then we stopped at a service area to borrow a phone, as neither of us had one. (He had ditched his, and I've never owned one.) So I had called home from the highway, and given my wife the exact message that we had agreed on: "I won't be home tonight. I am fine, there's nothing to worry about, but I can't talk now. I will tell you all about it when I get home." That's all I said, and after a moment's hesitation, she said "Ok," and we hung up. Getting back onto the highway after that, my whole sense of the unreality of the situation was re-doubled. Later on, my wife told me that she had been extremely curious, but not alarmed.
      So now I was back home, and we called the police; within minutes they had several cruisers over to the house, and they took my detailed statement. They knew exactly who I was talking about; they were actively looking for him, and confirmed everything he had told me, including the chopper in the air. The mother was safe, having already gotten medical attention and was currently at a safe house. It turns out her arm was not broken.
     The police were out of my house by 6am that morning; later that same morning they were back with a detective, for photos of the crime scene and further statements from me, and the FBI showed up the following day, since having crossed state lines, it is a federal kidnapping case among many other charges. All the authorities assured me repeatedly that I had done everything right. They didn't fault me in the least for waiting so long before I called, although truthfully, I'm not so sure myself. I keep second-guessing everything I might have done differently, but that's the way it went down and I have to live with it. During the lengthy FBI meeting at my house the second day, the timer went >ding< in the kitchen, and I excused myself to go turn off the burner. One of the men called out, "I hope you made enough for everybody." I came back in to the living room, and responded by saying, "You guys never brought me donuts." FBI people can laugh.
     During the next two days, a succession of media reporters with cameramen kept showing up to my house, all of which I turned away. Still, it was all over the news wires for a couple of days; some of the accounts a bit garbled but essentially all there; withholding my name thankfully, but not his. Annoyingly, many of the reports stated that the knife had been recovered in the victim's car, which was not true. He had left some of his junk, including a box cutter, but that was not the knife he had held on me. In the stories, they already had clear surveillance photos of the kid from one of the places we had stopped, by way of alerting the public of an armed and dangerous suspect at large, and where he might be seen. Then, three days after the attack, Florida deputies picked up the kid in Key West; he was driving a stolen car, and was arrested at a convenience store without incident. He is now awaiting trial in Florida and then Massachusetts, on serious charges too numerous to mention: very deep waters indeed for a 23-year-old "with priors", as he had told me during our ride. One of the (lesser) charges against the kid is armed burglary, because on the way out of my house, he had grabbed a bottle of wine. He had made me a drink it with him while we were on the highway. It felt funny to be telling that to the cops, and one of them even joked that he was going to have to charge me with that.

     The incident was five days ago as I write. My local police contacted me immediately on the morning of the kid's arrest in Florida, two days ago now, to let me know. It felt like a giant cinderblock had just been lifted off my chest.