Most people get one defining moment in life – a split second, an hour, a day, maybe a week or longer – when something happens, and they know things will never again be the same. I’ve had two. The first was September 11, 2001, the day I watched the second tower of the World Trade Center go down, seemingly in slow motion, from the vantage point of Avenue of the Americas in New York City.
The other day that will live in infamy? February, 18, 2007, the day I was robbed in my apartment in Buenos Aires by three men, at screwdriver point.
Yes, that’s right – assault with a deadly screwdriver!
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, five months and two days after I’d begun my self-imposed exile from New York City by moving to Buenos Aires. I was returning home from picking up lunch (a cheese omelet, French fries and freshly squeezed orange juice) at my favorite neighborhood café. I was in a fantastic mood, mid-daydream, thinking about the gorgeous 25-year-old lawyer I’d met the night before at Glam who’d left my place just a little while ago. Had I finally struck hook-up gold after months of kissing toads? What would I wear for our date that evening?
When the elevator opened on my floor, I stepped out and noticed that the door to my apartment was open. Three men were standing there, waiting for me. They were dressed like maintenance workers, so at first, I assumed there was some problem in my apartment, perhaps a leak, and the super had let them in so they could fix it. The building had been completed only a couple of months earlier, and most of the apartments in it were still unoccupied.
The men began motioning for me not to say a word, covering their mouths with their index fingers as they approached me. Obviously, this was no maintenance call, but I still didn’t understand what was happening, so I continued trying to come up with reasonable explanations in my head.
Perhaps they had received a tip that there was a burglar in my one-bedroom studio, and they were about to pounce on him, and didn’t want to give themselves away. Yes, a ridiculous assumption, I know, but in defining moments such as this one, the mind works in mysterious and not necessarily rational ways. You respond in a manner that you never would have predicted five minutes earlier.
When they grabbed me and began to drag me into my apartment, my next impression was this was a racially motivated hate crime. I’d been told that despite appearances – lustful porteños, as the native citizens of BA are called, fawning over the new black guy in town – Argentines have a strong racist streak. But these guys had broken into my apartment before I’d arrived home. How could they have known what color I am? In fact, they seemed genuinely surprised when the elevator door opened. Clearly, they weren’t expecting a tall, black guy to step off. There were, like, none of us running around BA!
Maybe they were part of some terrorist plot to kidnap American expatriates in BA. We were beginning to overrun the place. I’d say that I’d watched too many action movies, but I’m more into psychological dramas and character studies. I’d seen Jodie Foster in Panic Room and Flight Plan, though. I knew I had to kick ass and save my butt. So I fought back, battling odds and burglars that were stacked against me. Three against one. It wasn’t fair. But life isn’t fair. If it were, I still would have been daydreaming about my handsome lawyer.
At the time, I’d been taking private Spanish lessons only for a few months, so I still spoke very little Spanish and couldn’t make out what they were saying. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, the sight of one of them threateningly holding a screwdriver over my face was worth a million. None of them could possibly describe my fear, nor were any needed to incite it. That screwdriver told me all I needed to know.So I fought harder. Soon we were on the bathroom floor, struggling. I looked out of the window and thought about my mother. Although we had not been on speaking terms for more than a year, I couldn’t do this to her. She’d already lost one child, my sister, who died in infancy a few years before I was born. Although she never really talked about Josie Ann, all of my life, whenever I looked at my mom and noticed a faraway look in her eyes, I always assumed she was thinking about the daughter and sister neither one of us ever got to know.
I couldn’t die on my bathroom floor in a pool of blood. It was fight or fright, and I was going with the former. I managed to get the screwdriver from the one guy by grabbing it by the blade (securing myself a permanent scar between the index and middle finger of my left hand in the process) and tossing the weapon behind the toilet.
They’d taken my belts from my closet, and the guy who’d been wielding the screwdriver began to tie one of them into a noose. Oh no! My mind was racing to the worst imaginable place: They’re going to hang me from the shower curtain rod! (Never mind that it was adjustable – as I’ve already pointed out, this was not the time for rational thinking.)
Just when I began to fear that maybe it was all over for me, it dawned on me: They weren’t out to kill me. Come on, I thought, this is three against one. If they wanted to eliminate me, they would have done so by now. They were robbing me! They were fucking robbing me!
“Take what you want!” I shouted. “And get the fuck out of here!” Bastards!
They seemed to understand. Once I’d suspended my struggle, they used one of my belts to tie my feet together and another to tie my hands behind my back. Then they gagged me with the pink bandana I kept tied around the handle on my suitcase to set it apart from the others on the airport carousel whenever I traveled.
They wanted to blindfold me, but always the diva, I wouldn’t let them. They didn’t insist; they left me in the bathroom and went back to their business. It took me less than a minute to untie myself, and I considered going out and fighting some more. But common sense prevailed, and I waited until I heard them leave, locking me inside the apartment, before I emerged from the bathroom.
I ran to the balcony and started screaming: “Help! Help! I’m being robbed! They’re coming back to kill me!” Luckily, some people were sunbathing on the roof of the apartment building below, and they called the police.
I surveyed the damage while I waited for the cops to arrive. Whenever I tell this story, the first thing everyone asks is “What did they take?” as if I’d not only buried the lede but forgotten it entirely, as if loss of material possessions somehow overrides potential loss of life on the scale of things most likely to cause post-traumatic stress and recurring nightmares.
But to answer the question, they took nearly everything of value, minus the furniture. They stole my TV, my laptop (it was time for an upgrade anyway, as my friend Dave would point out a few days later, trying to inject a bit of gallows humor into what I was calling my near-death experience), my DVDs, my portable DVD player, a bedspread (?!), a wallet filled with cash, credit cards and my ATM card, and my cell phone (with the lawyer’s phone number – so much for our hot date!). They let me keep my books (all in English, so of use only to the most highly literate South American robbers), my radio-cassette-DVD-player combo, and my iPod, which I’d refused to give up in the bathroom struggle, shoving it into the pocket of my track pants (diva strikes again!).
The cops arrived shortly thereafter. Through the peephole, I could see three of them slowly approaching the front door, guns drawn. They were able to enter the apartment because the robbers, interestingly, had left my keys in the lock – a sign that this may have been an inside job, possibly arranged by people who had worked on the building while it was still under construction, and therefore would have had keys to the entrance door, which like nearly all apartment-building doors in BA, couldn’t have been opened from the inside or outside without a key.
After the dust, and my head, cleared, I decided that a fourth partner had been hiding in the white van I’d noticed outside on my way into the building. (I’d assumed somebody was moving in.) He’d warned my three attackers of my imminent arrival, which is why they had been waiting for me when the elevator door opened. But the lookout guy must have failed to provide them with a full description of me. In the aftermath of the robbery, with clear thinking once again prevailing, I could have sworn they looked slightly stunned that I wasn’t a gringo tourist.
I had to do the detective work on my own. The police weren’t much help. As is so often the case in Argentina, they were more concerned with procedure and filling out forms than catching the bad guys. I could go on and on here about the cops in BA — over the next four years, we’d become too well acquainted.
Over the next few days, several people told me that pretty much everyone who lives in Buenos Aires has an experience like this at some point. It’s almost like a rite of passage. The police don’t treat it like a big deal because to them, it’s not. Shockingly, some of my Argentine “friends” (now ex-friends) concurred and reacted in kind.
It was my first major learning experience in Argentina (with so many more to come – thankfully, none quite so violent). A woman who lived on the fourth floor, two stories down, also was robbed that day, but she was fortunate enough not to have arrived home in the middle of it. She told me that in a month, my life would be back to normal. I’d forget that it ever happened. I didn’t see how that was possible, but I thanked her for her support.
In the end, she was only half right: My life did go back to normal, but I didn’t forget any of it. I’ll never forget. I spent the next week in a rental apartment in another part of the city because I couldn’t bear to return to the scene of the crime. Not yet. When I finally did, five days later so that I could let the cops in to sweep the place for fingerprints, which turned out to be another exercise in ineptitude that probably should have been done on the day of the burglary, I had to go to the parrilla across the street and ask one of the guys who worked there to accompany me upstairs to my apartment – just in case.
That night I had a breakdown in the middle of an after-hours club. I’m not sure what precipitated it, but all of the post-traumatic stress of the attack and robbery washed over me like a tidal wave. One moment, I was ready to party, the next I was sobbing uncontrollably on the sidewalk outside of the club, carrying on and screaming that the robbers were going to come back and finish me off. I completely lost it. I must have used up all my tears that morning because I don’t believe I’ve cried like that since.
The psychological scars took longer to heal than my cuts and bruised ribs did. It probably didn’t help my mental cause that I hung onto the blood-stained bandana/gag and the bloody hoodie that I had been wearing that day for months, without washing them. Once I got rid of all the forensic evidence, mental recovery finally was within my grasp.
The police never caught the guys who’d so violently invaded my personal space, which was hardly surprising to me, considering the lack of enthusiasm and the botched fingerprints sweep. And the man I described for the sketch artist at the police station the next day could have been anyone. I must have seen him about a half dozen times in the weeks that followed!
Now I can tell people the story without flinching on the inside, and chuckle at my chutzpah. If anyone had asked me before that Sunday afternoon in February how I would react in a robbery situation, I never in a zillion years would have predicted that I would actually fight back. But that’s exactly what I did.
I learned a lot about myself and just as much about human behavior, who my real friends are, who my casual friends are, who my fair-weather friends are, and who just doesn’t give a damn. (They know who they are – and if they don’t, I do.) But most importantly, I learned a lot about myself and the sturdy stuff of which I’m made.
The incident changed me for better and for worse, too. Previously staunchly anti-gun, I considered exercising my right to bear arms before opting for an alarm system instead. I became harder, less trusting, something of an angry not-so-young man, ready to fight if someone crosses me (which would have made getting a gun a terrible idea indeed). Perhaps this me had always been lurking just under the surface, and it took being forced to fight for my life on a cold bathroom floor to bring him out into the open.
Though I’m not living in Buenos Aires at the moment, I still own the apartment. All signs of struggle are long gone. Looking around the place, you’d never know that one day someone thought he was going to die there. Of course, whenever a new renter moves in, the truth in advertising never includes anything about three men and a screwdriver. Some things are better left unsaid.
And it’s not like it was the last time that my BA apartment would be a crime scene.