(Originally posted 11/25/09 on Open Salon)
In early 2003, a 20-year-old convenience store clerk named Eric Pearson was gunned down during a particularly senseless robbery. According to reports Eric was too slow in producing the cash from the register in the anxious mind of the gun-toting perpetrator. Maybe the dude needed a little coaching…
I clerked, managed and supervised in the convenience store industry for over twenty years. Early on in my career, March of 1981, I had the pleasure of getting robbed at gunpoint while pulling a graveyard shift. Shortly after the incident I met a character that, rather suspiciously, seemed to know a lot about my robbery. He offered counsel to me in his way and gave me some insight into the mindset of those who commit cheap robberies. His name was Donald.
Donald was a customer of the store. He befriended me shortly after the night I was robbed. He knew a lot about the situation because, as he put it, he had heard talk around the low-income high-rise where he lived.
He knew some guys that knew some things, he said in his whispery voice. The guys told him that a “Larry” had pulled my caper. They told him what Larry had said. He said it was like “taking candy from a baby”.
Donald had a way of just appearing at the front counter. I wouldn’t notice him pulling up in his car or walking into the store. He would just sort of materialize there. A short light-skinned freckled man in his early thirties, he walked with a decided limp; probably caused by a birth defect that left one leg shorter than the other. He favored surplus military clothes and wore an olive drab jungle hat; something like you’d see guys in ‘Nam wearing.
He spoke to me in hushed conspiratorial tones about my robbery and some others that the guys talked about. He talked MOs and strategy. He dissected technique. He was a student of the game. He seemed to like the drama of it all.
I thought he was enamored of these types of cops and robbers scenarios because he envied the players in the game because his own deformity did not allow him to participate. He sure knew the turf. He was like the Mel Kiper of convenience store robberies in the Twin Cities of the early 80s.
I was glad to have the company because after the robbery I became a little skittish about working in the neighborhood. I worked the overnight shift — alone, of course. The store was a grubby converted gas station that stayed busy because of its location. The owners and managers of the store were an equally grubby bunch who didn’t concern themselves with security for the hapless saps like me who worked for them.
Being new in town I had no idea that I had taken a job in a highly dangerous area. I moved to Minneapolis from Washington, DC after a 9-month foray into California. In DC bad neighborhoods were easily identifiable by their decrepit and crowded conditions. In Minneapolis the bad neighborhoods have wide tree-lined streets, large parks, lakes and houses in quiet leafy yards. There are, of course, the low-income high-rises and impoverished sections; these places just look a little nicer here.
In fact, the clerk job was the second of two jobs that I took on as a career in the resume writing field turned out not to be the lucrative prospect that brought me to the City of Lakes. That was why I was so tired when the robber popped into the store. It was about 4:00AM. Not wearing a mask or hood this guy casually walked to the back of the store and got a soda from the cooler.
He put the soda on the counter and I, thinking he was some guy on his way to work, drowsily rang the sale. “Give me the money”, he said tersely. Those were the words I feared and hearing them I snapped awake. A 38-caliber pistol was now on the counter next to the soda. Shocked, I complied.
Next the words that stopped time for me. Words I just knew I would hear if I were ever robbed — “Turn around and walk slowly to the back.”
Donald later told me this was part of Larry’s technique; making them walk to the back gave him enough time to make it to the getaway car before the police could be called. Maybe I had seen too many movies in which the clerk got plugged because he had seen the bad guy’s face, but I was petrified and could barely coax my body into that dreadful pirouette.
My back tightened and I shook in anticipation of the bullet that I thought would soon crash through me. I was convinced that it had all come to end in a filthy gas station. Is this all there is Peggy Lee? I studied Latin, said rosaries, and read the works of William Fucking Faulkner! Am I to be splayed on the dirty tile floor of this shitball gas station my innards and blood pooling around stacked cartons of Kools, Marlboros and Virginia Slims? I made my clutched-sphincter way to the back room as instructed. Thankfully Larry had a quick escape in mind and didn’t add murder to his rap sheet. This type of thinking seems to elude today’s low-grade brand of desperadoes who’ll shoot you for being too slow or for no reason at all.
I can imagine Donald commenting on the style of the primal morons that shot Eric Pearson that night. He’d probably think that they blew a sweet and easy thing. I can almost hear that quiet smoky voice. He could sure make things sound so dramatic.
Despite my suspicions I liked that little guy and was grateful for his company and counsel. Perhaps in the world that Donald knew, I with my naiveté and ignorance was the one with the deformity and he took pity on me.
He made me smarter. I got to the point where I could spot his car pulling into the lot and he couldn’t just pop up in front of the counter like he did when I first met him. I worked in convenience store industry for the next two decades in various capacities. I was never robbed again.
I last learned about Donald when his car was pictured on the front page of the newspaper a couple of months after my incident. His distinctive ride lay on its side at the end of a dirty alley near the miserable high-rise where he lived; this the aftermath of a fiery crash and shoot-out with the police at the end of a dramatic high-speed chase. This was just the kind of drama that Donald loved. Police had interrupted a robbery in progress at a convenience store in St. Paul and chased them into Minneapolis.
I didn’t know if Larry was in the car or not nor did I care. Donald was pronounced dead at the scene in his car. He went out in a twisted blaze of glory. He was in that group that he had told me about, a robber after all – the getaway driver.
I was chagrinned and saddened at the same time. If ever there was a crime that does not pay it is robbing a convenience store; believe me the people who run those places are not going to put any of their real money in jeopardy.
What pathetic motivation caused Donald to put himself in such a position? Could it just have been the thrill of the chase; playing cops and robbers? I wonder if that same type of thinking prompted the unnecessary murder of Eric Pearson.
Maybe it would help end these pathetic incidents if the potential players could hear from someone from inside the game; someone who knows the score. Someone who could let them know the pointlessness. Give them a few tips. Someone like the quirky guy in the odd hat who helped me.
Hard to understand
What a hell of a man
This cat of the slum
Had a mind, wasn’t dumb
But a weakness was shown
‘Cause his hustle was wrong
His mind was his own
But the man lived alone
Curtis Mayfield, Superfly