Murder or suicide? Is your best-ever retort worth dying for?




I had already survived combat in Vietnam. I'd survived the belts, switches and fists that define child abuse, and a narrowly averted mid-air collision in a jetliner. But I often think that the closest I ever came to dying was that September night in 1978. And to think that the only witness to my final, albeit smart-ass, words would be the would-be killer himself.

But when one of those once-in-a-lifetime quips errupts from within wherever it is they bubble up inside of us, I believe we have to go for it --- even if it triggers your own violent demise. Now maybe I'm eing melodramatic here, but I've had the nightmares more than once --- especially after sharing my account of this near-death experience.

It was Wednesday. It was clear in L.A. I was teaching investigative reporting at a local university --- it was finals night on evening of the last class of the first course I had ever taught. As I drove my little, red pick-up truck with the white camper shell in the direction of the school, I felt increasingly guilty for the final exam I had constructed. It was the first one I'd ever written and I already knew that it would bring the night-class extension students to their knees. It was too late to redo it. I knew that my first student evaluations would be likely to contain veiled threats of violence at the very least. There's only one way out, I told myself. Only one possible remedy.

Bribery.

I had just enough time to stop at a supermarket and scramble for enough sweets, chips, sodas and goodies to please anyone's snack obsession. I was sure it would work.

But the unexpected side trip put the cabbash on me getting a parking place anywhere near the classroom. And there was no way I could carry the four bags of payola all the way from the fourth floor of a distant parking structure. But luck was with me that evening --- or so I thought when six empty parking spaces shouted out to me from right outside the entrance to my classroom's building. Sure, it was a delivery loading zone, with "tow away" signs as guardians.

But heck, nobody's going to be making deliveries on a Wednesday night --- except me, that is. All I'd have to do is make a couple of quick "deliveries", two bags at a time, hand out the goodies with the tests, get them started and then race back to move the little truck to the nearest parking structure, beyond the back of beyond.

I executed the plan flawlessly, but when I went outside to move my truck, a parking ticket had already found a resting place under my windshield wiper.

Fine, I told my self. I guess I've bought myself a parking space for the evening. I walked back to the classroom and nibbled on the snacks while the students sweated through the exam. Nobody seemed to be too angry with me.

Sometimes bribery works.

All but two of the students finished the exam before the class was scheduled to end. I reminded them that we would still be gathering for our traditional, after-class socializing session at the nearby deli off campus. I told them I'd be the last one to arrive.

I walked out alongside one of the last students was about to say, "Meetcha at the deli" when I noticed my truck --- no, I didn't notice my truck. Instead, I noticed a bunch of empty "loading zone" parking places. Those bastards had towed my truck! Jeez, I thought, these greedy campus cops have time to both ticket and then order a tow truck?

Fortunately, my studend --- Tom was his name --- agreed to drive me to the impound lot several miles away so that I could get my little truck. It was on a dark street in not the nicest part of town. It was a surprisingly junky looking place with what seemed like a graveyard --- or prison, maybe --- of forelorn vehicles that were waiting for someone to free them.

Tom and I walked up to counter. About 15 feet beyond the counter a tall motorcycle cop was bullshitting with the guy who was obviously in charge. Uh huh! Being an investigative reporter, I immediadly suspected that there was some kind of real life bribery going on. Sure, I thought. The cops ticket the cars, have a donut or two and then call on the contracted impound lot's tow truck drivers to kidnap the four-wheel victims and hold them for ransom. That explained everything.

Then I focused on the guy at the desk --- the guy running this operation. Even though he was sitting down, it was clear that he was big. He must have weight 350 pounds. He was dressed in a sort-of "biker modern" attire --- dirty denim pants and shirt, leather jacket, chains, tattoos, greasy hair down to his shoulders and a mean-looking black beard that framed dark eyes that absolutely meant business.

The only thing about him that was in any way normal was a cheap wristwatch with a brown leather band that didn't match anything he was wearing.

"I see you have my red pick-up out there. I came to see if I could . . ."

"Forty-three bucks!" he said with a raspy, don't-even-think-of-talking-me-down" voice. "It'll cost you 43 bucks to get tha vehicle back."

"I don't have 43 dollars on me, but maybe I could write you a . . ."

"No checks!"

"Okay, you'll accept my . . ."

"No credit cards! Cash only! Forty-three bucks!"

"Well," I said, "I don't have 43 buck with me." 

"What about your friend there? Does he have 43 bucks?" I wasn't about to ask my own student for a loan --- especially after that damned final exam and a ride to the impound lot.

"No," I said, "he doesn't have it either."

This was before ATMs were invented and it was 10:30 p.m. by this time.

"Does your old lady have 43 bucks?" he asked.

I lied to him. "My mother's dead." It didn't phase him a bit.

"Then I guess you're just out of luck," he grunted at me.

It was then that I remembered a technique that I had taught my reporting students --- a technique that has worked for me many times when someone behind a counter was not allowed to give me something I wanted.

"Say, has there ever been anyone else in my exact situation who found a creative way of solving this problem?"

 I thought that it was a useless long shot, but it worked.

He reached down with his giant hands and picked up a sheet of paper and looked at it.

"It says here that there's a CB radio behind the seat of that truck. I'll bet that's worth 43 bucks!"

Of course, I thought. Leave some collateral until I come up with the loot.

"Sure," I said. "I could let you hold onto it, but I don't really want to undo the wiring. But listen, I have a brand new timing light and dwell meter in the back of the truck. Would they do?"

"Are they worth 43 bucks?" He asked with a look of suspicion.

"Heck, I paid a hundred for them," I assured him.

"Let me see 'em," he said.

I went to the truck and returned with the two electronic tools --- still in their boxes --- and handed them to him. He looked at them for a few seconds, then handed them to the motorcycle cop. The cop gave him a nod.

"OK," the big man said sternly, "You go 24 hours to come up with 43 bucks or these babies is mine!"

He pushed his hands against the old desk and stood up. Yep, he was big. He walked toward us. I imagined that the little building should be shaking. "Sign this!"

Then he handed me that sheet of paper and started walking back. Tom and I looked at the sheet together. It was an inventory sheet that protects them from claims of missing stuff or of damage. I pointed to the line that said, "Paint: Chipped."

"My paint isn't chipped," I whispered to my student. "And look, it says my tires are worn! They're practically new." I was exagerating a bit, but we were having fun. Then we both looked at the bottom of the sheet where it said, "Inventoried by: Tiny."

We looked at each other, then at the big guy and then back at each other and nodded with muted laughter. I signed it, got my truck and drove to the deli. I made it a point to pay the bill with my American Express card and I accepted cash from the students. In the end, I left there with two 20-dollar bills and a five-dollar bill.

I returned alone to buy back my tools. This time, there was no police officer there and no student. It was just Tiny and me. I held up the cash and said, "I'm back. Just like I promised. Can I buy back my tools?"

"Have you got 43 bucks," he said with that same raspy voice.

"I sure do!" I fluttered the bills a bit so he would see that it wasn't just a twenty.

He pushed back from the desk, stood up and walked toward me to take the money. He looked at it for a couple of seconds and looked me in the eye.

"This isn't 43 bucks! This is 45 buck! Don't you have exact change?"

"No," I said.

"I don't think I have any change," he said as he walked back to the big desk. He opened a couple of drawers, rustled through the papers on his desk and even called the gas station across the street to see if they had change. They didn't.

OK, here's the part that still gives me nightmares. The words worked their way up from wherever they come and they completely ignored any cautionary voices or filters that say, "Don't do it! Don't say it! You're likely to get killed!"

It was too late to stop them and I even flinched a little when the words escaped my mouth.

"Tiny, I'll bet that watch you're wearing is worth two bucks!"

He started to rise.

"Uh, keep the change?" I said as I darted toward the door.

For the past 33 years, I've made it a point to park only in legal spaces. Oh, and I'm sure that Tiny had no intention of hurting me. These are things that combat veterans with PTSD think about.