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How I Lost My Dictionary

When it was over, when they'd driven away and I realized I wasn't dead, I still had the dictionary.


I didn't know the word. Some people, I suppose, would know the word and thereby know what was happening to them while it was happening. I didn't know it. For a long time I wondered, would it have been different had I known the word? Would I have thought: I'm being carjacked. Would it have made any difference?

Weeks later I read that it had happened to Queen Latifah, and I wondered if she was thinking, "Carjack!" when it happened. Did Queen Latifah know the word? My guess is she did. It's not an arcane term. Or so this is what I discovered after it happened.

After it happened -- right after -- I ran. But first, I dropped my American Heritage 4th Edition. I was carrying the dictionary when it happened. I was also carrying a red purse. When it was over, when they'd driven away and I realized I wasn't dead, I still had the dictionary, which I was bringing to the apartment I'd recently moved into. I dropped it, and then I ran.

Maybe the dictionary seemed too heavy. Maybe I feared it would slow me down. I'm not sure; I don't remember these things. I do remember that I ran. I ran past an old woman who was crossing the street. As I ran, I saw how close she was to me and to what had just happened. I looked at her, hoping she could help me. She started speaking rather insistently in Polish. She pointed toward the dictionary. I could not understand what she was asking me or telling me, though I sensed I was being scolded.

I knew she could not help me, and it made me feel more vulnerable hearing this language spoken that I could not understand. So I kept running. I left her there, standing over my discarded dictionary, which was lying still and open in the middle of the street. I can only imagine that she picked it up and brought it inside with her. She was on her way home, I guessed, to the house in front of which I had been muggedcarjacked, I mean. The Polish womanand this failure of communication, this inability to connect despite witnessing the eventadded to my discomposure and panic. And so I kept running.

After it happened, I told people about the situation and about the Polish woman. Most people laughed or made a funny, ironic comment at this point in the story. "Maybe she is going to teach herself English," he or she would say. It was a joke. I think it made the person more comfortable, hearing the story, to have this place for a joke. I didn't mind. Usually I felt bad for having told them such a terrible story, to which they were ill equipped to respond. The joke gave the listener an out, as I saw it, from my lingering sense of terror and panic, which I'm certain I never failed to communicate.

I can see now that it began at this moment with the Polish woman. I began and have continued from this moment to fear a thing that was no longer there, but might possibly return. I ran down the empty street, away from the woman and from this thing that no longer existed. I knew the boys had driven away, but I could not feel safe. Rather, I could not cease feeling unsafe. I recall this now as the genesis of a feeling that remains with me more than one year latera sense of the danger that is waiting around the corner, the reality of an imminent threat. The irrational panic. The very real need to run for my life. The knowledge that my life is not granted, simply. The heavy sense of vigilance in want of its preservation.

After it happened, I told people I'd been mugged. That was the word I used: mugged. When I explained it in detail, a few corrected me, telling me that the word was, in fact, carjacked. Usually this implied, once they understood, that the word mattered and that I needed to use the right word; it made a difference. A carjacking after all implied something much larger than a mugging, or so they seemed to be telling me.

I told people how I begged: please do not hurt me. I offered my car: please take it. I told them that the younger boy opened the back door and that I begged him to let me go. I don't want to go with you.

But I don't know if that is exactly what I said. Please just take my car! Maybe that is what I said.

After it happened, the man who owns the old hardware store on Division, across from my apartment, told me that I did the right thing. Many people said this. It seemed to be a way of giving me credit or to consoling me when clearly I had been purely the victim. Something had happened, we all knew, that was utterly out of my control.

The man in the hardware store told me about a video he had seen on PBS made by a Chicago policeman, which instructed women on how to avoid being a victim. "The number one rule is to avoid getting in the car," he told me. "Once you are in the car, your chances of remaining alive go way down."

I thanked him for the information, though I couldn't help thinking how obvious it was. That is, I don't think I needed it explained to me to know that I did not want to get in the car with these boys who had a gun and were willing, from what they said, to shoot me. I would have done anything to remain outside of the car.

After it happened, I told everyone about it, how it happened that the two boys approached me as I walked away from my car. I told how the older boy was carrying a plastic bag, and when I turned toward him, he rushed me. He gripped my arm and put the gun to my back.

"Don't do anything stupid," he said. "This is a stick-up."

It occurs to me now that he did not perhaps need to define it so exactly, so precisely, with his words. Did I think it was something else? Did it matter what I thought, really, when there was a gun at my back?

Later that night, in the station, a police officer told me that it might not have been a gun. It may have been the boy's finger. This is what they do, he told me.

Later I thought about what he said, and the possibility that the boy did not have a gun. I thought about speech-act theory. Was I in fact the victim of the performance of a stick-up? Is that why he needed to say those words, which seemed so unnecessary at the time? This is a stick-up. If you say something, does it make it true? If you call your finger a gun, does it make you powerful? Do the words matter?

With or without a gun, the boy made it true. This is a stick-up. I believed him, and I believed in him, the boy and his performance of a stick-up. I still do.

"OK, yes," I told him, letting him know how compliant I would be. I felt the gun, or what I thought was a gun, at my back.

After it happened, I told people that I cried, but I think I just made small, frightened noises as I searched for my keys.

"Drop the purse," he demanded. I did.

"Where are the keys?" It was taking too long to find the keys. This isn't unusual, I wanted to tell him, but he became angry: Why is it fucking taking so long? He yelled in my ear. Don't do anything fucking stupid! He warned me. Of course, I would not, I told him. He was my master; there was a gun at my back. I looked for the keys. I can never find my keys. I realized how little reason there was to it all. I realized the absurdityhow quickly, simply and randomly it all might occur and that in the end I might be dead.

I told them how the older boy ran to start the car, and how the younger boy then took my arm. "Walk slowly," he said. He seemed to be high on something, and when I realized this, I became more afraid. We walked together slowly toward the car as the older boy tried to start it. I felt dizzy and began to swerve away from him.

"What are you doing?" he said. "Where are you going?"

"Nowhere," I assured him. I wanted him to believe me, but more than that I wanted to get away from him. We were at the car. He opened the back door.

"Get in!"

I begged him, "No, just take the car. I don't want to go."

He repeated, "Get in."

I stood there.

Finally, the boy who was driving opened his door and yelled, "Get in!"

The younger boy tried again to push me into the car.

"No, you get in," the older boy yelled at him. Immediately he did, leaving me standing by the side of the car. The car wheels squealed as he spun it out from the curb and around, driving back down the block toward Division Street, where I lived.

After it happened, I told people how it had occurred on Paulina where the street curves slightly, just between Division and Milwaukee. I told them how I ran past the Polish woman. I turned down Milwaukee Avenue and ran past the big Jewel across from the thrift stores. I told them how a man walked toward me as I ran, and he smiled broadly, in a way that seemed both campy and psychotic. I told how I had the sense of being in a bad David Lynch film as it was happening, even before my terror had subsided.

I told them that I finally arrived at a night-club that looked busy and well lit. I ran into the club and spoke to the waitress or hostess or manager. I could barely get out the words. I was crying and my body shook. I asked for the telephone: "I was mugged."

Is that what I said? I don't remember. There are words that I rememberwords I will never forget. Some words are central to memorythe experience is the words. Not here. Something within me, of my fear or of my shock, lost languageit ceased to claim its power as a medium.

Was it that I knew words, in this case, would not save me? With a gun held to my back, I cried and begged, but I knew that this had little to do with my eventual fate. I knew what it felt like to be alive at that instant, and I knew too whether or not I would remain alive had little to do with melittle to do with anything I could say or do.

To the owners of the nightclub, I said, "They took my car," and, "They put a gun to my back. Can I use a phone? I have to call the police." They took me to the kitchen and gave me the telephone. Someone brought me water. Someone else told me to calm down. It was good advice; I would have followed it if it were possible. (I don't think I've calmed down yet. Just last night I ran the entire three blocks to my apartment from where my car was parked. I was carrying three heavy bags and intermittently swaying off-balance.) I don't think much anymore about what it is that I fear or even what I am running from; I simply run. I feel it sharplythe impulse, the desire, the needand so I run. There is nothing more to it.

After it happened, for a few days anyway, I would come home to more voicemail messages than I had ever received before. All the members of my rather large family called me: my father and stepmother called, my two brothers, my sisters, a stepsister. My uncle the policeman called, and so did his wife, my aunt. My godparents called. Two weeks later I saw everyone at Thanksgiving dinner. At first we spoke of it obliquely. Then I mentioned how my students had asked, when I told them the story, "Was he black?"

"He was," I answered, "But that doesn't matterwhite people commit crimes, too."

"Do white people commit crimes as often?" my brother asked.

"No," my other brother answered for everyone, including meand offered a statistic to mark the clear racial difference among perpetrators of crime.

"And what does that mean?" I asked. "That I should go around fearing every black man I see, like most white people do? That I should blame black people for what happened to me? That I should forget we live in a racist, severely segregated and economically disparate society"

Actually, that isn't what I said. I may have said something of the first sentence, but I did not make it to the last. I don't know what I said, but I do know that I don't want the experience to make me a racist. Even though something in my body can not cease to be afraid as I walk down city streets these days, something in my mind can avoid shrinking, reducing itself to this convenient, popular and reactionary logic.

After it happened I called my boyfriend. He wasn't home, and his roommate answered the telephone and told me he had gone out to dinner, which was something I knew. I said, OK, thanks, in a mildly cheerful way.

The policemen arrived then, so I hung up the telephone. I wanted them to see me, to know who had called. They brought me to the squad car. There were three policemenI am not sure why. I told them what happened. They asked me to describe the car and the men who stole it, and then we drove around the neighborhood, I suppose in an effort to find the car. It seemed clear that the boys who stole my car were not going to be cruising around the neighborhood, but I did not say anything. I told them the address of where it occurred, and they drove there. Right here? I said yes, and pointed to where I had dropped the dictionary. For months afterward, I felt sad about losing the dictionary, though I knew that it was not the thing to be focusing on.

Published: August 01, 2005
Issue: Fall 2005