30 years ago today

Thirty years ago today I was held up and shot in the head at point blank range. The bullet remains lodged in my brain. If you think this is a difficult day for me, it is anything but. In fact, the anniversary of the shooting finds me with an extra spring in my step, as the saying goes. First, the remarkable truth and gift that I still have my life is never lost on me on this day. That truth has a little extra glow to its already formidable luster.

I don’t spend a lot of time (anymore) thinking about the details of that morning. I was held up by two people, one, a teenager, was the shooter. I never did see the second person, the one who emptied my pockets while the kid held the gun to the side of my head. It was around five in the morning and it was dark and no one except the three of us was around.  After the person relieved me of the $63 in my pockets, the kid shot. I came to on the ground and somehow, I have no idea how because I have no memory of it, I got back to my feet. Soon a voice from down the street called out to me. I saw a slender man in pajamas hurrying towards me. I would later  learn his name. Mark Jenkinson. He was and is an extraordinary photographer and gifted writer.

The reality of that experience was, and in some respects, still  is,  out of my comprehension’s reach. I didn’t learn how far out of reach until the first year anniversary when I got together for dinner with friends, including Mark, at the 7A Café in the Lower East Side.  It was Mark who introduced me to  how beyond my comprehension’s reach that morning was, and how remarkable the human mind is at getting us through life’s rougher waters.

We sat together at dinner’s end and I told him my memory of that morning. That I’d heard him call out and when he reached me he took me by the arm and said, “My wife’s calling the police and ambulance,” and how we began walking towards his house and how I could see he was struggling to stay composed because I was bleeding profusely (20 percent of your body’s blood supply is in your head) and how when I saw police cars from the NYPD’s 84th Precinct in Brooklyn coming up the street I pulled him into the street and flagged them down because I was afraid they wouldn’t see us in the dark and that would mean the end of me.  And, how, when they stopped, I got into the back of the lead cop car under my own steam.

Mark gave me a gentle smile and said, “You’re completely wrong. The only thing you’re right about is you were lucid. The fact is you kept falling down and getting up when I saw you.” He went on to explain that he was laying me down on the front steps of his house when the police arrived and that I had to be helped into the back of the cop car. His more accurate memory of that morning was, while emotional to absorb, comforting because it made more sense. I realized that my memory of that morning reflected the mind’s capacity for survival. My mind was only allowing me to perceive what it could handle. Had it let me know the reality of my physical condition my ability to be lucid would have perished, and I probably would have to.

So, here’s to the miracle of life. Here’s to the all too few truly courageous and compassionate people like Mark, and lastly, here is my message to you. Remember to live. Please remember to live.

Stride on brother from Brooklyn to Boylston

From Brooklyn to Boylston people live dreams

On honored hopes and shaky legs hopin God keeps’m strong

While Phil sings dance into the light  from across the pond so

Stride on brother

*

Lives made of secrets poison souls and hearts

Offer no happy endings sunnier days for the poison makers

So like Randy did his part  so did you

Stride on brother

*

Wishin  dreams come true for  Brooklyn and  Boylston

May the crooked words straighten and the shaky legs get strong

Knowing honesty needs no retreat or surrender

Stride on brother

 

 

 

Breaking Hills Redux

Back in 2003 I began training for my first lengthy bicycle ride, a 175-mile trek from where I was shot in Brooklyn to Albany. I live in a very hilly area so I began thinking of a motivational term I could link to the challenge of reaching the top of a steep and, at times, lengthy climbs.  Finally I decided on breaking hills. Breaking the hill meant defeating the climb, taking the challenge and pushing through it no matter how grueling.

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I am back on the bike breaking hills and loving every minute of it. Perhaps a recent reduction in coffee intake,  which brought about a nice drop in anxiety levels, helped me rediscover the joy of getting back on a bike and going for it. Then too, there has always been something about taking on a physical challenge, getting back in touch with my body, that I’ve found emotionally and spiritually healing.

Many years ago, around 1986 I’d guess, after nearly a year in seclusion, I began  going to the 23rd Street YMCA actually named the McBurney YMCA with my friend Dane.  The nine-story McBurney YMCA was built in 1869. When Dane and I went I’d play racquet ball, diving all over the court with a somewhat manic little boy joy. I was genuinely saddened when I learned the YMCA closed its doors there and reopened on 14th Street. I find it hard to believe that the Michael Bloomberg era of money first tradition last had nothing to do with creating the atmosphere that led to the building conversion to a bunch of condominiums in 2004. 

Later, in 1991 I ran my first marathon and from 1991 to 1995 tacked on five more.

At any rate, the spiritual glory of breaking hills is on me again. Recently a man in Long Island asked me if I was planning to do any more lengthy bike rides. I did the 175 mile ride  in 2003 and a 1,000 mile ride in 2004. I surprised myself when, without pausing, I said, “Yeah, why not?”

And I meant it.

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GET THAT NIGGER!

This is an excerpt from the memoir. In a day when too many are still addicted to violence, it seems real violence, like that in this chapter, ought to make your gut churn.

It is 1981 and I am walking down Court Street in Brooklyn with a friend of mine named Charlie. We hear angry voices behind us yelling and screaming. We turn and see a young black man running his heart out down the center of Court Street. He is coming towards us and maybe 20 angry young white male teenagers are chasing him. The young black man who looks to be in his twenties runs past us, his face lit wild with terror.

Voices scream, “Get that fucking nigger! Get that nigger!”

I tell Charlie get to the other side of the street, lets stay with this.

We are running on either side of the angry crowd of young whites now, watching what happens. Some are carrying sticks, pieces of two-by-four. One carries a piece of rebar about the length of a baseball bat. I am hoping the young black man gets away.

He doesn’t.

They catch him and the angry young white boy with the rebar slams it across the back of the young black man. He crumbles to the ground. He tries to get up but another angry young white breaks a piece of wood across his back. The young black man now wobbles upwards, but he is downed again when a bottle smashes across his head. There is blood everywhere now. He is on the ground screaming.

“Please God don’t kill me! Please God! Please God! I have a wife and children! Please God! Please God don’t let them kill me!”

I lock eyes with Charlie and motion for him to call the police. I move fast into the crowd, reaching the young black man through a barrage of kicks and punches. There is a pause in the violence, a sudden quiet, the angry mob not knowing what to make of me. I pull the young black man up into my arms and hold him against a parked car so it shields him on one side. I shield him on the other.

We are surrounded by anger and hatred, the white teens reach past me to punch him and I push him down out of their reach. They are the clean cut Italian boys from the neighborhood, I am the long haired one with an earring and beard. I know I am a look they are not used to, a look they are wary of. Ignorance is not bliss. Sometimes its an ally. One boy reaches in and I drive my hand into his throat, pushing him back into other boys and glare as viciously as I know how. I know they must think I am willing to kill one of them.

Again some surge forward and try to reach past me and punch him. When this happens, I push the young black man back into a crouch , keeping him out of reach and firing hard vicious words like bullets back into the the pack of angry white teens. A pack that is now nothing more than a single rage-filled being: seething, pulsing, breathing as one, dripping with hate.

I say, “The fuck you doing? You really want to kill him? You want to go to jail for him? You want to die tonight?”

One reaches in again and again I drive my hand into a throat. Our eyes meet. I know if this mob explodes into us I will have to damage or kill someone quickly. Suddenly a big Italian man joins me in protecting the young black man. He is older than all of us, huge and burly and powerful, no nonsense. His presence nearly stills the mob completely. Later I find out he is one of the powers in the neighborhood and deeply respected by all.

Police units arrive and take the bleeding terrified young man to the hospital. I thank the big Italian man. He says, “Hey, I hear him say he got a wife and kids. That’s all I gotta hear. The man’s got family.”

The police say they are taking the young black man to Long Island College Hospital. The police are from the 84th Precinct, the same precinct that will save my life three years later.
_________________________________________________________________________________

MEMOIR EXCERPT: I REMEMBER

Dear Reader,

From time to time in this blog, though not in awhile, I publish an excerpt from the memoir I am working on. I am closing in on the end of this task, a scary and emotional proposition. When writing the following piece, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. In fact, when it got to the part where the young man is begging for his life, I had to get up and leave the writing table. I did not return until the next day. It is striking to me how one can have a memory, much like something on a shelf, and manage its presence with some semblance of composure, yet, when you write the memory, you take it down from the shelf and live it. And then there is little shelter. Anyway, thank for for taking the time to read this, and I hope your life and the life of your loved ones is going well.

Peter S. Kahrmann, April 7, 2008

_______________________

I remember.

It is 1981 and I am walking down Court Street in Brooklyn with Charlie, a friend of mine. We hear angry voices behind us yelling and screaming. We turn and see a young black man running his heart out down the center of Court Street. He is coming towards us and he is being chased by maybe 20 angry young white boys, mostly teenagers. The young black man who looks to be in his twenties runs past us. His face is lit wild with terror.

Voices scream, “Get that fucking nigger! Get that nigger!” I tell Charlie get to the other side of the street, lets stay with this.

We are running on either side of the angry crowd of young whites now, watching what happens. Some are carrying sticks, pieces of two-by-four. One carries a piece of rebar about the length of a baseball bat. I am hoping the young black man will get away.

He doesn’t.

They catch him and the angry young white with the rebar slams it across the back of the young black man. He crumbles to the ground. He trys to get up but another angry young white breaks a piece of wood across his back. The young black man wobbles upwards and is downed again when a bottle is smashed across his head. There is blood now. He is on the ground screaming. “Please God don’t kill me! Please God! Please God! I have a wife and children! Please God! Please God don’t let them kill me!”

I lock eyes with Charlie and motion for him to call the police. I move fast into the crowd, reaching the young black man through a barrage of kicks and pounches. There is a pause in the violence, a sudden quiet, the angry mob does not know what to make of me. I pull the young black man up into my arms and hold him against a parked car so it shields him on one side. I shield him on the other.

Some in the angry mob try to reach past me and punch him. When this happens, I push the young black man into a crouch so he is out of reach and aim hard words back at the crowd, now nothing more than a single rage-filled being: seething, pulsing, breathing as one, dripping with hate.

I say, “What the fuck are you doing? You really want to kill him? You want to go to jail for him?”

One reaches in again. I shove him back hard and our eyes meet. I know if this mob explodes into us I will have to damage or kill someone quickly. Suddenly a big Italian man joins me in protecting the young black man. He is older than all of us, huge and burly, powerful, no nonsense. His presence nearly stills the mob completely. Later I find out he is one of the powers in the neighborhood and deeply respected by all.

Police units arrive and take the bleeding terrified young man to the hospital. I thank the big Italian man. He says, “Hey, I hear him say he got a wife and kids. That’s all I gotta hear. The man’s got family.”

The police say they are taking the young black man to Long Island College Hospital. The police are from the 84th Precinct, the same precinct that will save my life and take me to the same hospital just three years later.