1824 words (7 minute read)

The Strip District

Decades ago, every major city in the country had a neighborhood like the Strip, an organically-formed public marketspace the likes of which had mostly died out before I was born. In Pittsburgh, however, it was stronger than ever, a constant hub of human activity. On Saturday mornings, then and now, families converged on the Strip to buy fruits and vegetables at corner grocers, cross Penn Avenue for prosciutto and cheese at the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co.—where the friendly clerk calls every customer “dear heart”—then cross back over Penn to select dinner from the ice-packed fish counters of Wholey’s Market. It was always alive. And on this day, though I had no idea what I was doing or exactly what I was trying to achieve, I knew that the Strip was where I needed to be.

Cooper and I walked down Pig Hill, crossed the 31st Street Bridge and turned right onto Penn Avenue. At Penn and 21st Avenue, where the business district begins and the crowds thicken, we stood on the corner and took in our surroundings.

The Strip seemed to vibrate that day. There is always a buzz to the Strip, an almost musical cadence, with every visitor contributing a note. But it seemed somehow different that day—louder, more chaotic. Of course, it wasn’t. The Strip was as it always was. I, however, had changed. I perceived everything—every sound, thought and emotion. At first, I was unable to filter it all, to separate the useless from the important. My brain flickered as if caught between radio stations. I had to stop walking, close my eyes and focus. For several minutes, I brushed aside the distractions to find something that mattered. Finally, my mind began to sort through the confusion, and when my eyes opened, I focused immediately on a man.

He was across the street, standing in front of a tiny Slovak grocery store, which had the word potraviny etched into the glass front. I knew this store. They carried a brand of chocolate not made in America that Pacy adored, and I bought two bars there every year on her birthday and again at Christmas. They also served homemade bryndzove halusky and pirohy, drawing midday patrons who ate at a collection of small tables in the back corner. The little old lady behind the register greeted customers with a heavy accent and spoke only in Slovak to her tall, lanky son behind the meat counter.

The man who caught my attention wore jeans that were too big for him and a black hooded sweatshirt, pulled up to his elbows. He skin was ghostly white, his hair dark and oily. A thin, patchy beard attempted but failed to conceal his face. He kept reaching inside the pocket of his hoodie, as if seeking reassurance that whatever he carried was still there. His intentions were clear. Even before the procedure, I would have known.

Cooper sensed it as well. His ears stuck straight up and he growled softly. I looked down at him and Cooper looked back. Stay close to me, I thought, and he tilted his head to the side, as if to indicate understanding. I stepped into the street and walked towards the man. Cooper followed.

The man looked up and down the sidewalk, waiting for a break in the flow of foot traffic. When it came, he drew the hood up over his head and walked inside the store. Cooper and I slipped in before the door swung shut behind him. No one else in the store could see us.

The little old lady behind the counter looked up and smiled. Her son poked his head out from behind the meat counter and stared. The hood stoked his suspicions. Something was wrong.

The hooded man froze in the doorway. Cooper and I stepped silently around him. The store was empty except for the two Slovaks, the hooded man, and Cooper and me. I stood three feet to the hooded man’s side and took in his profile. I closed my eyes, trying to focus on his thoughts, but instead found a cacophony of tortured noise. I could make no sense of it. I was trying to get inside his brain, but nonsensical static blocked me.

Gradually, the chaos separated and lifted. There was his mind.

Panicked thoughts played like grainy black and white film. I saw little plastic bags with smiley faces stamped on the side. There was a basement in what appeared to be a vacant house with thousands of needles strewn across a dirt floor. An old mattress with a thin blanket lay in the corner. The man despised this room. Yet, it was the only place he longed to be. There, he could begin the increasingly difficult search for a useful spot—on his arm or his stomach or maybe this time between his toes.

Anger raged within the man. It was a misguided anger, aimed not at himself or his addiction, but at the world in general, and he focused his rage on the old lady behind the counter. Though he did not know her, in his delusional state he viewed her as an obstacle only. His heart pounded with such force that I winced. Sweat dripped down the back of his neck. He began to whimper.

The old lady looked at him with concern. “Can I helping you, young man?” she said in her thick accent. “You are not feeling OK?”

The man did not hear her. He saw only an old lady eyeing him from behind a store counter, staring at him with contempt, her mouth moving but no sound escaping. He imagined her mocking him, ordering him to leave, declaring that no matter how desperately he needed help, she would provide none. His anger intensified. The thought of simply robbing her was no longer enough. She deserved worse. She deserved his rage. She deserved to suffer for what he had become.

The old lady’s son walked out from behind the meat counter and stood next to his mother. The hooded man had not noticed him before. ’He is so tall,’ he thought—’how could I have missed him? He must be eight feet tall—is he a giant? How did this happen?’

He panicked. He reached under his sweatshirt and pulled out the gun that everyone knew was there. He aimed it first at the man, then at the old lady. His indecision over who he wanted to die first was the only thing that kept him from pulling the trigger. He opened his mouth and tried to speak, but nothing came out. The tall lanky Slovak man wrapped his arms around his mother. He knew what was coming. He wanted only to protect her.

More than anything, the hooded man wanted money. But nothing was going to plan. In a panic, he decided to simplify matters: Kill them first, get the money second.

His finger tightened around the trigger. He aimed, then shot.

My fist came down on his forearm just in time.

The hooded man looked around, wide-eyed and bewildered. He’d had them lined up perfectly. How could he have pulled his shot so low?

The old lady’s son did not hesitate. He bolted across the counter. The hooded man saw him coming and tried to raise the gun, but his arm would not rise. He turned, and I let him see me. My hands were on top of the gun. I stared into his eyes and watched the terror form. His heart pounded so violently that it felt like the entire shop vibrated. I glared at him, then disappeared. Still, he could not raise the gun.

The old lady’s son reached him just as I stepped away. He lowered his shoulder and drove into the gunman’s side. They crashed against a shelf of candy. The son landed on top of the hooded man and the gun fell from his hand. I stepped on it and kicked it towards the door, out of reach. The son straddled the man. He grabbed him by the front of his sweatshirt with one hand and punched viciously with the other. His mother reached for the phone. Her hand shook as she dialed 911.

The sound of distant sirens approached. The Slovak man ignored them, raising his fists and driving them into the gunman’s face. Blood poured first from the hooded man’s nose, then his mouth, and eventually his eyes and ears. I grabbed the Slovak from behind. He strained against me and continued punching at air even as I dragged him away. The gunman was unconscious, but alive. The old lady’s son swung around to confront whoever it was who had pulled him away, but he saw no one. Before he could understand, a police officer burst through the front door with his gun drawn. He yelled at the shop owner’s son to put his hands in the air. The son lifted his arms, then motioned with his head to the man on the ground. Behind the counter, the old lady sobbed.

Backup arrived. An officer frisked the Slovak man, then lowered his gun. The old lady ran to her son and hugged him. The cop dropped to his knees and checked the hooded man’s pulse. The scene began to make sense.

Uniformed police secured the scene. The first news van pulled up outside. Detective Santoni arrived in an unmarked car and entered the little shop.

Cooper and I stood down an aisle near the back of the store. We watched Santoni survey the shop and jot down notes. On the surface, it seemed to be a simple botched robbery. But then he knelt down and looked at the bullet hole in the counter; he watched the surveillance video and wondered how the gunman could have missed so badly, why his gun hand had jerked downwards. He listened to the Slovak man claim that someone had pulled him off the shooter. It made no sense. And Santoni was getting tired of situations that made no sense.

The answers he sought were not where they should be, so Santoni looked elsewhere. He walked down an aisle towards the back of the store, his eyes focusing on every corner. He approached Cooper and me, not seeing us but almost stepping on his tail.

Then, for reasons I could not explain at the time, I let him see us.

Santoni froze. He looked down at Cooper and then up at me, failing to understand.

“You see?” I whispered. “This is much bigger than me. But I’m starting to understand.”

I faded from sight. Cooper and I walked away as Santoni whirled around, trying to find us.

As he did so, the front door swung open, then closed.

Next Chapter: A Demonstration