I admit that when I first came to America, I was a little terrified. My exposure to American culture mostly came from television and movie screens, and I was pretty certain that it was only a matter of time before I’d be shot. That will tell you how bad the Irish economy was at the time; I was actually willing to risk being hit by a bullet to escape it. So serious was this fear that I vividly remember spending the entirety of my first long drive with my mother folded over in the back seat of the car. Granted that, by American standards, the 90 miles from Tampa to Orlando isn’t a very long drive at all, but I was not taking any chances. I was ducked down seeking cover from the guy who would predictably (and possibly, deservedly) open fire on mother in a fit of road rage somewhere along the route.
Over time, noticing that I hadn’t actually been shot at all, I relaxed about the whole thing and hung up my bullet proof vest. Mind you, despite living in a decent enough neighborhood, there was a bit of shooting going on around me. Someone in the house behind and two doors down from ours, got shot dead in a drug thing a few years back. We were horrified when a cashier at our local grocery store was shot by her ex-husband not long after that. Sure, we had two police chases through our garden (nothing I’d ever have experienced in Ireland) but, dagnabbit, I was an American now and overall, having no personal bullet wounds, I was feeling pretty good about things.
Then, one Saturday morning, driving my young daughter to a soccer game, a traffic detour took us through a less than savory part of town. Despite the shabby surroundings it was a beautiful day and I was drinking it all in as drove. I saw a clear blue sky, I saw a liquor store, I saw a run down motel, I saw a prostitute, I saw a young Hispanic man going for a jog, I saw his friend cycling along behind him. “How nice”, I thought, “two pals out for a bit of exercise on a fine day.”
As we got closer I saw the fella on the bike launch himself right on top of the jogger. An act of affection? Nope. An attack. I was appalled; not only for the sake of the jogger, but also for me. I had worked for years to convince myself that America wasn’t really like those movies after all (at least not in my actual, personal experience) and now this was going on right in front of my very eyes. In an act of high indignance, I slowed the car down to almost a stop and honked my horn very seriously. The message I hoped to convey was, “How dare you do that in broad daylight, AND in front of me and my child? How very dare you?” The cyclist got up, never turning in my direction, and casually pulled out what looked a lot like a gun. “OH, NO, NO, NO!” I honked. “NO, YOU, DO, NOT”. He seemed to pick up on my tone. Or maybe it wasn’t me at all; maybe he was getting fed up of getting smacked by the jogger’s towel. Either way, he turned and seemed to wander off.
I drove on to the soccer field, my daughter and I both feeling a little shook. When we got to the game I realized that I should probably make a police report, just in case the jogger filed a complaint, and needed back up of his story. I didn’t even dial 911 – that was something they did in movies. I googled the phone number of the local police department and called them. The conversation was all very casual until I gave the location of the incident that I had witnessed. I was quickly made aware that my heartfelt and vigorous honking hadn’t saved the day at all; that the cyclist had turned back no sooner had I turned the corner, and shot the jogger quite seriously. Thirty minutes later I was back on scene surrounded by police tape and flashing lights. I was now a movie extra. I crouched down nervously behind a squad car, scanning the streets as I recounted my story for the police, fairly convinced I was now closer than ever to being shot. After an eternity, I was told that I could go. A detective would be out to my house later to take my full statement.
Sitting in the detective’s car on our street that afternoon, with painstaking detail I recounted my version of events. Midway through my very serious account I thought I caught a glimpse of amusement on the otherwise austere detective’s face. What was so funny? Did he take me for some Fresh off the Boat? I may not have been shot in all my time in America, but I was a bona-fide citizen by then. “So, a jogger, you say?” the detective asked. “Correct, a jogger.” That amused look again. After a pause, the detective put down his pencil and turned around to face me dead on. “Ma’am, no one jogs in that neighborhood. No one. All running in that part of town is strictly of the “run-for-your-life” variety.”
I felt a bit deflated. Good Lord, I am still totally a Cork woman, I thought. I’m not a hardened American at all. I was even beginning to feel a slight bit twittish. “And the towel, you saw the “jogger” hit his alleged assailant with . . .” (dear God, make this nice detective stop talking to me now) “was actually a hammer.” Hmm. So not only was I not a good witness by virtue of never having seen the cyclist’s face, but now I wasn’t even credible on account of my seriously shaky powers of observation.
The experience left me with renewed nervousness and some lingering civic obligations. Those obligations finally evaporated – on account of my uselessness, I imagine. I did eventually get to meet the “jogger” face to face. Someone pointed me out to him at a court hearing, and he came over and thanked me for being willing to step up. I apologized for being so idiotic as to think that my honking had saved the day, and for not having called 911 immediately. He was gracious. He turned out to be a nice young man minding his own business that day, walking back from the hardware store, where he’d just bought a towel (okay, a hammer). He was an immigrant, like me. And the experience of being shot didn’t prompt him to run back to his motherland – he just moved to another American city. Nowadays he’s probably feeling decidedly superior in the fullness of his American experience. But I’ll have to give him that much. Me? I’m dusting off my bullet proof vest.