VI - Perturbation
“A cause of mental disquiet, disturbance, or agitation.”
Date: Saturday, May 13, 1989
Location: Cranberry Mall, Westminster, Maryland
It was supposed to be another boring Saturday night at Cranberry Mall. O’Bryan VonWald, Andy Myer, and I were supposed to be catching the 7:30 PM showing of Pet Semetary, the latest Stephen King novel translated to the big screen. The two movies we really wanted to see wouldn’t be out until next weekend. Tim Burton’s remake of Batman, starring Michael Keaton, the guy from BeetleJuice, and Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade with Sean Connery portraying the part of Indiana’s dad. Sneak previews of the latest Indy flick claimed Connery and Harrison Ford demonstrate an on screen chemistry worth the five-dollar admittance price.
With the 7:30 showing time quickly approaching, my frustration with Wald and Myer grew rapidly. I could find them nowhere. Resigned, I sat at one of the grungy food court tables, across from Subway and caddy corner to the movie theater, twiddling my thumbs. From my location, I could see them leaving or entering the food court from either direction. Passers by would note the many eye rolls and sighs of exasperation my tardy friends were causing me. What I wouldn’t give to have one of those Nokia-Mobira or Centel cellular phones, or at the very least, the six hundred bucks it would cost to own one. No, I would need way more upon contemplation, maybe another few hundred dollars to cover the cost of cell tower time, some 50 to 75 cents a minute. I sighed again, over the social unfairness of it all, as only rich people could ever afford cellular phones.
It must be nice to be rich.
In the farm county where I live, no one has that kind of money. In fact, there isn’t much to do but drink, do drugs, party, have sex, and hang out at the mall. This ultimately leads to an epidemic every local mall has; a handful of lost youths who spend their days and nights seeking popularity as the town’s biggest badass. Once their reputation is established, they become feared entities doing whatever they want, running into other people, and asking them what their problem is. Town bullies, in a nutshell. Such hierarchies are sadly inevitable. The real problem arises when these egotistical personalities clash with one another, when what should be a family friendly shopping mall becomes the stage for a turf war. As with all power struggles, peers choose sides and metaphoric lines are drawn. The question then becomes, who will cross that line first?
In what the locals would come to term as the Cranberry Mall Riot, two culturally different kids in their post high school years and their entourages stepped up to that line. One of the misguided youths involved called himself ‘Kross’, an eighteen year old black male who loitered with a gang referred to as ‘the blacks’. He wore baggy clothes and lots of gold jewelry. If he had a real name, I didn’t know what it was. I don’t think anyone did. On the other side was a white male a few years older than Kross, who the kids simply called Farmer John. He associated with a group aptly termed as ‘the farmers’. They originally came together from the hugely popular high school Future Farmers of America club. Farmer John was a huge lumbering kid close to seven feet tall.
What I could gather from my eavesdropping, a dispute arose between the two cliques at some point in the recent past, leading to rumors of a gang fight sometime this weekend. Even so, I didn’t believe anyone thought such a fray would end up at Cranberry Mall. Nevertheless, that’s what happened. Both groups showed up at the mall that boring Saturday evening. Reports of a showdown spread throughout the mall at the speed of light.
What began the melee, I don’t recall. The numerous news reports that followed never cited one. The two gangs simply didn’t like one another and wanted an excuse to fight. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.
Within fifteen minutes of overhearing this chatter, the coming confrontation became apparent with the loitering of various members of each group in the food court. Something bad was brewing. Myer and Wald were still unaccounted for. Their absence made me nervous. Most of the other mall consumers – kids mostly – were carefully watching the rival groups at a respectable distance. When three of Farmer John’s boys walked by Subway and the table at which I sat, I figured it was time to get the hell out. Witnessing a silly mall turf rumble as ground zero was most certainly exempt from my list of things to do. This disturbance clearly had potential to get out of control, and fast. If it happened, it would be every man for him self; the most dangerous kind of riot there is.
The situation in the food court was akin to watching an oncoming tornado; you know you should get the hell out of its way, but somehow you can’t take your eyes off it and run. I did stand up, but I didn’t move. Farmer John stood outside the video game arcade, adjacent to the mall exit and across from the movie theater, surrounded by several other loyal followers. Meanwhile, Kross and his entourage exited their cars curbside, probably fifty feet from the exit doors where Farmer John stood. Kross’s intentions were clear. He planned to bring his beef with the farmers into the mall.
The mall grapevine, clearly alive and well, made its way to the security office. Two unarmed mall security personnel - affectionately termed ‘rent-a-cops’ - hurriedly turned the corner from the main hallway into the food court. I cringed at the site of two rent-a-cops as they stood before two sweltering gangs preparing for battle. In Cranberry Mall, the Pinkerton Security contracted rent-a-cops have no real power, or respect, and more importantly, no real weapons. They are the butt of jokes and whispers, and largely unappreciated. The two responding to the food court situation had to know they were walking into the gates of hell itself, powerless to do anything to squelch the situation. Over the mumbling of the spectators, I could hear one radio back to their headquarters - ironically located next to the mall’s main lavatories - for someone to call 911.
Kross and his posse literally barged through the mall doors, positioning themselves in front of the movie theater, opposite the arcade and Farmer John’s group. As this happened, the few people in the vicinity with any common sense took off in the opposite directions. Those who stayed inadvertently formed a wall of onlookers at the hallway end of the food court, effectively blocking off any escape for those who desired it, including me. I stepped into the foyer area of Subway where I felt sufficient protection existed in the event a nuke went off.
“What’s going on out there,” a voice behind me asked. I glanced back to see a teenage male peering over the sneeze guard of the Subway make table. He was maybe five foot five inches and skinny as a rail. His long dirty blonde hair, respectable moustache, and John Deere cap gave away which side he would back in the event a choice was required of him.
“Kross and his boys just walked in,” I said. “I think this is going to get ugly.”
“Is John there too?”
Oh boy. Here we go.
“Bitchin’,” the kid said, squealing. He left his post at the Subway counter. The store manager poked her head out from behind the back wall as Subway Boy took off into the expanding crowd.
I tossed her a doubtful look. “You might consider calling 911,” I said over the growing din of the crowd. “The mall heat won’t be stopping this one.” She nodded anxiously, disappearing into the back of the restaurant.
As I predicted, at least six other black youths sympathetic to Kross and his cause stopped the mall cops dead in their tracks. One of the security guards backed off immediately. The other did not. He paid for his defiance. One of Kross’ thugs put the drop on him. The mall cop went down, suffering a barrage of kicks and stomps. In that moment, I thought I might be watching another human being die, and there wasn’t a fucking thing I could do for him.
I turned away in disgust. We had officially passed the point of no return. My thoughts quickly became ones of exit strategy. I felt my own adrenaline level rise in the excitement.
Kross and John were having words, although I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Each was slowly making his way toward the other in a deadlock stare, neither one backing down. Within seconds, they were face to face, no longer speaking. They peered into each other’s eyes, waiting for the other to flinch. Their respective associates were mere feet behind them, egging on the other side with racial slurs and defamatory insults. Ironically, it was not Kross or John who began the riot. Not ten feet from where I stood, another group of kids began screaming at each other over something completely unrelated. That incident and that incident alone lit the fuse for the riot to come. The pushing and shoving spread like an aggressive cancer. Food flew in all directions, along with napkins, cups, and plates. Anything one could easily pick up became a flying object.
I looked back toward the mall exit where Kross and John were still staring each other down. John made a move with his right hand. I couldn’t fully see what he meant to do. What little I did see looked like the business end of a rather large knife. Kross withdrew a snub-nosed gun from his sweatshirt jacket. Serious blood would soon spill.
With anxiety creased in my face, I waited for the gunshot to ring out. Instead, Kross took a step backward, dropped his gun, and collapsed to the floor. John dropped his knife and collapsed to the floor as well. I thought my eyes were going to pop out of my skull due to the utter surprise plastered on my face. What the hell just happened? Did both boys just faint? Each gang of kids stepped in to assist their particular leader, dragging each to their side of the mall exit.
The riot itself however gained steam at a monumental rate. It spread across the food court like wildfire. The crowd of people creating the dam across the hallway side of the food court spread outward into the main hallway. These were not people escaping the fight; they were the fight. The brawling spread in both directions. Standing inside the Subway foyer, I realized all too quickly I had nowhere to go but backward, deeper into the restaurant. What began as a grumbling din was now full-fledged shouting and screaming. The objects in play graduated from effortless perishables to much larger objects capable of doing considerable physical harm; napkin holders, food trays, utensil containers, etc.
I stood on my toes, bringing my natural height of six foot and two inches to a cool seven feet. I scanned the crowd for Wald and Myer. At the far end of the mall’s main walkway, I could see a group of two boys and a girl looking into the crowd. They had been safely out of the way until someone brave enough to toss a chair out of the rioting crowd did so. It flew directly toward the three of them. They ducked behind one of the mall planters and disappeared.
Other chairs began to fly. Soon it would be the tables. This was my cue to get the fuck out of the food court. With nowhere else to go, I slipped into the back of the now abandoned Subway store. The manager decided to flee for her life through the service entrance, into the delivery hallway. I was about to follow, suddenly realizing I had no idea where I would be going. Either direction dumped into a different hallway. Without the benefit of wall guides and the red ‘you are here’ dot, this could easily become an exercise of ‘escape the maze’, Jack Nicholson style. It came down to this: I didn’t know where I would end up, but anywhere was better than here.
“Hey,” a voice called out. “Wait for me, I’m comin’ too!”
I turned around to see Subway Boy catch up with me. I gestured toward the tunnel. “You lead the way, dude. I have no idea where I’m going.”
“No problem,” he said, feverishly excited, or perhaps scared. “Let’s go!”
Per my fear, the delivery tunnels were a maze of turns and stairs leading into one primary tunnel underneath the mall. When Subway Boy and I reached the primary tunnel, we stopped, listening to the romp above us. The sound of running footsteps headed in our direction from the left end of the main tunnel.
Subway Boy took charge. “Stop! Who are you?” Three other older teenaged kids stopped in front of us. I recognized them as the three who dodged the first launched chair only minutes earlier.
“I’m Martin Wexler,” the first one said, out of breath. “We’re trying to get away from the riot in the food court.”
“Us too,” Subway Boy said, nodding in my direction. “Follow us! I work at Subway and know how to get out of here. The niggers won’t be far behind. Let’s go before they catch up.”
The long blonde haired girl in their group displayed notable offense over Subways Boy’s racial slur. “That was a nice thing to say,” she said with sarcasm, under her breath.
“Least of our problems, baby,” her companion said.
“Maybe not,” Martin said. “If they’re part of the group starting fights and chasing people, they will become our problem.” Martin nodded toward Subway Boy to lead the way. We scurried quickly across what would have been the middle of the mall, toward the other side of the mall, the ‘dead’ side where units went unrented.
“Wait,” The Boyfriend said through several heavy breaths. “Where are we going? I thought we were going to the pool hall.”
“The pool hall?” Subway boy asked. “That place closed last year.”
“Yeah, I know,” The Boyfriend said, gasping for each breath. “But there’s an exit there.”
Subway Boy seemed annoyed. “There is also one next to Tully’s, what difference does that make?”
Martin stepped in to avoid what could have become a spat. “Our car is on the pool hall side, but it’s cool. Tully’s it is.” He turned to The Boyfriend. “We’ll just walk to the car later, okay?” The Boyfriend nodded.
Subway Boy continued the lead. From behind, the clomping footsteps of other people running in our direction became audible. If the cops were in the mall now, then others were certainly looking for ways out, or worse, gang kids avoiding the cops. “There are people coming up from behind,” Martin shouted to Subway Boy. “Pick up pace.”
“Alright!” He called back.
Within the minute, we walked up a ramp labeled ‘Tully’s Restaurant’ to mall level and a service door, where freedom awaited on the other side. Subway Boy reached the door first and attempted to open it. The door didn’t budge. Martin watched, clearly exasperated. We were at a dead end. Others were coming. If they were the group of kids chasing Subway Boy, then all of us would have problems.
The Boyfriend leaned over to Martin and whispered something in his ear.
“That’s a fucking great idea, Walter,” Martin said, beaming to his companion. “Hold me up.” Walter propped himself behind Martin while his girlfriend kept him on balance from the front. I watched in awe, not remotely understanding what they were doing. Not that it mattered. After a minute or so, a group of black teens turned the tunnel corner and spotted us.
The black kid in front pointed his knife at Subway Boy. “Der you are, muthafucka!” Subway Boy said nothing.
“What did you do?” I whispered.
“I kicked him in the balls.”
I sighed quietly. This would explain the chase.
“Yea dats right, bitch,” Knife Boy hissed. “An I gone cut you foe dat!” Three of the thugs advanced on us.
The second one spoke when he saw The Girlfriend. “Yo, check out dat pussy.” He grabbed The Girlfriend by her arm; she cried and screamed as he dragged her back to the tunnel junction.
Walter, who was still holding Martin up, didn’t take kindly to his girlfriend’s abduction. “Leave her alone, please.”
Knife Boy blinked in surprise. “Fuck you, cracka bitch!”
Walter was unable to move, still holding up his friend for some unknown reason. If I didn’t step in, Girlfriend’s near future would involve rape. I couldn’t live with myself if I let that happen. How I could protest and not get myself killed in the process, I had no idea.
“C’mon guys,” I said, diplomatically. “We can all walk away from this and no one would ever need to speak of what happened here today. Let’s be cool.”
One of the other thugs stepped up and pistol-whipped me on the left side of my head. I fell to the floor without protest as white sparkles of pain danced in my field of vision. I thought I was going to pass out, but did not. I feigned unconsciousness to avoid further injury, keeping one eye slit open. Clearly, diplomacy would be a wasted effort here. I heard the sound of the exit door open behind me. Whomever it was wedged it open and didn’t move.
“You bes’ move yo’ punk ass,” Knife Boy snapped, waving the knife in Walters face. Walter said nothing. His ghost white face revealed his fear of dying this night.
The thug drew his knife back and plunged it into Martin’s chest. Martin fell over, letting out a blood-curling scream. He pushed Walter out of the way and addressed his attacker. “Fuck you!”
“Choo hear dat?” Knife Boy spat. “We gots us a moufy cracka.”
Martin spat blood in Knife Boy’s face. “You can kiss my big white ass, nigger,” Martin hissed, grabbing at his chest and the blood gushing from it. The stupid thug missed Martin’s heart, having stuck the knife in the wrong side. Still, based on his staggered breathing and the blood, the blade must have hit a lung.
Knife Boy grabbed Martin by the throat and held a newly revealed switchblade to his face. “Youz gotsa nasty mouf foe a cracka. Maybe I jus cut yo tounge outta yo’ face!”
Martin met eyes with the thug. “I have…the most powerful weapon…you could ever imagine, bitch…and I’m going to kill you with it…right now.”
Knife Boy dropped Martin and clutched at his chest as blood began to drip from the corners of his mouth. Walter had caught Martin’s falling body, watching Knife Boy fall to the floor. “Martin, stop! You’re going to kill him.”
Martin’s body twitched back to life. “Too late…he’s already dead. Where’s Cyndi?”
“I don’t know. I don’t see her anywhere.” Walter said through his heavy breathing. “CYNDI! WHERE ARE YOU?”
“Walter! Help me, pleeease!” She called back from within the tunnel.
“Shut up, bitch,” someone else barked. A loudly reverberated slap silenced Cyndi’s scream.
“Who’s next?” Martin asked, with decisive calm. His head hung in fatigue and pain. His sharp crystal blue eyes told a different story. They were intense with rage, glaring at the thugs with a hatred I could feel from my downed position. The three other thugs stood there, unsure of what to make of Martin’s threat. “I can drop…the three of you…like I did that punk ass…over there…in the snap of a finger. If you doubt me…then just say the word.”
The three thugs said nothing while a forth was tangling with Subway Boy at the edge of the ramp. A knife came down into Subway Boy’s chest, ending his career with Subway Sandwich Systems.
Subway Boy’s killer dropped to his knees, blood oozing out of every hole in his head as it dripped to the floor, creating instant puddles. He fell over, dead.
Martin faced the other three, fists clenched. “You want some of that too? Let’s fucking go…right now!”
“How you be doin’ dat?” One of the thugs asked.
“Ancient Chinese Secret,” Martin said, in a quip. He quickly turned to Walter and whispered, “Hold me up.”
“Fuck you,” the inquisitive thug spat. He stopped speaking, grabbing his head in pain.
Martin snapped awake while his victim tried to shake off the head pain. “How’d you like that, nigger?” Martin asked, a shit-eating grin spread across his face. “Want some more, boy?”
“No,” he said, holding his hand up. “You some kinda freak, and I won’ be messin’ wif dat, coz I think you kill me if’u want. But you ain’ heard da last of dis.”
“Yeah, what the fuck ever,” Martin sighed, rolling his eyes. “Get lost.”
I tried to pull myself up to speak before Martin walked off. The attempt brought sparkled tunnel vision to my reality. My world went black.