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The Time I Shot A Guy

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 04/08/2013

I’m not proud of this. Oh wait, I sort-of am. Here’s a story I’ve only shared over the past twenty years with close friends, and maybe only after a few drinks. It’s the one they can’t believe happened, except for the fact that it did. Although it briefly made me a hero to some Philadelphians, it was still an unfortunate series of events that could have become the main thing I was known for before I even established myself. So I swept it under the carpet for the better part of two decades.

Flash forward twenty years, and I’m now a Marketing Technologist in New York City with one of the top 1% of viewed profiles on LinkedIn. I carry my career and reputation with me now wherever I go. And since I’m finally getting my stories out there, I guess it’s time I wrote about the time I shot a guy.

It was in Philly back in the ’90s… the early ’90s. And that’s all the explanation my wife ever gives—letting the mystery hang there in the air, to which I add a confirming nod. She shits you not. Still, to this day, that’s as much explanation as a few of our close friends actually ever got. If you like the mysterious version of the story that my wife prefers, stop now. Oh, and also this story has a bit of cursing, so if that offends you, also stop now.

When it does come up, I’m now comfortable with the strange vibe it creates, though it does warrant a deeper dive into the circumstances that brought me a heartbeat away from ending a life.

As with the Final Days of Lung Cancer story, this is another one that revolves around the loss of a parent—but this time, my dad, straight out of graduating college. It’s another one of unwanted responsibility suddenly dumped on me. And as all my stories seem to be, it’s another about dealing with bullies—albeit of a more common criminal-variety and of a less personal nature than NYC co-op bullying ordeal I’m now dealing with.

My father died the week I graduated college, and I had to take over—of all things—a check cashing business. A check cashing business?!?! I had no problem just walking away. But because I had a sibling, I had an obligation to the estate to preserve my dad’s assets for eventual sale and disbursement per the will. I’d have much rather run off to California to join the tech explosion. This was 1992. I was already a multimedia programmer and tied in with the Commodore crowd.

However, my dad detoured me by explicitly naming me the executor of his estate. What’s worse, my sister and her friend happened to be in town for my graduation, staying with Dad and me. When my dad died, they just sort of moved in on me. If I walked away, the business dissolves and she gets nothing, and I legally expose myself. As executor, I had to look after the estate, whose money was all tied up in the check cashing business—but not enough to hire a manager to keeping it running while I made the preparations to sell it. But I couldn’t sell it too fast. Why?

Check cashing is the kind of business whose entire value is in the “good will”—meaning if the doors closed for even just a day, the customers start going through the trust-building registration process with nearby competitors and the value of the business starts to erode. Being on file with a check casher means you can walk in the door and easily cash checks from known companies—which is a pretty big deal. First-timers get confirming phone-calls, sometimes both to the bank and the company it’s drawn on. So few people go through the hassle of going on file with more than one check casher. Therefore, it’s the file cabinet full of verified customers where the value of the business resides. All the physical assets are chump change in comparison to that $100K file cabinet.

What’s worse about my situation was when the owner of such a company dies and a family member takes over, you’re only going to get low-ball offers from trying to sell too soon. The way it was put to me: “The sharks smell blood.” So I figured, I’d wrap this up as maybe a 1-year detour in life. In hindsight, I should have been like: “Fuck it. Let the sharks have a feast.” But I was a 22 year old who was actually more worried by the prospect of legal entanglement by my sister than running what amounts to a bank for a year or so. What a fool I was.

Oh, the lessons of life—even just knowing what advice to take in life. At 22 years-old, I didn’t have the experience yet to know that my peace-of-mind and freedom to apply my youthful passion as I saw fit was worth more than any money, duty, or even potential legal entanglement. I lacked the confidence to just walk away. Maybe in the grand scheme of things, that’s why I had to run that place. After those 8-months were over, I was through a sort of bootcamp that prepped me for coping with the really big, bad stuff which, believe it or not, was still to come.

So, I took over my dad’s check cashing business hours after he died, which I affectionately nicknamed “that fucking place”. I was going to be a check casher for awhile. Forget the fact I found Dad collapsed that very morning, and I tried to resuscitate him until the ambulance arrived—a futile effort as the paramedics informed me. He’s been dead for a couple of hours.

There was a notebook he prepared for emergencies, and I broke it out. To call my father organized is an understatement. Growing up, he had every tool he ever owned neatly hung on peg-board and organized by frequency-of-use for rapid retrieval and return. Organization equals preparedness. I got that from him. This notebook was a masterpiece of preparedness—his technical manual of what to do if he were to die, be killed, or what have you.

Within the next four hours, per his instructions, I was off at the business making sure it was running as usual. It ended up only ever opening a few hours late that morning. In the years leading up, Dad had tried to rope me into the business several times, only to have me balk, saying I didn’t want to be a check casher.

Looking back, I maybe should have just to spend more time with him. He didn’t much want to be a check casher either, but his textile industry dried up beneath him. For that matter, he didn’t much want to be in textiles either—he wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. But his father died when he was 12, and his uncles who were in textiles shepherded him along through Philadelphia College of Textiles and Engineering and into a “good business” where a Jew could hold a good job.

By the time of my story, the last of the Philly mills had closed—Somerset Knitting Mills. He would have needed to move to Asia—or at least, New York. But instead, in his typical meticulous fashion, he made a study of how to still have an income at his age so he could continue housing me and finish putting me through college in Philly, where I was going to Drexel University.

But what could an old man do with not too much money to invest who is risk adverse and had to guarantee enough income to put me through college? A Dunkin Donuts? A wicker store in the mall? A chain of laundromats? I accompanied him on a few of these visits. Sucks to be in your 50’s and un-hirable. You’ll find obsolescence-proofing a regular theme of my writing.

Well anyway, he discovered this beautiful business where people GAVE YOU MONEY as they bought money orders every Monday to pay their bills, then you give it back to them on Fridays when they cash their paychecks. See the beauty? The cash ebbs and flows, and you take a little each direction. No inventory. No food. No stock. Just charging a modest 30-cents per money order, and 1% plus $1.10 per check (in those days). All you need is a bank account and about a $10K float to kickstart the process.

A lot of people object to check cashing fees, but the customers are hand-to-mouth blue collar workers who can’t necessarily keep a checking account. One bounced check with a traditional bank, and what do they charge you? About $25 (in those days). How many bounced checks in the course of a year does it take before its just worth paying 1% plus $1.10 per check?

This is the world I walked into unprepared after 4 years mastering graphic design. Knowing then what I know now, I maybe should have sold the place at bargain basement prices, said “fuck you” to my sister, and walked away. But then, I probably wouldn’t be living today in New York with my beautiful amazing wife and delightful daughter. And I wouldn’t have stories like that time a shot a guy. I’m not superstitious or very religious, but this always leads me to “it needed to happen” thinking.

And so, heavily burdened and probably still in shock, I donned Dad’s bullet-proof vest, drove to my new job, greeted my employees, and familiarized myself with what was to be my new one-man-bank lifestyle for the next eight months.

And then, there was the guns. My dad had a Mossberg shotgun mounted to the wall behind inch-thick bulletproof windows so all the customers could see. He was fond of saying that with the bullet proof glass and double air-lock style entrance, if the bad guys break in, you casually take the Mossberg off the wall and make that lovely shotgun-cocking sound, and casually wait for them to break through. It’s an effective deterrent. You’d basically have to drive a truck through the wall to defeat it.

But for coming and going, he had a body-harnessed .38. When he wasn’t carrying it, he had a tiny Secamp .32. This was the smallest 32-caliber gun made, and when it slipped into a pair of pants pockets, it all but disappeared. In order to have stopping-power, this tiny gun exclusively used Winchester hollow-point ammo, which spread to like a quarter-sized hole as it passed through the body. One bullet in the barrel, six more in the magazine for a total of seven rounds. No safety. Tight trigger. Call it a point-and-click. Really easy. My dad studied things thoroughly.

The Secamp was what you slipped into your pocket when you didn’t want to look like you were carrying. It’s what I started carrying when I realized my application for a license to carry a firearm, which I put in for that very week, wasn’t going to come through for six months or so, and figured I might be dead by then. I was learning about using the buddy systems to open and close the store, and keeping your driving route to and from home and the bank unpredictable. About the only thing wrong with this business that looks nearly ideal on paper is the always-a-target lifestyle.

Ah, the paranoia of running essentially what was a bank, and what it does to your head. Talk about being aware of your surroundings! I started mentally noting the things in case I had to describe it later, like if a group of strangers walked past the store. Normally, who cares. But someone running a check cashing business notices such things. I think I became two notches smarter that day. There is really something connected between deliberately exercising your language skills for observation, and intelligence. If you didn’t verbally describe it, life is just whizzing by you in a blur.

And that sort of blurry existence is okay for most folks, as it serves as a filter for what’s really important. But not so for a 22 year old kid that just took over his just-deceased father’s check cashing operation. I imagine the mindset I was in those days must not be terribly dissimilar from a soldier or cop. Tons of people asked me where the old man was. I told them I was giving him some time off. No need for any locals to know the old man was dead just yet.

So, I took up the Secamp 32 as my personal defense while I was waiting for my license to carry to arrive. No blue jeans for me! Just slightly baggy khakis. And one of the main deterrents of carrying was lost—the telltale bulge that a .38 in a body harness produces. You look a little badass and intimidating to the bad guys with that bulge. Me? I looked like an unarmed kid. But what good was being armed if you couldn’t use it? I wasn’t really a gun guy… yet.

Enter one of my new pastimes, and the Spring Garden Street shooting range. So, I got my membership, learned the rules, and took one tutorial lesson with each gun I inherited. Using firing ranges—especially ones in the middle of big cities—is a fascinating experience. You can feel your personal capabilities expand a thousand-fold, with all the other patrons around you kinda sorta minding their own business.

I practiced the .38 a few times for when the time came I could carry it. Meh. But making the Secamp into effective protection… now that was interesting. Could you reliably grab an un-holstered gun from your pocket? Yes. How fast? Very fast.

But is there any intimidation in this? No, it’s a very tiny gun. But it does have six rounds plus one in the chamber, and a tight trigger with no safety—making the purpose of such a gun to use it without hesitation—to pop off as many rounds into the bad guy as you can and see who comes out alive on the other side. Its only stopping-power comes from the spreading hollow points of multiple accurately placed rounds.

Can I commit the process of using such a tiny gun to defend my life to muscle memory? I got my chance to find out in the parking lot of then-Mellon Bank at 2nd & Pine near Penn’s Landing in Philly on one of my bank runs. A huge mistake I made in this whole check cashing affair was to carry on my father’s practice of not using an armored car to deliver cash. Typically you made your own runs at strange times when no one would imagine you were on business. And the $50,000 to $100,000 cash that it takes to cover Friday’s checks takes surprisingly little room. I looked like a student with a backpack. Oh, but then there was the coins.

If you’re ever running a check cashing operation, don’t run out of change on a Friday, or you have to make a special trip to the bank to pick up something that really can’t be done in a discrete low-profile way. Your bag comes in empty and goes out heavily dime, nickel and quarter-laden. People see this. You hope they’re not dumb enough to try to rob you over quarters. You can transport big bucks no problem, but try quarters, and you’re marked. Stupid, stupid!

To this day, I don’t know if my assailant staked me out, or was a pure opportunist in the crowd at the bank, though I tend to think the later. All I do know is that on my way out, I heard footsteps running up behind me. I was nearly to my car. I had no doubt what was occurring. I ducked, swiveled, and shot right as the hammer came down on my head—thankfully, with much less impact than Mr. Bad Guy intended. Still, blood splattered blurring my vision as my glasses flew off as I landed the first round in his belly.

Two more pops. Three total so far. Just as advertised, the Winchester hollow point rounds brought to a dead-stop a man three times my size. Pop number four! Why won’t he drop that hammer? Pop! Number five. On that fifth shot, the hammer drops out of his hand. He falls to his knees with one hand on the ground to hold himself up, and the other hand coming up towards me. I level my gun at his head to see what he’s going to do next.

He shouts “No!”—not a bad thing for him to say, since the main rule of armed self-defense was resonating through my head, as if struck like a bell: If you draw a gun, it’s to use it. If you use a gun, it’s to kill. That’s the mantra of armed self defense that was taught to me. Not sure if that was from Boy Scouts or my dad. But that was one of the longest frozen moments of my life. Bad guy barely down. Gun leveled at his face. Two rounds left.

Just then, another person in the parking lot—an older woman—pulls a gun from her bag and shouts: “I’ve got him covered!” Danger over. Thank God. God bless this woman. I have no idea what I would have done without this excuse to shake off the slow-motion fugue that gripped me. I had Mr. Bad Guy frozen in some sort of force-field emanating from the gun’s nozzle, holding his head in place and keeping his linebacker sized body pinned down. I had no doubt he was ready to rush me. Only the gun to the face held him still.

How life changes on the tiny moments. One life could have ended if I pulled that trigger. Another life which I hold in much higher esteem could have ended if I didn’t. The difference between five or six shots fired. No way I’m pulling off that sixth round. Not me. Fuck the gun-rule. I’m safe. Thank you armed woman whoever you were. By covering him, you saved me from having to make that final terrible decision.

So, bloodied and blind, I slip the gun back in my pocket and I run my bag of money back into the bank, shoving it in through a teller window, yelling: “Here, hold this!” and setting off every alarm in the place. I’m lucky I myself wasn’t shot by the security guards, but I’ll be damned if that bag of money was to go into some evidence locker. Luckily, everybody knew me at the bank. Then, I ran back out, and the guy was gone.

The police cars zoomed up in seconds. I forget the officer’s name, but I remember him well. Nice guy, but I couldn’t get my glasses back because they were now evidence. After a few seconds of chitchat about what just happened, I asked him how much more blood he thought I’d have to lose before I passed out.

The nice officer snapped into action and rushed me in the back of his car and to the nearest emergency room, staying with me the whole time. After consulting his radio, he told me, they couldn’t find the gun at the scene. I told him, “Oh, it’s in my pocket.” Surprised, he asked if it was still loaded. I said, “Yeah, two rounds.” He said “Can I have it?” I said “Sure, are you okay with me pulling it out of my pocket?” He said, “Yeah”, and I gave it to him.

“You know,” he said, “you really ought to join the force when this is over. I don’t think most cops would have had that kind of composure.” I thanked him for the compliment and said I’d think about it, but I knew that that particular path in life was never going to be. I ran the check cashing store a few more months then put it up for sale after enough time for the sharks to see that a little thing like a hammer to the head wasn’t going to phase me. Yes, I got a good price for the business.

The DA had to charge me for carrying without a license and discharging a gun in city limits for consistency. I became friends with the detective who had to make the arrest. He took two months to get around to it, but then called and said it’s time. “I’m happy to turn myself in,” I told him. He came and picked me up and apologized that he had to handcuff me. Policy. No problem, I said, and took a ride in the back of the paddy-wagon.

I spent that night in the Philly roundhouse. One large gentleman there asked what I was in for, and I told him with everyone listening. He asked me what color the guy I shot was. I told him, and and asked “So what?” All the other guys who were listening blurted out: “The guy hit him on the head with a hammer!” I was okay with them, I guess. I ate a cheese sandwich. The cops processed me in the morning and released me, telling me to expect the court date to be set.

The court thing was just preliminary hearings for the judge to decide if it was to actually go to trial. Even just to this, I brought an army of character witnesses. The judge asked if my license to carry ever arrived. I said yes. He asked whether I had it with me. I said yes. He asked if he could see it. I said yes. I never got it back, but the judge was of the “I should be a hero” persuasion, and threw out the case as a waste of the courts time. He actually pointed out that I did everything exactly as I should have done, having shouldered a heavy burden, and had the unfortunate experience of having to defend my life while waiting for the license to arrive, which it did. He even suggested we’d be better off in this city if more cases were like mine.

The perp? He was found at a local hospital with a weak cover story. He spent six weeks in the hospital recovering, but then was released on his own recognizance—because attacks with a hammer doesn’t count as a deadly weapon in Philly. It seems that Philly just had too many people in jail already, and they had to draw the line somewhere. In addition, crimes with guns get extra time on their sentences. So as you might guess, there’s a lot of crimes committed in Philly with hammers and baseball bats. Mr. Bad Guy didn’t make his court date.

Although this was a terrible experience that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, there is still something nice thinking back to the simplicity of the incident—and how it was just not personal. I knew the dangers of the business, took precautions, and was prepared for the eventuality. Although I should have never allowed myself to get into that situation in the first place, it’s nice to know that when I take time to prepare, I can be more of a danger to the bad guys than they are to me.