October 15, 2002

Worry in the Washington Area

As most of my friends will tell you, I have a divine death wish. That is, I like to go to places that the Divine Hand of Providence usually plans on smiting in some way. Normally I'm able to stay one step ahead of catastrophe, leaving San Francisco the day before an earthquake, and driving out of Washington DC on September 10, 2001.

In the big scheme of things, this isn't very impressive. Most of us can name at least one or two places we've been to that have suffered some sort of misfortune, such as an El station we frequent where another kid gets mugged. My brother once came within minutes being sliced in half by a skyscraper window that had blown out of its panel. And, compared to several of my friends who worked in the World Trade Center and had very real near-death experiences, I'm just whining. But, no more. Now, I'm an official target!

I came to Washington DC this fall figuring I'd get some downtime from the normal study-stress-drink routine of the U of C. Instead, I'm in the middle of a killing spree.

As you probably know, we have a crazed sniper running around the capital area, picking off random strangers out doing everyday things. There's no racial pattern, job pattern, or even age pattern. This guy looks for targets of opportunity, shoots them, and then moves on.

I was pretty alarmed when the killing started, especially since the second victim was shot on Rockville Pike, an area I tend to frequent late at night and on foot no less. For crying out loud, I was right there the day before! Fortunately, I was already scheduled to leave town the day the shootings started, so I sat it out for almost a week at my parents' house in Chicago.

When I came back, I knew that I would have to make some necessary adjustments in my daily routine:

Tuesday (Oct 8): My parents have made me promise to wear a bulletproof vest until the sniper gets caught. I'm almost insulted. I once asked them if I could have shooting lessons for my birthday and they deliberately got me golfing lessons. Now some nut-job goes off his rocker and I'm suddenly hearing talk about me taking advantage of Virginia's rather loose concealed-weapons permits and packing heat.

Cooler heads eventually prevailed, but not before I agreed to wear some protective covering. With the aid of my weapons-infatuated friend Jon, my parents ordered me a nice three-pound vest called the "Maxsell Pursuit" (http://www.maxsell.com/ Body_Armor/index.html). My mother even suggested that I wear it on the flight home, until my father pointed out that showing up at an airport in body armor is probably not a smart thing to do these days. We decide to ask the company that makes the vest to send it overnight to my apartment so I will receive it the next day.

Wednesday: My vest hasn't come in the mail yet, but I saw on the news that someone was killed at a gas station near Manassas, Virginia. My friend Jon asks me to promise that I won't sue him if I get shot before my vest arrives.

Thursday: Still no word on the vest, but my Dad has advised me, in the meantime, to duck and weave whenever I walk outside. I do, and manage to put on a convincing impression of an intoxicated waterfowl. I'm having dinner with a college buddy that night, but I don't have a car. He helpfully suggests that I go to a local subway station - that happens to have an outdoor platform - and he'll pick me up from there.

I call him when I get there. He says he'll be a few minutes late. So I wedge myself in between the fare card machine and a phone booth while I wait. I get some stares, especially from the station manager. When my friend drives up, I run in a zigzag pattern towards his car.

Friday: My brother, who is in the Marine Corps, calls me while I'm in line at a Chinese take-out restaurant. He wants to know if I've heard anything new about the sniper. "Oh the bad guy?" I say. I've learned not to use words like "sniper" in public so I substitute "bad guy" for terrorists, criminals, and Democrats. I tell him no and he seems disappointed. We have a running bet on whether the sniper is ex-Army or ex-Marine. I don't know what we'll do if he was in the Coast Guard. My mother calls later and asks if I'm wearing the vest, so I lie and say yes.

That evening I see my old high school friends for the first time since the shootings started. I expect them to be as terrified as I am. I mention the Rockville Pike attack. My friend Shorty tells me that the Manassas killing happened two minutes from the gas station he uses near his home. Then, he shrugs his shoulders: "What are you gonna do?" My other friends express a similar indifference and the conversation quickly changes to Friends.

I come back home and find a note on my apartment door saying I have a package at the front desk. I go downstairs and pick it up from the building security officer. I look inside, and it's my vest. On it a big white tag announces: "This armor is not intended to protect the wearer from rifle fire."

So I head out that weekend—sans body armor—feeling that much better and safer.