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"It wasn't me"

Death in an Alley

  WASHINGTON The tailor slipped the jacket on me. He directed me to a nearby mirror.

  “It looks good,” he said. “How does it feel?”

  “Great,” I said.

  I was in a men’s shop three blocks from the White House trying on my first custom-made suit. It was spring, 1978. I was 28, single and feeling sassy. For the first time in my life, I had a serious job in my field. I was making good money. I lived in a city where the daily action was intense, never boring and, when things were going good, extremely fulfilling. At night, it could be all of that times two.

  As the tailor readied my new pants, shots rang out, three maybe four of them. Not in the clothing store but nearby. Instinctively, sans pants, I headed for the door and saw a man stumble by on the sidewalk, moving to my left.

  Outside, I ran only a few yards to an alley entrance. About 15 yards up the alley the man I saw was lying on the ground, facedown.

  When I reached him, the first thing I noticed was heavy breathing. I turned him over. His shirt was soaked in blood. He appeared to be in his late 20s, maybe early 30s. His breaths were slow and labored. He took only a few more of them before they stopped for good.

  I left him there and returned to the sidewalk. There was a crowd in front of the store next to the clothing shop. A young man in a wrinkled white shirt and curly dark hair was telling anyone who would listen what happened inside the jewelry store owned by his father.

  The man lying in the alley had entered the store and demanded cash. He was armed with a handgun. The father was behind the counter. The son was in back but could hear everything. He had a loaded handgun and came out shooting. The robber, certainly surprised, had no chance to return fire.

  “I shot the mother f...........r,” the son said over and over.

  He then added an interesting detail: “Those were hollow point bullets,” he said. “He was a dead man.”

  I later learned that when such bullets enter a body they expand inside the soft tissue, damaging everything around it, rather than a clean exit like more conventional bullets.

  That explained all the blood. And the man’s quick death.

  The police finally arrived, but I wanted nothing to do with them so I returned to the clothing store to complete my fitting.

                                                                * * *

  Previous to moving to Washington, I had spent more than two years traveling overseas, a year of which was in Lebanon at the beginning of the country’s 15-year civil war.

  I had never worn a uniform or fired a weapon. But during that year, working as a fledgling correspondent and photojournalist, I somehow survived several detainments by various militias. I also witnessed the immediate aftermath of an ambush that left a taxi driver and his four passengers - well, if you saw Bonnie and Clyde and remember the final scene, it was something like that.

  I lived on the top floor of a seven-story building in west Beirut. The neighborhood was mostly safe, but the fighting, which went all night, sounded like it was next door. It was summer. I had a choice: I could sleep inside and suffer from the oppressive heat. Or, I could move my foam cushion onto the roof. I chose the latter, but not without caution. I strategically placed my bed in a way that I was protected on three sides.

  Still, there were considerable risks. A friend who lived across the street took a bullet in his buttocks one night while in bed inside his apartment.

  My cousin Fahed Trad was not as fortunate. Fahed was having an early morning coffee on the balcony of his suburban Beirut home when a 55mm shell crashed into the exact spot where he was sitting.

  After a while the fighting, which consisted of intermittent shelling and the tat-tat-tat-tat-tat of AK-47s and M16s, became so normal I slept fine when there was action but laid awake during truces.

  When I returned home, I put the war behind me – no one really cared to hear about it – and went on with my life. I thought I was perfectly fine although my dentist noticed something.

  “You’re grinding your teeth,” he said.

                                                                  * * *

  The tailor was still there, holding my pants.

  “That was not very smart,” he said. “What if he wasn’t dead and was armed?”

  It was a good point. I had no answer.

  I returned to my office with my new suit, maybe – I can’t remember - mentioned what happened to a couple of people and resumed working. By the next day the event had vanished from my mind.

  In subsequent returns to Beirut, as a working correspondent, and witnessing war, famine and weather destruction elsewhere, the body count mounted.  One catastrophic event after the other.

  Still, from time-to-time I would think about that one death in the alley. I wasn’t sure why.

  Novelist Ernest Hemingway, also a correspondent who covered several major conflicts, understood the psychology of war reporting. In “A New Kind of War,” a report from Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, he talked about waking up in his hotel after a night of listening to heavy fighting, looking out his window and seeing the victim of an exploding shell lying on the sidewalk.

  He wrote, in part: “A policeman covers the top of the trunk, from which the head is missing. They send for someone to repair the gas main and you go to breakfast. The dead man wasn’t you nor anyone you know and everyone is very hungry in the morning after a cold night and a long day the day before at the Guadalajara front. It wasn’t me they killed. See? No. Not me.”

  It took some time but I eventually figured out what bothered me about the day in the alley I watched a man breath his last: I didn’t feel a damn thing.

Body part A when photo present

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Body part B when photo present

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