The recent controversy over the arming of Christchurch police prompted Amanda Thompson to remember the time she was confronted by the United States’ unapologetic gun culture.
I’ve never understood guns; I’ve never even understood the need to hold a gun. I don’t want any more of them around than the bare necessity. I’m as keen as the next person for the police to not get shot, but I’m just as keen for the next person not to get shot by the police. And doesn’t that matter just as much? Travelling in countries where armed guards stand around in airports and malls cradling weapons or with hands casually on holsters doesn’t make me feel safer. I lectured my kids before we travelled to the U.S. about what to do if people have guns: Don’t stare, don’t answer back, keep your hands still. Do whatever they say. Nothing is worse than dead, everything else can be fixed, I lie. It occurs to me this advice could apply equally well with security guards or muggers, but I’m not sure it matters. I resent having this conversation, that we are going to this otherwise fabulous country that is so stupid about guns that children have to sing nursery rhymes in school to teach them how to hide from shooters.
In Los Angeles we get in an Uber driven by a young black man with a bunch of crap all over his passenger seat. My husband waits for him to move it, but the driver tells us no dudes in the front, he’s been sexually assaulted too many times so now all guys get in the back. Our daughters look at me. Dad always takes the front – they’re old enough to have heard stories about being a girl in the front seat of an Uber. We don’t like this flipping of the accepted script. We dither on the sidewalk until he finally caves and scoops his clothes and takeaway cups on to the floor.
Ubers in L.A. are still a novelty for us, although we’ve gotten used to the business-like extras, the free bottles of water or hand sanitizer or sunscreen from career drivers who take that extra star on their rating seriously. One guy had candy canes liberally stuffed in all the armrests which we thought was pretty cool until he couldn’t fit our bags in the trunk because of his giant wholesale tub of a thousand candy canes.
This guy’s name is Curtis. He has a Corolla and there are no candy canes. Instead there are laminated signs tied on to the backs of the seats with dirty string and the text is long and closely printed, rambling between a kind of a life story (Curtis is an entrepreneur, a ‘friendly man, student of multiple martial arts’) and a kind of a plea for tips (‘or at least some conversing’) and a kind of a threat (‘do not be tempted to take my kindness for weakness’).
Curtis is interested in where we come from, and learns that New Zealand is in the middle of summer in the middle of his winter: “that’s wild, man!” He likes sports and he compares rugby and NFL point by point, discusses basketball and baseball and martial arts. He talks about how politics are a mess, Trump, it’s embarrassing to be an American right now, man, and we all laugh a bit. The homeless, the rich, how much Californians love their cars. It’s a long trip and he somehow ends up on the topic of gangs where he grew up. “We have gangs where we live too, but they’re not really a problem,” I say without thinking. It’s true, I think, but I don’t know why I said it, how would I know anything about our local gangs? My kids go to school with their kids. I look at the girls but they say nothing. Maybe it is a problem, I don’t know. Curtis is unimpressed. He used to be a gangbanger he tells us, but he’s a good guy now. The girls say “ohhh.”
“Ok, I’ll tell you. I’ve been threatened by the cops and held at gunpoint six times, maybe seven,” says Curtis. “I’ll tell you about the last time, I thought I was gonna die.”
He was at Six Flags, he says. His girl, his kids, they’d gone for a day and been on the rides, and you know how sometimes on the big rides stuff falls out of your pockets? (we nod, we’re fresh from Disneyland. We know.) So his key fob fell out of his pocket on a rollercoaster and without it they were all stuck at the damn Six Flags, locked out of the car. It was late, they were tired, and the bitch at the counter wouldn’t let him go back and look for the key fob. “She was such a bitch,” he says. He repeats that he’s a good guy and respects people, you know, because of his martial arts, so he would never ever hurt anyone…but…yeah. That bitch.
A gangbanger, I think.
He got mad. The key fob cost him four hundred bucks and he might have kicked some trash cans. But that’s all. He gets his friend to get his spare key and drive over and meet them but by now it’s late, real late, they’re leaving but the next thing he knows there’s cop cars everywhere, they’re all around his car, blue lights lighting it up. The cops jump out, about a dozen, pull their guns and scream at everyone to get out, get out, get out now. Three little kids are in the back and his girlfriend is hysterical. She won’t let him get out of the car because everyone knows what happens to a black man who is surrounded by cops and gets out of the car. The cops keep screaming, “Now now now!” and the kids are screaming and his girlfriend is screaming and somehow the cops have got the kids and take them away somewhere, everyone is screaming. “So I got out of the car,” says Curtis.
He said his hands were up and he didn’t move but everyone is still screaming. “They’re all yelling at me, like take six steps to your left, take two steps back, stuff that doesn’t even make sense and I don’t know what to do because everyone is screaming at once, you know. So I stop and they yell even more, and then I hear that noise. You know that noise? Chuh-chick, chuh-chick, the ‘my gun is ready to shoot you’ noise. You know what I was thinking? I was thinking, if I step wrong, they will shoot me. And what if there’s an earthquake, man, like right now? And I get shot because of an earthquake or because I trip on a stone, right now. I’ll die. Imagine that, man.”
I imagine that. I imagine dying because I kicked trash cans, because the lady at the counter was a bitch. I wonder if Curtis has a gun. I wonder if he has one in the car, right now.
I tell him guns aren’t really a problem where we live, either, and even as I say it I think about that shooting, that one time, two blocks away, the kids the same age as my kids who were playing on the sports field and filmed it on their phones. But I keep talking. “The police in New Zealand,” I announce “aren’t allowed to carry guns.” I love trotting out this fact overseas. Nobody knows what to make of it, you can see them trying to imagine such a society and failing, wondering if Kiwis are, after all, just a nation of taller than average Hobbits, a simple folk bumbling through a real-life Shires.
“No way, man. No way.” Curtis doesn’t really believe me, and he isn’t impressed. He keeps talking about the gangs, the drugs and guns. Everyone has a gun, so you have to have a gun, the cops have to have a gun, or what will they do with the bad guys with guns?
I stop listening and stare out the window instead. This trip is nearly over and I want to think about where we are going next, about markets and Mexican food. As we near the city centre, the streets begin to line with the homes of the homeless, and like a lot of things in this country they are not as you’d expect. They are neat row on neat row of brightly coloured nylon tents, laundry strung between on the guy ropes and I wonder how you bang in tent pegs if you live on a concrete city street. We leave Curtis and his Corolla near City Hall, in the middle of a teacher’s union strike. All afternoon teachers and parents and kids mill around, carrying signs, singing chants, crowding the film crews to make sure they get on the next news bulletin. The police line the roads, watching, carrying the inevitable guns. The sun is shining and everyone seems to be enjoying this break from the classroom and the everyday. There are picnics.
Nobody shoots anybody, as far as I know.
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