I saw the horror flashing across the faces of the women crowded above me as I slipped down, backwards into the crack between the moving bus and the platform.
When I was 17, I worked at a Ukrainian bakery in a quiet Philly suburb with one of my best friends, Lauren*. One night, we were about an hour from closing up when a woman came in asking for pierogies (Ukrainians make baller pierogies). It was pretty normal to have only one customer at a time; the only time there are more than three customers inside is when the place sell pies at Thanksgiving. It's chill — so much so that Lauren and I used to sigh dramatically when we had to get up to help a customer because we were so accustomed to sitting around.
This particular night, I had helped the previous customer when this pierogi-seeker walked in, so Lauren got up to help her. I was sitting toward the back, making a list of colleges for Lauren to apply to, assuming she would be fine alone helping this customer.
I continued my hum-dee-dum list-making when the woman pulled a gun on Lauren as she was being rung up for the pierogies and demanded $100.
And I totally didn't notice.
I was so engulfed in writing this list that even though I glanced up while they were at the cash register, I noticed nothing amiss. I had no idea anything was wrong until I heard the click of the door, indicating the woman had left the store, and I looked up at Lauren.
She was in tears, completely ashen. A million thoughts went through my head. Could Lauren's mom have died in this two-minute interim where she sold pierogies to some lady? Could her dog have been hit by a car? Could she have been diagnosed with cancer? Lauren couldn't have answered my frantic "What's wrong?" fast enough to keep up with the crazy stream of possibilities in my head.
"Cassandra," she choked on her words, "she had a gun."
My mind racing, I did the only thing I could think to do: lock the door and call the cops.
In the lapse of time between me calling the cops and the cops arriving, Lauren, through shaking tears, explained to me that she had gone to help the woman get pierogies out of the freezer, rung her up, and then the woman took out what we later learned was a 9mm and pointed it directly at Lauren's torso, demanding “Give me $100.” Not "Give me all the money in the drawer." Specifically $100.
So Lauren very obediently doled out four $20 bills and two $10 bills. The woman then took the money and apologized for robbing us. She apologized. We got robbed by someone who apologized for the robbery while it was happening.
All of this occurred, as I said, while I had been sitting in the back of the bakery, scrawling out phrases like "Temple Univ" and "Drexel, def" and "West Chester, maybe if you're desp," in my own world of armed-robbery-less bliss.
When Lauren finished explaining, I stood in slack-jawed disbelief: How the fuck did I miss that?
Just then, the cops arrived and started asking questions. Questions like, "What do you mean you didn't notice the woman had a gun?" Questions to which I could only answer with, "Well, see, I was making a list of colleges for Lauren to apply to, and I was very focused..."
After this embarrassing course of questions from the police, the owner of the bakery arrived in a fluster. First, she hugged us. Then, sparing no time, she made sure that the robber took only $100, so we counted the drawer for the day. To the owner’s delight, there was not a single penny missing except for the $100 lost to armed robbery. And I'm telling you, that never happened. The drawer was always coming out $4 over or 75 cents under. Never was it perfect, until that day. Minus the stolen hundred, much to the bakery owner's chagrin.
And then we just went home, like any other day. We were out at 7 p.m., because an hour was all it took to get robbed, not notice, and then be asked questions about it.
I was asked to identify suspects in the subsequent weeks, something I still wonder why they asked me to do with Lauren, considering all I had to say was "I barely saw the woman walk in, let alone actually rob the store." This actually led to the police originally arresting the wrong woman for the crime because it turns out I’m pretty bad at identifying grungy-looking white women in gray sweatshirts.
Lauren and I didn't even quit. We figured, what are the chances of being robbed at this little living-room-sized bakery another time?
It was almost a non-incident, really, even for Lauren. She's a tough cookie, and Lauren handled it better than I could have imagined possible.
But the part of this story that sticks with me more than the rest, even more than the fact that I got held up without my knowledge, is the story of the robber herself. I would have never expected to be robbed in our quiet little suburb, let alone by a woman (who commit only 20 percent of violent crime in the United States), but people have some shit going on that I can't even imagine.
It turns out the robber lady had been struggling with drug addiction for the better part of a decade. She wasn't caught for robbing the bakery until she robbed a nearby pet store with a hypodermic needle, also demanding $100. She was taken into custody immediately after robbing the pet store, and then fessed up to robbing the bakery because she had heard that the wrong woman was arrested for that crime and that she felt bad for "scaring the girls in the store." She felt guilty about scaring us — guilty, because I bet she's actually a good person, but heroin can twist that part of anyone.
For me, her sentencing of 5 to 10 years in prison for armed robbery isn't quite justice, but rather a reminder that this country needs better solutions for those struggling with drug addiction. This woman was clearly terrified of herself and what she was doing. Unfortunately, she was driven to violent crime before anyone could help her.
That’s what I’m reminded every time I think about when I got robbed and I didn’t notice.
Well, that, and that I gotta pay slightly better attention to my surroundings.