In this edition of Banter M:
Get Ready to Die – Read Tommy Christopher’s harrowing account of surviving an armed robbery, and how preparing to die changed his life.
How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Star Wars (Again) – Chez Pazienza rekindles his childhood passion for Star Wars after the tragedy of the previous prequels.
Republicans Sell Tickets to Their Own Funeral – Ben Cohen describes the Republican’s latest attempt to make money – this time by charging journalists to cover their doomed convention.
Get Ready to Die
by Tommy Christopher
This is a true story, although some of the names and places have been changed to protect the participants. This is the first time the whole story has been told, and probably the last.
“A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once.” – William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
That’s not how I heard the quote in my head that night, but the unattributed paraphrase that popped into my aching skull probably saved my life. “The coward dies a thousand deaths, the hero but one,” was how I recalled it, with no earthly idea who had said it, and it seemed like a cold thing to say to someone in my position.
It was the mid-eighties, and I was working at a fast-food restaurant; fresh out of high school and just into community college. On this particular night, I was scheduled to get off at 11, but my dumb-ass penis had other ideas. Our manager that night was Angie, and she was super-hot. Not fast food-hot, but actual hot. She looked exactly like Paula Abdul, except she had blonde hair, sea-blue eyes, and that husky Virginia Slims voice that was impossible to say no to.
Unfortunately, the only thing I was saying “yes” to was sticking around an extra hour to help her do inventory. She was way older than me (probably a full 27 or so), and we all knew she was dating a cop. Before you judge me too harshly, though, I wasn’t the only sucker, or even the biggest sucker, to fall for Angie’s pitch.
What happened was, about half an hour before closing time, my friend Kris came into the restaurant, just to hang out. He worked there, too, and a lot of us would do that, hang around the joint in our off-time. We planned to go someplace after work, but first, I had to drive Wade, another co-worker, home.
As closing time approached, Angie came to us and told us she was up a creek because she hadn’t had time to finish the nightly inventory, and she wasn’t allowed to be in the restaurant alone after closing. Wade and I could have told her “Too bad,” and she’d have had to let us go, and that’s exactly what Wade did. I, on the other hand, gallantly offered to stay, and Kris even offered to help out off the clock. With all three of us doing the count, we reasoned, it might not take but an extra half hour or so.
Kris and I were about the same age, but Wade was considerably older, probably in his thirties, and was clearly unaffected by Angie’s persuasive powers. He needed a ride home, though, so he sat in the dining room and waited impatiently for us to finish up. Then, Angie told us we had to go count the freezer outside.
This caused a rather lengthy debate, because not two weeks earlier, we had all just gotten security training from our Loss Prevention Department, specifically in response to a string of armed robberies at other locations. It was very thorough, extremely unnerving training about how to prevent robberies, and what to do in the event one occurred. That training included a warning about a robbery in which the manager had been shot in the back of the head, execution-style, after he had opened the safe for the robbers, and the subsequent killing of the two other employees. The LP guy explained that even if you followed the training and complied with everything, you could still wind up dead, so it was very important to observe a staggered exit and never to open the back door after closing.
When Angie was unmoved by our recitation of that particular policy, we brilliantly decided that the best way to mitigate the danger was to let Angie stay in the restaurant while Kris and I went out to the freezer, which was located a few feet behind the restaurant. As we concluded our pow-wow, Wade suddenly grew impatient, and demanded we let him out so he could catch a cab. Kris let him out, and then we headed for the back of the restaurant with the key Angie had given me, which was also an extreme no-no.
As I turned the key to disarm the fire alarm and unlock the door, Kris and I were laughing about something, and when I opened the door, time slowed to a crawl. I saw someone in the doorway, and for an instant thought it must be Wade, playing a joke on us. Then, I noticed that it wasn’t Wade; it was someone I didn’t recognize, a stocky black man wearing thick-rimmed glasses, like DMC. Then I saw the barrel of a gun pointed at our guts, and then I saw two others, a taller, skinny black guy and a rather stout white girl, flanking him. The man with the gun immediately shoved me, and I was tumbling down the 14 stairs to the basement.
It was a long trip, just long enough to replay the part of our training where everybody got executed, and then I finally hit the floor. As I squeezed my head in my hands to hold in the brains that were trying to break through my skull like an eggshell, terror and grief and panic pummeled me like tornado debris. That’s about when I thought of that cold-blooded maxim about cowards and heroes. I knew I was no hero, but I also knew that if I didn’t stop thinking about being killed, I was going to fuck everything up and get us all killed. As the pain in my head subsided, I took a deep breath and got ready to die.
It only took a second. I had recently become an uncle for the first time, which had kindled paternal ambitions in me, so I thought about the kids I was never going to get to have, the people I loved whom I would never see again, and the God I was pretty sure didn’t really exist. “I guess I’m about to find out,” I thought. That was it. That was my one death, at least until my actual death happened. I guess a pragmatist dies two deaths.
Upstairs in the kitchen, I could hear the robbers terrorizing my friends, and from the direction of the sounds, I divined that they were moving away from the back door, and towards the dining room. I looked up the stairs and saw that they had left the back door open. Enough time had passed that it seemed they had forgotten me, so I figured I probably had a decent chance of escaping into the night and going to get help. I immediately ruled that out, though, because even if I survived that risk, I’d be putting my friends in danger if they discovered I’d left. I also didn’t trust the cops not to come in all lit up and embroil us in a hostage situation.
But I also couldn’t just stay in the basement, because sooner or later, they were going to realize I was missing and maybe assume I’d escaped out the back door and done who-knows-what. Our training had told us that the best thing to do was to keep calm, comply, and get them out of the store as quickly as possible, and the best way to do that was for me to rejoin my friends. They just want the money.
I didn’t want to go up the stairs and surprise them, though, so I began to yell up the stairs, “Hey, I’m down here!”, placing both my hands in view. Eventually, the girl came down the stairs and started yelling a bunch of shit at me about why I was “hiding” in the basement, and I was like, “You guys pushed me down the stairs.” As she led me back up the stairs, she kept saying how they wouldn’t hesitate to kill us all.
She led me behind the front counter, where Angie and Kris were being menaced by the two other guys, one of whom I now noticed had a shotgun. They brought us all into the office and made Kris and I lie on our stomachs, while they tried to get Angie to open the safe. She was stalling them, trying to get them to convince her that they weren’t going to kill us, because they were very agitated. The taller, skinny one, meanwhile, had his shotgun pointed at the back of my head and his foot on my ass, and that thing was shaking like a jackhammer. “This fucking guy is going to shoot me by accident!” I thought, and so I asked him, very nicely, if he could point the gun away from me, since we were being cooperative.
Surprisingly, this seemed to relax the guy, so he took his foot off of me and pointed the shotgun at the floor. For some reason, though, Angie was taking a really long time with the safe. Our training was clear that we should give up the money immediately, but she was really worried that as soon as she did that, they’d kill us. So the stocky ringleader cocked his revolver (a black .357 magnum, I later found out) and pointed it at Kris. “Get that safe open, bitch, or I’m gonna blow his brains out!” he said.
“Just give him the fucking money, Angie, and let them get out of here!” Kris cried, with a mixture of terror and exasperation that I’ve never heard since. The guy was so hyped up that the girl robber put her hand on his arm and told him to be careful not to shoot Kris by mistake. Angie finally got the safe open, but the robbers didn’t have anything to carry the money in, so one of them had to go up front to get a takeout bag. Then, they asked Angie where they could lock us up, so they didn’t have to shoot us.
“The freezer,” she told them. “Right out back.”
That was no good, though, because they didn’t want to risk taking us out of the store. “What about the stockroom?” she suggested. “It’s in the basement.”
Immediately, I knew that the march to the stockroom was probably going to be the last thing I ever did, because it only locks from the inside. They led us through the kitchen, and I remember the ringleader busting on Kris, who was wearing a Flavor Flav clock. “What, is you a S-one-W?”
When we got down to the breakroom, they put Kris and I on our knees in front of the stockroom door, while Angie stood behind us being guarded with the shotgun. For some reason, they had her give Kris the key to the stockroom, and demanded that he open it. His hands were shaking a little, and the key wasn’t really cooperating either, so the stocky guy cocked the revolver again, put it to the back of Kris’ head, and began screaming in his ear, “If you don’t get that fucking door unlocked right now, I’m gonna blow your fucking head off!”
He kept screaming shit like that while Kris tried to work the key, and I heard him whimper “Please don’t kill me.”
To this day, I don’t know how he managed not to drop that key and shit his pants, but he got that door open, and they herded us into the middle of the stockroom, which also contained the restaurant’s washer and dryer. They pointed their guns at us, and gave us the speech about how they were going to come back and check on us so we’d better not try to get out, and we were like, “No, we won’t, thank you, thank you!”
They backed out of the stockroom and closed the door behind them, and for a brief second, we all held our breath. The girl robber tried the knob and, realizing is wasn’t locked, actually reached in and locked it from the inside, and almost closed it before realizing she was locking them out, not us in. The door swung back open and they all rushed in, pointing their guns and screaming about how we thought they were stupid, and how they now had to kill us because they couldn’t lock us up.
This was it, that all-hope-is-lost, rush the gunman moment. The ringleader raised up his .357 to shoot Kris in the face, and just as all hell was about to break loose, I spotted the washing machine out of the corner of my eye. “Wait!” I said, and actually raised my hand a little. “Why don’t you just tie us up?”
The stocky guy snapped his head in my direction, strode over to me, and stuck the barrel of his gun hard up into my chin. “What the fuck are we supposed to tie you up with?” he growled.
Without moving my head, I shot my eyes toward the washing machine. “The aprons,” I fairly whispered, praying that there were three of them in there.
It took a little bit of convincing by the other, less crazy two, but they decided that yes, they would tie us up rather than commit a triple murder. I later found out that the girl and the skinny guy were juveniles, 16 and 17 years old.
When they tied me up, I used that old Hardy Boys trick where you tense up so it’s easier to slip the bonds later, and after they left, I made quick work of the apron, and as I was untying Kris, Angie was hollering for me to go upstairs and call the cops. “Fuck no,” I said, “we’re waiting at least ten minutes. What if they’re still up there?”
I made her promise we would wait before I untied her, which turned out to be a good thing. While I was being thrown down the stairs, the robbers had gotten Angie (with some reluctance, Kris later told me) to give up the keys to her hot red sports car. The problem was, none of these geniuses knew how to drive a stickshift, so they had to abandon the car and call a taxi. That’s how the police wound up catching them, because the taxi driver stopped into a Dunkin’ Donuts after he dropped them off, and overheard some cops talking about the robbery. He led them straight to the motel where he’d taken them.
I’m not gonna lie; the whole thing was terrifying and intensely traumatizing, mostly because of all the waiting. But as scared as I was, dying that one death allowed me to think clearly enough to give myself the best chance to get through it. Getting ready to die wasn’t easy, and I don’t even think it was brave, it was just what I had to do. There just wasn’t another choice.
At the time, I told myself I’d been given an enormous gift, that every day after that was a bonus, and it would change how I lived my life. For a hot second, I even believed that maybe God had shown me those apron strings hanging out of that washing machine.
Until this week, I hadn’t thought about it for twenty-five years or so, ever since the subpoenas stopped coming. I think the young ones ended up rolling over on the ringleader, because we never wound up having to go to court, which is a good thing, because Kris and I really had to work on our story to keep Angie’s ass out of the fire. For a long time, I was consumed with rage at those three robbers, resentful of the death they’d made me die, so I eventually had to just bury it, put it out of my mind.
It’s back now, though, and while the story still whitens my knuckles and grits my teeth, I’m much more at peace with it. In fact, before I wrote this story, I looked up the people who committed the robbery, and found that at least two of them are on Facebook, the younger ones. It looks like they got past it, too.
How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Star Wars (Again)
by Chez Pazienza
I was seven-years-old when Star Wars was released. I remember seeing something about it on TV in the lead-up to it hitting theaters and, one Saturday afternoon when my grandmother asked if I wanted to see a movie, literally falling off the couch with excitement at the prospect of seeing what was supposedly groundbreaking new science fiction. I was a space nerd, who up to that point had been weaned on Star Trek, so there was no way I was going to miss the next step in the evolution of pop culture sci-fi. The movie was showing at a tiny place nearby in Fort Lauderdale, at a location that eventually became a porn theater. My grandmother drove us there in her 1970-something Monte Carlo and I sat down, sat back and let the movie completely wash over me. It’s said that most movie geeks have that one moment where their love of film is cemented, where the sheer magic of movies knocks them back against the wall and they’re never the same again. My moment was toward the end of Star Wars, when Darth Vader has Luke Skywalker in his sights, the TIE fighter next to him suddenly explodes, he shouts a surprised, “What?!” — and then the Millennium Falcon screams down from out of the sky with sun behind it. I can’t even imagine what my little kid face looked like during that moment, but I know that it was the first time I ever had chills run over my body top to bottom and tears of absolute joy begin to pool in my eyes. It was just so damn wondrous. And it changed me forever.
Well, maybe not forever.
I went on to see Star Wars another dozen or so times in the theater. Through some miracle, my dad managed to get a hold of an excellent bootleg VHS copy of the movie long before it debuted on video, which meant that I was able to watch it over and over and over again in the comfort of my home. And I did. Over and over and over and over. I got to where I could answer literally any trivia question you could come up with and could quote the film almost in its entirety. I bought every bit of Star Wars merch I could get my hands on, from action figures to toys to clothes to trading cards to bedsheets to Burger King commemorative glasses. My whole life as a kid was consumed by George Lucas’s creation. I of course ate up the sequels, taking time off of school to see each of them on the morning of opening day, because I was just that serious about Star Wars and anything it spawned. I didn’t even consider myself to be a Star Wars fan, per se. What I was engaging in wasn’t fandom. Star Wars was simply my life. When I was a kid there was no sense asking me what my favorite movie was because there was a good chance I had it plastered all over my body somewhere. I was totally immersed in the Star Wars universe — and that immersion lasted right up until the time where I discovered punk rock and realized that I’d like to get laid at some point.
But if I’m honest, turning my back on Star Wars was really a matter of growing up and becoming cynical. Sure, I took a look around me and saw how male teenagers who still proclaimed their undying love for Star Wars did in terms of finding girlfriends who didn’t live in Canada. But more than anything else, I just got older. I still admired Lucas’s creation for how brilliant it was at its height and how much it meant to my childhood, but by my early teens I was more into skateboards, the Stooges and masturbation. By my mid-to-late teens, it was alt and hip-hop, drinking beer and trying to avoid having to do nothing but masturbate all the time. My appreciation for Star Wars had been pushed aside in favor of a worship of movies like Alien, Apocalypse Now, The Lost Boys and Angel Heart. My soul had obviously blackened quite a bit since I was a kid, but I was good with that.
Then of course came the Star Wars prequels, which admittedly generated some excitement from me if for no other reason than that I’m a sucker for nostalgia. With those three movies, it looked like George Lucas had effectively ruined his own legacy and even destroyed my memories of how good the original trilogy was when I was a kid. And that’s what got me, then a 30-something man with a career, a history of drug use and one divorce under his belt, thinking: Were the original Star Wars films really that good or was I just a kid who could be easily impressed? The original Star Wars was objectively a great movie — and so was The Empire Strikes Back — but let’s face it, Return of the Jedi was nothing more than a neutered Han Solo working with a bunch of teddy bears. So, really, I looked back on it, only one-third of the Star Wars movies were any good. The rest kind of sucked.
So what to make of J.J. Abrams upcoming sequel to Star Wars, the continuation of the story that occurs in the years following the end of Return of the Jedi? Star Wars: The Force Awakens promised from the very beginning to be a competent film — and while that might sound like an insult, “competent” in this case isn’t interchangeable with “mediocre.” The fact is that George Lucas screwed his own movies with the prequels. He did it by violating one of the first rules, well, everything: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Lucas, who had already tinkered with the original films to the point where die-hard fans considered him a mad scientist rather than a benevolent genius, was so impressed with how far special effects had come in thirty years that he believed he could bring every insane thought in his head to life. This is somewhat admirable, except for the fact that the human mind subconsciously reacts to images it knows aren’t real — and Lucas created an entire movie of unreal images. The actors had nothing to genuinely react to because in real life nothing was there when they were shooting their scenes — everything in the prequels was fake, and it felt that way to the audience. Compounding that was Lucas’s lack of talent for writing dialogue, so what you had was a bunch of wooden characters in a nonexistent, fully animated environment, and that doomed the movies. Lucas had turned his reputation from that of a brilliant independent-minded filmmaker to a dime-store hack.
When Disney bought Lucasfilm and acquired the rights to the Star Wars universe, a lot of people were terrified of what was to come. I wasn’t one of them. My very first thought was that Disney’s desire to make money and its history of turning art into an overall brand was, maybe counterintuitively, exactly what Star Wars needed. Disney would be determined to make a good movie out of Star Wars, if for no other reason than the fact that it knows how to read the tea leaves, hire the right people, and create quality entertainment. And that’s what Star Wars needed — it needed to be entertaining again. Bringing J.J. Abrams aboard to direct the first toe-in-the-water of what would be an expanded universe said everything you needed to know about Disney’s plans for the franchise. Abrams is not only someone who grew up on Lucas and Spielberg and would be honored to do a Star Wars film to the point where he’d be rightfully concerned about further screwing up the legacy of the original movies, he’s an intensely populist filmmaker who had already successfully relaunched Star Trek as a rousing piece of pop entertainment. Abrams was perfect for a new Star Wars movie. And he proved it right off the bat by promising the loyal that he would be eschewing the all-CGI approach that had dominated and destroyed Lucas’s prequels in favor of a return to practical, in-camera effects wherever possible.
Disney also did something that would seem insulting had Lucas’s stock not already plummeted by his own hand: The studio assured fans that Lucas would have nothing to do with the new movie other than in a tangential advisory role. In other words, George Lucas wants to suggest that Jar Jar’s grandson show up in the new film or that a new Greedo shoots a new Han Solo first? Fine, he can do that — but nobody has to listen to him. Make no mistake: Excising George Lucas was the smartest thing Disney could do with The Force Awakens. It’s going to make it a better movie. And if the new trailers are any indication, it looks like Abrams has made the movie everyone expected him to make — a thrilling, faithful throwback to the original Star Wars films that lit up so many childhoods like mine.
Sure, trailers can be deceiving since they can make any movie look good, but for the first time in decades — the first time since I was a little kid — I’m really looking forward to a new Star Wars movie. I definitely wanted to see The Phantom Menace when it dropped in 1999, but there’s something about this movie that’s different even from that. Maybe it’s the place I am in my own life, with the usual midlife crisis of the mid-40s making nostalgia just that much more valuable, but I think it’s so much more. To see the characters I grew up on handing off the storyline to a new group of young space adventurers is thrilling and immensely satisfying. The line in the new trailer about the “old stories,” with Harrison Ford’s Han Solo confirming that, “It’s true, all of it. The dark side. The Jedi. They’re real,” is so wonderfully potent because, despite the continued Star Wars fandom over the years, it feels like the absolute joy that came with the initial films has been lost — and now it’s finally being rediscovered. I’ve always been curious whether Star Wars could one day capture that magic it did back in 1977 and transport me to that first moment of being blown through the back of the theater — whether it could make me feel like a kid again.
Will The Force Awakens? I honestly don’t know — but I’ve got my tickets for opening day, which in and of itself is a shocking, hyper-excited leap of faith on my part. Even with the knowledge that only a third of the Star Wars movies are really worthwhile, they’re so worthwhile and they universe they imagined is so powerful that it’s hard to forget the impact they first had on me. Those old stories of the dark side and the Jedi are true — all of it. And I’m ready for the new stories for a new generation.
Republicans Sell Tickets to Their Own Funeral
by Ben Cohen
If you were to look at the actual policies of the Republican party rather than listen to their professed love of ‘Murica and everything not gay, you’d realize pretty quickly they don’t give a damn about anyone other than rich white people like them.
Study after study after study shows Republican policies are carefully crafted to maintain an extreme wealth polarity in America, with the established rich at the top, and the 99% scratching a living at the bottom. It is now impossible to take any of the Republican Party’s tax policies seriously given the documented widening of inequality in America – a trend that has spiraled out of control since Ronald Reagan introduced the practice of ‘trickle down’ economics.
Money is so intrinsic to GOP politics that the party cannot be called anything other than a propaganda arm of corporate America, and a vehicle by which the ultra wealthy ram through policy in order to consolidate their power.
General election politics in America has always been big, big money – a recent report in Bloomberg predicting that the 2016 election would cost an estimated $10 billion, including spending “by candidates, parties and outside groups and individuals.” But in the modern era of crony capitalism and mass deregulation, the grifters are finding more and more innovative ways to cash in on America’s biggest Dog and Pony show. No-hope candidates like Mike Huckabee and Ben Carlson use the platform of presidential politics to hawk books, while a plethora of image consultants, strategists and paraphernalia entrepreneurs slither around the action looking to skim money from the bloated coffers of the major candidates.
In perhaps the most brazen example of GOP money-grubbing, the party has amazingly decided to charge the press for access to the four-day Republican Convention in 2016. Reported PBS:
"Representatives for news organizations who plan to cover next summer’s convention are protesting a move by the Republican National Committee to charge news media organizations a $150 access fee for seats on the press stand.
Seats on risers constructed for newspapers, magazines, wire services and online print publications have been awarded without charge in the past. Representatives for daily and periodical press galleries in the Capitol protested Monday that the media “should not be charged to cover elected officials at an event of enormous interest to the public.”
Of course the GOP is denying they are charging for access, with RNC spokeswoman Alison Moore saying: “There is no access fee. For outlets who prefer a special work station, there will be a minimal charge for construction at a fraction of the actual cost.” As is always the case with Republican ‘facts’ the truth is the exact opposite. The press corps responded to the GOP’s unprecedented move with this statement:
"STATEMENT BY THE CHAIRS OF THE CONGRESSIONAL PERIODICAL AND DAILY PRESS GALLERIES
We are disappointed in the decision by the Republican National Convention Committee to charge an access fee to cover the 2016 convention. The press, as representatives of the public, should not be charged to cover elected officials at an event of enormous interest to the public.
The convention committee said reporters who don’t pay still will be allowed into the arena. But the vantage points they will be given will not allow them to follow convention proceedings, gain access to the convention floor to interview public officials, nor file stories on the event. We are concerned that the proposed fee smacks of forcing the press to pay for newsgathering.
We urge the RNCC to follow the precedent of previous conventions of both parties and drop plans for an access fee so the press can continue to inform the public about a major news event.
Heather Rothman, chair, Executive Committee of Periodical Correspondents
Jonathan D. Salant, chair, Standing Committee of Correspondents"
So just as tax cuts for the rich help the poor but actually don’t, the convention fee that really isn’t a fee is of course, a fee.
In fairness to the Republican Party, the press corps don’t have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to shameless greed. Election season is a ratings bonanza, and every major outlet in America ponies up to spin the monotonous performances of the nation’s best focus group tested candidates into something vaguely watchable. Like the politicians they cover, the media has developed innovative ways of cashing in on the event – mostly through the use of relentless polls displayed with increasingly fancy graphics and overly dramatic headlines.
While the media is outraged by the GOP’s latest little scam, they too have their part to play in the broken political system.
However, the charging for access model does broach new territory of corruption – even for the Republican Party. This latest move is no doubt in response to the enormous impact Donald Trump has had on the Republican election. While the establishment GOP no doubt hates Trump, they acknowledge his marketability and ratings power with the media. Trump may threaten to destroy the Republican Party from the inside out, but given no one seems particularly interested in long term viability of the party other than a few rational moderates, they are looking for opportunities to cash in on their own, eminently watchable death spiral.
Donald Trump: A pay-per-view attraction.
Donald Trump is the Floyd Mayweather of politics – a grotesquely wealthy braggart looking to promote his personal brand at the expense of the industry he operates in. Floyd Mayweather caused immense damage to the sport of boxing by helping shift incredible amounts of money upwards away from regular fighters to a select few pay-per-view champions – just as Trump is siphoning off attention and money away from actual politicians towards ludicrous characters like himself.
The net effect of this is – as was the case in boxing and Floyd Mayweather -is the cheapening of politics itself. But Trump doesn’t give a damn and neither do the media companies who cover him.
The GOP has finally latched onto this new revenue generating opportunity and will demand their slice of the action, regardless of whether it paves the way for their own demise.
In a way, this is a parable for the intrinsic flaws in unfettered capitalism – a system that by design can only destroy itself. As Vladimir Lenin once said: “We will hang the capitalists with the rope that they sell us” – a fitting phrase for the modern Republican Party that is now selling tickets to its own funeral.