When I was 15, I began working at the Winn Dixie near my house. I was only allowed to work weekends at that age, 8am-5pm. I would bag groceries and get carts from the lot.
One Sunday a month, we’d meet early, 6am early, before the store opened. Everyone with a pickup truck and a few bag boys would come dressed in street clothes and we’d drive a mile down the road to pick up our carts from the projects.
These projects were one of the most feared in my hometown because Lawrence was from there.
Lawrence wasn’t real. He was a ghost story. You told your kids about Lawrence to get them home before dark and keep them there. We heard he had killed people. Not a person. People. Indicating more than one. He was 6’6″ and had been thrown off of his high school football team for cracking another player’s skull. While the player was wearing a helmet. There was an incident where Lawrence refused to fight a drunk sailor unless his Navy buddies agreed to participate. All 14 of them. Lawrence was the last man standing and smiled all the way through his sentence as a result of the altercation. He was folklore, nothing more.
Everyone knew these stories, or everyone had their own, grittier, versions. Add to that crime statistics regarding this row of buildings and you get a very somber ride down that stretch of road to pick up the carts, the line of raised pickups like a hillbilly funeral procession.
A majestic stretch of road
We’d roll through the turnabout and situate the trucks facing the street, in case we had to get out of there fast. We’d quietly, but quickly, gather all of our carts and load them.
One resident of the projects, Ms. Eve, was a sixty-something woman who would come in on Sundays, straight from church. She wore the same dress every week and rolled her stockings down to her shins for relief from the heat. She was feeble, even for her age, and could flip her top dentures in her mouth. She was my favorite customer in the store.
After helping her out here and there, it got to the point where I would walk with her, push her cart and collect all of the items off the shelves that weren’t immediately in her reach. On particularly hot days, I’d clock out and take my break walking her to the projects. I could do the mile there and mile back in an hour, easy.
After a few months, she stopped coming in. I feared the worse and would always look towards her building when we went to collect carts those Sunday mornings.
A 15-year-old surrounded by bad influences is bound to listen to a few of them, even if it’s fleeting, a phase. I had many friends and fewer enemies. In my neighborhood, that was a victory. You never though idle threats out of 15-year-old mouths would come back to haunt you.
One morning, I was bagging a woman’s groceries and this large, angry man busted through the doors like a thunderstorm, his broad shoulders and sheer momentum throwing them off track. He could manhandle you with his voice alone, and he used that voice to repeatedly call my name. I took flight. As fast and inconspicuous as possible. Fast won and inconspicuous lost.
I felt him breathing down my neck and booked it into the stock room, climbed a double-decker hand cart onto a row of pallets stacked six feet high and three deep. I found a place and nestled, sitting on loose toilet paper. Not dignified, but in one piece.
I heard the doors open and slap the walls of the stock room and that voice called out for me. Angrier than before. I knew that my fellow bag boys slacking off in the back would cover for me. It was code.
“He’s back there. Climbed over that pallet. Thrifty Maid cans.”
Refusing the indignity of being pulled out, I was resolved to cower in a ball in front of this psychopath like a real man.
I climbed up and out of hiding. The bag boys scattered, leaving the flapping, plastic doors swinging on their hinges.
I counted the perforated holes on my sneakers. Protected my face and offered the top of my skull and shoulders and waited. Nothing except a deep breath like a mustang’s strong enough to part my hair.
“Why you gotta make me chase you? All through the store?”
59, 60, 61, 62, 63 holes on the toe of my right shoe.
“Look at me!”
I look up and he’s standing in front of me with his hand extended. Out of breath, but his hand extended.
“I just wanted to come in here and thank the man’s been taking care of my grandma while I was away.”
Even this sounded angry. I put my hand out. It was like holding cooked spaghetti. I told him my name.
“I know who you are. She won’t shut up about you. I take her down to the Food Lion, but she wants to come here. Food Lion’s cheaper. And if you ever need anything, I mean anything, you look me up through her. You know where she lives?”
“Good. I stay there sometimes. Sometimes I stay in Starke.”
Thinking, Raiford Prison is in Starke.
“Name’s Lawrence. People know me, you just say Lawrence. And I’m going to do something for you right now.”
And he whispered in my ear.
He left the stockroom and the store as fast as he came in. I followed him at a trot. As soon as we got into the parking lot, I screamed obscenities and threats after him. He kept moving, faster now, down the street towards the projects. I followed him to the end of the parking lot, screaming at the top of my lungs until he was out of sight.
I walked back into the Winn Dixie and my manager asked if he should call the police. I told him no.
“Next time you’re out there, son, don’t come back in without a handful of carts.”
The other bag boys and onlookers in the parking were far more impressed. I had chased after Lawrence and said things to him that left others horizontal.
Which is exactly what he told me to do when he whispered in my ear. To paraphrase:
“Perception,” he said, “is stronger than 10 men.”
I only did what he told me because he was stronger than 14.