Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Cycle of Death

from James Grippando

Well, this is a pretty grim topic to munch on along with youg bagel but . . . have you ever thought you were going to die? I don’t mean standing on stage in front of a crowd of people and discovering that your fly is open, or trying to stop the bed from spinning after too many margaritas. I mean lights out, grim reaper, game over, I am going to die! A realization like that can trigger a range of emotions—fear, anger, sadness, panic, denial, disbelief, and so on. A lot depends on the circumstances. It’s one thing for a doctor to say you’ve got two years to live and quite another to find yourself spinning out of control in an automobile and headed straight toward an eighteen wheeler.

Now, here’s another spin on it: Have you ever thought someone was going to kill you? Here again, I don’t mean when your high-school buddies dropped you off at 3 a.m. and your father was on the front porch pointing at his watch with a scowl on his face. I mean standing face-to-face with a cold-blooded murderer who has decided that it was time for your life to end.
People who don’t live in Miami probably think that everyone in this crazy city has at one time or another fought off a killer. That’s probably an exaggeration. I’ve lived in Miami since 1984, and most of my friends have never had this experience. Unfortunately, I have. Luckily, I lived to tell about it, and if you read the opening scene of Last Call (my new Jack Swyteck novel, just released) you will get an almost dead-on account of what happened to me.

Cycling is one of my hobbies, but here’s something that might surprise you. Miami is not a particularly bicycle-friendly city. Key Biscayne has terrific bike trails, and there is a scenic trail leading out of Coconut Grove, but just about anywhere else in the city you’re left to fight for a sliver of the lane with automobile drivers who have been voted the meanest on the planet. I’ve had beer bottles thrown at me from pick up trucks. I’ve been run off the road by soccer moms in too much of a hurry. And I’ve been chased by gangs. It was the gang chase that almost killed me.

I was riding my twelve-speed out of Coconut Grove, a world of extremes south of Miami, where some of south Florida’s most beautiful neighborhood literally brush up against ghettos. I noticed a car behind me, a totally-refurbished, twenty-year-old classic Chevy Impala that had all the trappings of the finest in gang wheels. Metallic-blue paint job with a flaming red devil atop the hood. Bumpers, mirrors, and side strips in high-polished chrome that glistened in the sunset. Low-ride, hydraulic suspension that left barely enough ground clearance for a garden snake. I knew it was a gang. And it was following way too close. I suddenly found a higher gear and raced through the green light, crossing six lanes of stopped traffic on U.S. 1. The car sped up, flying over the gentle crown in the highway, the chassis scraping on asphalt, sending sparks flying.

I was now officially worried.

I steered off the road and made a hard right onto the paved bicycle path. Behind me, tires screeched as the gangsters steered their car onto the same bike path in hot pursuit. The path was like a narrow, winding road beneath the elevated Metro-rail tracks. A tall chain link fence topped with spirals of razor wire bordered the left side, separating the public path from warehouses and auto-repair shops. To the right were the three southbound lanes of U.S. 1, an endless stream of traffic headed in the opposite direction at better than fifty miles per hour. I had nowhere to go but due north along the bicycle path. I swerved a few feet to the left, and the Chevy followed. I juked to the right, and so did the Chevy. The driver was clearly toying with his prey, practically kissing my rear tire with the Impala’s big chrome bumper. I was inches away from being road kill when I reached a cross street. I made a hard left turn down a side road of broken asphalt and rutted gravel. I hit a mud puddle and nearly fell, but I managed to right myself and keep going. I had to stand on the pedals to maintain my speed. The all-out sprint was taking its toll. And then my heart sank: Dead ahead was a solid block wall.

The paint-and-body shops on either side had closed hours earlier, their windows and doors protected by roll-down, metal security shutters. I’d found myself a blind alley. I dropped my bicycle and ran, searching frantically for a way to scale the wall. It was like a sheer cliff. I turned and faced the music—literally—as the noisy low-rider with the boom boxes blaring raced toward me. All I could think was, Man, this is it.

The Chevy skidded to a stop. I saw three bad-ass kids sitting in the front seat. The passenger door flew open.

“Get him, Jerry!” the driver shouted.
No one moved.
“Take the bike,” I shouted, my voice quaking. “Really. You can have it.”
“Cut him, Jerry, Cut him right now! Do you want in the gang or don’t you?”

At that moment, I knew I was screwed. I was a random selection for a gang initiation. This kid had to stick me with his blade to be one of them. I don’t remember exactly what I did next. Survival kicked in, and I probably adopted some goofy martial-arts, self-defense pose. I heard more cursing from inside the Chevy, and I could suddenly breathe again. Jerry was chickening out.

“Pussy!” one of them shouted at Jerry.

The car sped off. I picked up my bicycle and sped home.

Living in any big city, you see gang graffiti from time to time, and you probably think gang violence is never going to impact your life directly. But this personal brush with death percolated in the back of my mind for years. I’ve often wondered what happened to Jerry and his buddies—if Jerry ever made it into the gang, if he ever did find the guts to cut someone at random, if he ended up face-down in the street like so many other gang bangers. That personal experience, and my own speculation about those kids, finally found some artistic expression in the depiction of gangs and gang culture in Last Call. It helped to shape my creation of Theo Knight’s teenage years, which makes him all that much more complex and entertaining as a principal character in the Jack Swyteck series.

So enjoy. And don’t ride your bike after dark—at least not in Miami.

All the best,

P.S. Paul will be in his usual spot, naked, next Tuesday.


  1. Jim,
    Bike, Miami, unarmed.

    What part of that sounded like a good idea?

    Good, cauionary tale that should make us all think.

    You need to mention you tour for the new book.

    Jim Born

  2. The only two times I thought I might bite the bullet were threats from Mother Nature: on an airplane in a storm and on a boat in a storm.

    Are you signing in L.A., James?

  3. I thought I'd do a bicycle tour this year. Kidding. Closest I get to LA this time out is Phoenix. With the weather you're having, that's probably close enough.

  4. This had me on the edge of my seat! Yes, on two occasions I thought I might die - once when I was a kid, and once when I was a flight attendant about, oh, gosh, that many years ago! The most awful thing was having time to think about it.

  5. Whoa!

    Had me holding my breath there.

    Can't wait to read the novel. Always good when reality can inform your fiction.

    As for scary life experiences:

    Windsurfing many years ago, off Maui, I wiped out on a wave the likes of which we don't have in Miami. The board shot skyward, catching me on the leg. I thought I'd broken my femur. I had no chance of water-starting to get back on the board, and I was drifting the wrong way, i.e., not toward the beach. I have no recollection of how I got back. I do remember the doctor who x-rayed me saying that Maui Wowie would be the best pain reliever on the island.

  6. Closest I would have been was when a succession of doctors told me I was killing myself through my drinking in the early 90s. Of course, we men wave off medical advice that we don't want to hear, so I kept it up. When I finally collapsed, my doctor at the time said "When I say you're killing yourself, what I mean to say is that, you WILL die within the next few months if you don't stop drinking and let us try to fix your stomach".

    Kind of an eye opener. Oh, and I almost drowned once, but drinking yourself to death is much cooler.

  7. Well, I was driving down a country road in Michigan in my Dodge Omni when a tire/wheel on a flatbed truck burned off the axle, went bouncing down the road, came out of nowhere and smashed into the front of my car, directly in front of the driver's position. Two feet higher and I would have been dead. As it was, $3300 of damage on a car that cost $7000 and I was totally unharmed, although after the ambulance, fire trucks and state cops left me by the side of the road to wait for the sheriff to come by and take an accident report, we waited 4 hours. It was one of those rural areas where jurisdictions get a little confusing.

    It was one of those accidents that was scarier in retrospect. At the time I didn't know what the hell happened. I saw a tire flying away and radiator fluid all over the windshield, then when I pulled off to the side of the road and looked, the car looked like I'd hit a tree.

  8. It's interesting how our questions turn into stories.

  9. Oh boy! What a terrifying moment. I was reading it and holding my breath.
    The closest I came was coming home one night about 20 years ago. At the time I was living in the South Bronx. I had been out with friends and took the subway home. I would always take a cab from the station instead of walking up the hill to my house. This hill was dark, with vacant lots and abandoned buildings on each side. This night I couldn't get a cab and decided to walk home. Now at this time, there was constant gun-fire and crime was as common as a new day. I was almost up the hill when these two guys appeared out of a building and started calling to me. I tried to stay calm but my legs wanted to run. I quickened my pace. One of them must have said something about heading over to me but then the other stopped him saying, "If she's out at this time alone then she's packin' something." Thankfully they didn't decide to find out.I think the most dangerous thing I was packing was a ball point pen.

    Sandra Hamlett

  10. I suppose its been a while since you first wrote this but i might as well interject my two cents... i sugest you take up real martial arts... its a cheap and effective way to learn to defend yourself.Depending on prices usually, affordable. anyone can learn martial arts but when it comes right down to it if you need to know how to defend yourself from a real knife attack you should seriously consider buffing up on your ninja training.
    Best of wishes ~Jesse