During Christmas vacation 1968-69 I ran into a high school friend much wiser in the ways of the world than I. He had stumbled onto a curious job for the next few weeks— collecting the proceeds from a chain of bowling alleys in the Washington area, counting the loot, and delivering it to corporate headquarters—but he needed a driver. The work required no particular skill, was done quickly, late at night, and he was willing to divide the fee. So I signed on.
I was, at this time, in what might be called the Orwellian phase of my working career. Inspired, to some degree, by Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), I had resolved to supplement my higher education with a string of part-time, blue-collar, low-wage endeavors that would give me some exposure to a workaday world of which I knew virtually nothing. So I labored on construction crews, in a bookstore, at a concrete company, picking up laundry, washing dishes, shoveling pigeon feces, taking tickets in a movie theater—all to remind myself, I suppose, that I would be happier in life while seated behind a desk, preferably reading and writing and wearing a tie.
Yet the bowling alley job was intriguing, in its way: I had been unaware of the existence of such things as leagues; my colleagues at the different venues were a varied lot, to say the least; and midnight was an interesting time to show up for work. Curiously, I proved more skillful than my friend at the fine art of opening safes.
All went well, all things considered, until late one evening in early January when we found ourselves in the back office of one of the alleys, counting and recounting the cash. There was a gentle knock at the door, and when I opened it, there stood a gentleman in a lime-green Nehru jacket, wearing sunglasses, and pointing a gun at my chest. Of course, it took me a few seconds to perceive what was happening, during which time our unexpected visitor and his three (or was it four?) confederates pushed their way past me into the tiny room, brandished their weapons, and ordered my friend and me to lie on the floor.
Sad to say, this was a rancorous period in the social history of our nation’s capital, and apart from full-scale rioting nine months earlier, there had been a well-publicized series of armed robberies in Washington in which the perpetrators had shot (and killed) their victims for good measure. I was, of course, fully cognizant of this—as I was also aware of a knee grinding into my spinal column, rather painfully, and the awkward fact that I would probably be required to open the safe.
It is often said that criminals are more nervous than their victims, and certainly the shaking hands, barking voices, and generally unbusinesslike demeanor of our visitors suggested either mild hysteria on their part or, perhaps, drug addiction. But I was in no condition to dwell on such things, only thankful to recall the combination to the safe, to dial it successfully, and watch in wonderment as our visitors spilled coins all over the room in their haste.
From here my friend and I were marched at gunpoint, along with a janitor and late-shift mechanic, into a storage room and, once again, ordered to lie on the floor. When I saw that the robbers were collecting pieces of rope and string with which to bind our wrists, I guessed, with some certainty, that we were not to be shot. And when they bolted from the room to make their getaway, and shoved a pool table against the door to block our exit, I was still more confident: For the door opened from the inside.
When we were sure that they had abandoned the premises, and were unlikely to fire at random, we unfettered ourselves, opened the door, and—laughing nervously, but laughing—pushed the pool table back into place.
It is a curious thing, in retrospect, to have come so close to oblivion without feeling too many effects. In subsequent decades I have driven near the scene of the crime without remembering it, and I am almost wholly indifferent to the fact that the case remains unsolved. I remember looking at hundreds of snapshots of bad guys at a police station, even being driven to a courthouse in southern Maryland to gaze at a lineup—to no avail. My principal memory of the lineup is reading Robert Rhodes James’s biography of Lord Rosebery on the long drive in a police car to Prince Frederick. And my only souvenir of that perilous night is an old pocket watch, its crystal smashed and hands frozen in time, which I keep in a drawer.