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Reptile Brain

Or Things to Do at Gunpoint

By Roy StevensPublished 5 months ago 5 min read
Reptile Brain
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

For some of you living in the really big urban centres; New York, Delhi, Tel Aviv, London, this might seem a bit strange but please keep in mind that I’m talking about a slightly different, smaller but still urban experience. In a place like Hamilton, Ontario, a larger medium-sized city if you can make any sense of that, growing up in the 1970s meant relatively little exposure to open street crime. Therefore, his actions came as a shock to the fourteen-year-old me. I was very young and inexperienced, so I’ll excuse myself with that reasoning.

I don’t know and will never know his name. I don’t want to know it. I’m not interested in ‘thanking’ him for his contribution to my growth. Watching his behaviour during our brief path-crossing wasn’t some kind of pleasant experience, strange epiphany notwithstanding.

He snatched a bag of Christmas shopping from a woman maybe three metres from me in broad daylight and an open parking lot. I guess a bit of setting is needed here. This was back when medium-sized cities still had real downtowns/high streets full of thriving department stores, toy shops and tobacconists (no endorsement intended). One route I could take to downtown from home was along a newly built bus concourse to a parking lot behind a department store called Robinson’s.

From the parking lot you could enter through a back door, go down a nondescript staircase and enter the basement level of the store where all the goodies were anyway. At fourteen I seldom had much interest in things like the toy or pet departments any longer, but long established habits sure can linger. From the basement level of Robinson’s a short escalator ride up to the main floor deposited you directly in front of the James Street doors through which the sights and sounds and smells and girls (or boys if so inclined) of an active downtown awaited.

So that’s why I was in the parking lot. We’re creeping quickly up to half a century ago here so I can’t actually remember if I was going to meet someone or just free styling but there I was with goofy long hair, peach fuzz and probably horrid bell-bottoms, but most importantly running shoes. I don’t recall the brand on the shoes, but at that point in my life they would have been something cheap and bargain basement. That’s not important. What was important was the running shoes themselves. I was a good-sized kid already, bit skinny, but with strong legs and very fast. I also knew I was fast.

What did I do with those running shoes while the guy with the lady’s presents ran away down the concourse? Nothing.

I watched him shrink down the road, keeping in scale company with all the objects around him. I estimated his speed; he was fast, but I felt I could have caught up to him. I sized him up. A young adult who outweighed me, but I knew I could have slowed him down long enough for reinforcements of some sort to arrive. While the woman screamed, “He stole my things, he stole my things,” and with me as her nearest help, I froze.

I clearly remember considering whether he might be needier than her. Was she from one of the ‘Robber Baron’ families up on Raven’s Cliff? That didn’t last, clearly it was wrong to let the thief get away. I hesitated too long, measuring and mulling while the snatcher reached Main Street and turned east toward James Street.

That’s when I finally reacted. I ran into Robinson’s, down the stairs, through the basement departments, up the escalator and out onto James Street. From there I ran up to Main Street dodging pedestrian traffic and newspaper boxes. (Remember those? Most of you probably don’t except from the movies. No shame in that but they sure provided atmosphere to a street scene!)

At the corner of Main and James I found nothing of the thief or the stolen packages. Dejected, I returned to the back parking lot where the woman was already being interviewed by the police. They had no use for me besides a quick corroborating description. The woman looked at me wonderingly. I don’t blame her.

Since that experience I’ve faced a few other instant extreme threat moments where I’ve inevitably come off looking pretty bad. Three times I’ve had guns, pistols to be more precise, pointed at me threateningly. Each time I haven’t so much frozen as gone completely reptile brain, full amygdala node. I remember the moments, but I don’t recall any reaction at all on my part. I don’t even think I felt anything like actual fear. Apparently, I’m descended from possums.

On the third occasion at gunpoint, I was being robbed on a street in Amsterdam (no, not in the Red-Light District). Despite being unable to react I recall everything clearly. The robber pulled out his gun. I stopped and stared at it. He demanded my wallet. I stared at his gun. He waved the gun and demanded my wallet again. I stared at the gun, now focusing with fascination on the blackness at the opening of the barrel. Frustrated or maybe bored, the robber reached behind me and removed my wallet from my trouser pocket. I tried to continue staring at that now highly mobile barrel opening. As he was a kindly Dutch robber he carefully removed the cash from my wallet, it wasn’t much, before carefully returning it and all my ID and credit cards to my pocket. One last bemused look at me which reminded me of the lady in the parking lot, and he was gone. I realized I hadn’t even raised my hands!

So, what did my brief encounter with the package thief and the other criminals teach me? Well, for one thing Ryan Gosling is probably a fraud. Do you think he might be acting? (He’s Canadian so I can pick on him.) Of more relevance to myself though is the fact that I’m worse than useless during the first ten or so seconds of a direct personal threat crisis. It wouldn’t surprise me if my tongue darts out under stress just like any reptile.

I don’t think I’m a craven coward. I’ve faced other dire situations with potential life and death results. I’ve handled myself fine in emergency situations. I’ve had knives pulled on me and didn’t switch off. I’ve even been under live-fire and kept my wits. It seems to be something about a sudden direct threat from an unexpected direction that pulls all the plugs and leaves me pretty much in a standing coma.

Fight or Flight? I guess for me we’ll just have to add Fudge (my pants).

I’ll relinquish the couch to the next person now as I see that my hour is up. See you next time Doc!

**** I haven’t actually pooped myself, but I can only wonder how that hasn’t happened. Thank you autonomic functions! ****

By Nick Karvounis on Unsplash

Teenage years

About the Creator

Roy Stevens

Just one bad apple can spoil a beautiful basket. The toxins seep throughout and...

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Comments (8)

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  • Donna Fox5 months ago

    As of late Roy, there is a new reaction to danger being recognized. So there's the classic fight or flight, but you exhibited the new one that's just being seen. Freeze. I'm sorry to say that I'm not surprised this story with the robber is true but I am sorry about how you feel about your reaction. You were in real danger both times and the body does what it does, its self preservation at its best! Thank you for being brave enough to tell this story Roy! 💜

  • Cathy holmes5 months ago

    Omg. Sorry for the trauma, or not trauma. Love how you're able to look back with your sense of humour in tact. I lol at this in particular "is the fact that I’m worse than useless during the first ten or so seconds of a direct personal threat crisis. It wouldn’t surprise me if my tongue darts out under stress just like any reptile."

  • L.C. Schäfer5 months ago

    Wait, this is true?? 😮

  • Omg, why have you been in so many dangerous situations? I'm just so glad you're okay.

  • Donna Renee5 months ago

    The freeze response is just as valid as fight/flight though! Not as flashy but hey, whaddayagonnado? 🤷🏼‍♀️🤣. This was a funny one, Roy!

  • Lamar Wiggins5 months ago

    This was entertaining with hints of caution and humor. I can't say that any of the things you've described has happened to me. But I have been in situations where I had to act fast. I laughed at your mention of newspaper boxes... They do add atmosphere to a scene! Great read!

  • Delightful self-reflections. There's nothing more fun than the stories we get to tell on ourselves that show us in a poor light. We don't have to worry about anyone thinking we're too full of ourselves & everybody gets to laugh with us rather than at us. A story (or three) very well told.

  • Jay Kantor5 months ago

    Hi Roy - You SO amuse me. From my 'Gen' to yours thank you for the smile! Jay Kantor, Chatsworth, Cal 'Senior' Vocal Author

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