40 Years in America

Teresa Ledesma

Maybe I should have known better than to be in that part of town, but I thought I would be all right, especially in broad daylight. Besides, I had been in many neighborhoods like this in the past: poor, rundown store fronts with old crusted and faded paint chipping off the doors and yellowed outdated signs beckoning passersby to come in and take advantage of the fantastic sales. I did not see how this neighborhood could be any different. That inner voice weakly cautioning me to stop and do the other side of the street, the nicer side, went ignored.

It was the fall of 1978 and I was living in a lovely little bedroom community nestled away just about a half an hour outside of Akron, Ohio. I had already been fundraising every day for two years, including weekends, to support a variety of missionary projects our church was involved with. By then, I had gotten into the daily routine of getting up early, sharing the one "sisters" bathroom with a dozen other young women trying to take showers, brush their teeth and get dressed all at the same time. It was a time in my life I both loved and hated. I loved the ideal of living sacrificially for the sake of others, for a purpose greater than myself. The horrid reality, however, was that of being confronted daily with my personal battle to keep a positive attitude and my inability to conquer time. It seemed like I was always the last one ready no matter how hard I tried. That frustrating reality was enough to start each day off feeling a little less charitable.

We were fundraising in Cleveland on this particular day. The air was crisp and windy, with early autumn sun. My area for the next two hours was in the southwest part of Cleveland, in a section marked for renovation. The contrast between the old and new was clearly evident in the scene around me. There were new office buildings, street lamps and sidewalks on one side of the street, and old, dilapidated storefronts on the other. I stepped out of the van, took out the boxes of peanut brittle I planned to sell, and inhaled deeply the clean smell of the autumn morning. I was feeling better now after my usual rough start.

I rejected the warnings of my inner self as I headed toward the older section of the neighborhood first, about a block in from the main road, toward a small group of shops, certain I would meet friendly, even lonely storekeepers anxious for someone, anyone, to come into their worn-out little shop and have a look around, a friendly chat, and hopefully, buy something. I became aware of an unusual stiffness as I neared the shops, an emptiness around me that I failed to notice just moments before. It was nearly mid morning. Where was everybody? There was not a soul in sight. As I come closer I realized that the old shops were, in fact, abandoned. Dust and cobwebs covered the windows and doors. Torn screen doors creaked in the wind. I stood there for a moment, staring at the disappointing sight before me and cursing myself for abandoning the dictates of my conscience. At the same time I momentarily imagined these shops in better days with cash registers ringing, candy jars on the counter, five-and-dime bargains on all the goods, neighborhood locals standing around chatting about the news of the day and the weather.

In disappointment I turned around and headed back toward the main street. I looked up to see someone walking briskly toward me and immediately sensed danger. Something about this person was not right. His look was unfriendly and his walk determined. He had both hands in his pockets and his shoulders shrugged up around his neck as he walked. Suddenly I felt my heart begin to race faster and faster. The closer he got the more threatening he looked. I tried to avoid making eye contact with him and instinctively started to cross the street to the other side. He was so quick to block my way and within a moment he had me by the throat of my jacket and a pistol in my face.

I was stunned. I could not think straight. I could not talk. He was nervous and scared too, I could see that. He was cursing and demanding my purse and grabbing at the long strap I had draped across my torso, all the while nervously wielding the pistol and yelling at me to hurry up. Despite the terror in my heart, I felt anger rising from somewhere deep inside me, anger at his impatience, anger at his cowardice, and anger at the fact that I had become somebody’s victim. This rising anger gave me the courage to squeak out a plea that if he let go of me, I could get the purse off more quickly. Cautiously he obliged and in a moment the purse was his.

I could only guess at what might be going through his mind. What was he going to do now? He got what he wanted, I hoped. He was calling the shots now and I was at his mercy. I fought to keep from thinking the worst was yet to come. He grabbed the purse and fled down the street into the old neighborhood of abandoned houses and storefronts. He turned back only once to see me for the last time and then disappeared. I was still alive. In numbness and disbelief I gathered my belongings and walked back to the main street. I thought of my mom, the little pocket Bible I had purchased just a few days before that was in the purse, and of the money that was not there for him to steal.

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