Lessons from San Gennaro
And other concerns
“Let me start this discussion by pointing out that I am not anti-gun. I'm pro-knife. Consider the merits of the knife.
In the first place, you have catch up with someone in order to stab him. A general substitution of knives for guns would promote physical fitness. We'd turn into a whole nation of great runners. Plus, knives don't ricochet. And people are seldom killed while cleaning their knives.
—Molly Ivins, from “Taking A Stab At Our Infatuation With Guns”
My first experience with a handgun was not what I expected.
I was 17, a freshman in college back East, and my dorm-mate, Mikey, had invited me for fall break to his family’s home in Great Neck, New York.
Mikey and I were fast friends: he a quick-witted, feisty Long Islander, me a slower-witted, laid-back Californian. A Butch and Sundance Kid of sorts, curiously thrown together in the freshman class of a New England college. Though smart as a whip, Mikey was convinced—or, at least, was able to convince others—that I, like most Californians, spent my days surfing and my nights sleeping on the beach by a bonfire. That piece of cultural fake news notwithstanding, Mikey was, and I’m sure still is, as smart as a whip. He had the sense of humor and bravado that can take you far in life, particularly in a place like New York City, which, as it turns out, was just a subway ride away from his home.
Perhaps a generalization, but I have learned that New Yorkers love to impress non city types, beach-sleepers like myself, with their grit and savvy in the urban jungle that is Manhattan. And there is something to be said for that. There are skills and knowledge that can keep you alive in a sometimes-dangerous place. Mikey was no different.
So, one night, Mikey took me to the Feast of San Gennaro, which is held every year on Mulberry Street in the Little Italy section of Manhattan. It is an 11-day event of food bazaars, carnival rides, souvenir hawking, and general revelry, all celebrating San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples.
Mikey and I had a grand time; we ate, drank, played stupid carnival games, drank some more. When the bars closed, which, remarkably, is at 4 a.m., we started walking in search of a subway stop. There was no Google Maps back then, so finding a subway stop involved memory and intuition. Turns out, we had neither that night.
Before long, we were lost in the Bowery section of the city. The streets were empty save for a sprinkling of drug dealers and homeless people. And there we were, two little white guys—if you stacked both of us head to tail, we could barely dunk a basketball—walking aimlessly through a landscape in which we did not belong.
As if on cue, a group of young men—Hell’s Angels I came to learn—seemed to come out of nowhere. They were on the other side of the street walking toward us, eight or nine of them. They were joking among themselves, seemingly oblivious to us. Then, of course, they crossed over to our side of the street.
“If we go now, we can outrun these guys,” I said.
“No, no, just be cool,” Mikey said. “Keep moving, don’t look them in the eye.”
This struck me as something you might tell someone confronting a bear, not a pack of menacing psychopaths.
With the moment to flee vaporizing, the Hells Angels blocked our way, then formed a tight circle around us. There was a greeting of some sort, whatever you say to angry bikers. Then there was some jostling back and forth. We were now two play toys in a dog pen. Mikey and I tried to be “cool,” but we weren’t cool. Then a guy who looked as I imagined Jesus to look pulled a pistol from his leather jacket and pointed it at my forehead. I remember thinking two things: this is a dumb-ass way to die, and my mom is going to be unbelievably pissed off at me, dead or alive.
When Jesus pulled the trigger, nothing seemed to happen—until it did. A squirt-gun load of water splashed across my forehead and dribbled down my face. And then the laughter began—cackling really, hyena-like. We just took it. What else are you going to do? When the laughing finally subsided, we were dismissed.
In the end, I could hardly blame them. They were just a bunch of mates looking for a good laugh on a Friday night. Worse things happen to punks in the wrong part of town.
My second experience with a handgun was a month ago.
In the fall, I like to hunt elk, which usually involves hiking mountain ridges in the pre-dawn hours. It is not unusual to come across bear, mountain lion, or wolf tracks in the snow. It can be a little creepy hiking about in the dark by yourself. After a few such experiences, I had decided I would get a handgun in case I were ever to surprise a predator. The chances that this Sundance Kid could out draw a pouncing mountain lion are slim to none. Still, it would make me feel better. No one wants to get eaten without a fight.
So, the other day, when I was in Boise to fetch my daughter from the airport, I had about 30 minutes to kill before her flight arrived. On a whim, I stepped into a gun shop to look around.
It is no exaggeration to say that it took about seven minutes to purchase my first handgun and the requisite ammunition. I gave the shop clerk my name and address, birthday, then testified in so many words that I hadn’t done anything bad recently. There was, ostensibly, some sort of check done on me, but I really wonder how much could have been done in the three minutes it took (the clerk had spent at least four minutes typing things up, ringing in the sale). All in all, browsing included, I was out of that store in 10 minutes, gun and ammo in hand and on the streets of Boise.
It was amazing, and—I admit—convenient as could be. I was on time to pick up my daughter at the airport. But the rub is—and you’ll just have to take my word for it—I’m one of the good guys. I’ve never committed a crime, though I did shoplift a deck of Jack Daniel’s playing cards from Macy’s when I was in seventh grade. But that was both the beginning and the end of my life of crime.
So, would I care if someone spent more than three minutes checking me out before turning me loose with a 9 mm? Not one bit. Have at it. I have all the confidence in the world that should I choose to buy a gun next year, I’ll be able to do just that. And the year after that.
Sadly, a lot of innocent people—most poignantly young children who don’t even have a dog in this stupid fight—are being lost to gun violence. A modest effort to regulate the industry seems to me pretty reasonable. The slippery slope argument—that some sensible regulations today will lead to the government taking our guns tomorrow is hogwash. The Second Amendment will be in place until the end of time. The NRA and the Supreme Court will make sure of it. Can’t we, at least, learn to live with a little common sense until then? And I mean that literally.
Back to San Gennaro. Did I mention that he, a Bishop, was martyred? In trying to intervene in the religious persecution of some Christians by the Roman Emperor Diocletian (A.D. 284-305), San Gennaro was promptly arrested and sentenced to be fed to the lions in the amphitheater at Pozzuoli. As the miracle goes, the lions refused to eat him and simply knelt before him out of respect. Sadly, San Gennaro was resentenced, and officials promptly lopped off his head.
Sometimes a guy can’t win.