Fun at the Movies

C. Fraser Smith

January 12, 1991|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Sun.

"THE GODFATHER III'' was about to begin. The sublime melody from Cavalleria Rusticana was about to suffuse the atmosphere. Killers were about to resume their careers. A kid, perhaps 18, was about to light a cigarette two rows in front of me.

I said nothing at all. My silence was the functional equivalent of submitting to armed hold-up men. You give up your money, your Air Jordan's, your Jos. A. Bank blue blazer and anything else, knowing your right to go on living could be the price of resisting. In the theater, no weapon was visible. My willingness to accept indignity continued at a high level, however, because I assumed the presence of one.

In front of me sat a man with none of my civilized compunction, none of my survival instincts, none of my fear. Nor did he have his daughter with him. He leaned to the side and a bit forward so as to be almost in the smoker's face. I felt myself slipping down in the seat.

''Put the cigarette out,'' he said.

The smoker inhaled.

The man stood and walked to the back of the theater, just then falling dark. In a minute, the man was back with an usher who arrived toting a flashlight. He aimed the beam down the row of seats and ordered the smoker to leave.

Why was I still sitting there? I did not assume the smoker would submit without a fusillade to the authority of a mere usher, So why didn't I get out of the way? Because I refused to believe what my senses and the daily newspapers tell me? Because I had to assume it was still safe to go to the movies?

We survived. No violence ensued -- unless ambient fear is violence. A friend told me later of an acquaintance who was held up one night in Manhattan. The victim pulled out his wallet and handed over his money as ordered.

''The wallet, too,'' said the man with the gun.

''Oh, no, you don't want that. Just take the money,'' said the victim who turned and walked away as if his desires had some force. The next morning this man awoke in a paroxysm of terror. We laughed at the story.

We know everyone is not so lucky. A few days after Christmas, a young engineer was assassinated outside his office on St. Paul Street in Baltimore. He turned over his money as ordered. Then the assailants shot him. He begged for his life. He had two children, he said. He was ordered, according to an account he gave police, to lie on the ground in the snow. Then they shot him again. He died a few hours later. He is one of 305 persons killed in Baltimore last year.

Happens every day almost. Life goes on. In the block near the parking lot where the 25-year-old engineer was shot the other night, a shopkeeper talked about how blithely he had walked to his car at night.

They were going to think again about how they live their lives. We all need to think again. We have to think about how we respond to crime and the threat of crime and the causes of crime. We have to start imagining that we could be next. How can there be any doubt? Should we be more pro-active in the face of gun barrels? Are the old stratagems of submissiveness a formula for death? Should we pack heat? Should universities offer anti-terrorist classes in their departments of continuing education?

Welcome to a city that bleeds.

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