In Case of SWAT Team

Two months ago, I found myself wandering around CVS, not looking to buy anything in particular. You know how it is. There was some time to kill, so I stopped by to see whether I would “need” anything after browsing the aisles. I picked up an plaid orange mini-blanket and thought it might be a good addition for my car, since I spend so much time driving in it, sitting it in, sleeping in it. Plus, the fact that both the blanket and my car were orange already delighted me. “Just in case,” I thought.

In case of cold? In case of picnic? In case of nap was more like it.

Little did I know that this unassuming plaid orange mini-blanket would serve its purpose one night “in case of SWAT team.” But that’s exactly what happened yesterday.

Around 10pm last night, two SWAT trucks, 20 police cars (from three different cities), the fire department, paramedics, and an ambulance had pulled onto my street. Police radios chortled with static while volunteer traffic control officers in highlighter-colored vests directed cars anywhere but into the neighborhood.

Enter Lily. I was driving home from dinner, fantasizing about slipping into bed early and listening to my new Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong vinyl record. It was a rare find – released by Verve Records in 1956 and recorded at Capitol Records in Los Angeles – and the record store owner was impressed that I knew it was a gem when I saw it. Anyway, back to the story.

My initial reaction was panic. That was the first time in my life I had feared for the safety of my family from not knowing what was going on, where they were, and what to do. I called my house phone hoping someone would pick up. The three longest dial tones of my life rang before someone answered.

“Hello?” my mom’s voice was on the other line. Thank God.

“Mom? Do you know what’s happening?”

“No. I do not know. Police cars here since I got home at 7pm. They’re not letting you in?”

“No, they’re keeping us out here. But they said someone has a gun, so please stay away from the windows. Stay somewhere near the center of the house.”

“Okay, please stay warm,” my mom said as we ended the conversation.

“I’ll talk to you soon.”

Unable to go home, I hung up and parked my car alongside the curb to join the other bystanders. Gossip poured through the masses. I investigated. After filtering through all the various accounts, I deducted that there was an armed person locked in a room with other guns. Shots were fired at some police officers earlier that evening. No one was hurt, but no one was allowed in or out of the neighborhood.

From where I stood, I could see the windows of my house, lit from the inside by the living room lights. It was starting to get cold. Well, cold for California. So I went back to my car and grabbed two things: my plaid orange blanket and my camera. Then I went back out to the scene.

This was the closest I’d been to a crisis situation. I thought it’d be a good opportunity to observe some human behavior in this context. One woman’s way of coping with her panic was by talking. She approached me mid-rant – I’m guessing because she scared off her last listener. Her 15-year-old son and dog were inside the house while the rest of the family was stuck outside, having just come back from a Christmas concert. I tried to be reassuring, but responding to her only engaged her more. When I told her I was going to try to get another view, she walked off, still talking to herself, in search of another victim. Another man was trying to get answers out of a cop, without much success. Others, desperate to go home, were scheming to get into their homes by climbing their back fences. A group of teens had congregated and were standing in their hoodies, looking on to the scene.

“I wonder if anyone’s dead,” one of them speculated. “I saw this episode of CSI once when a guy was holding someone hostage in his house. It took 3 hours for the cops to get him out.”

“Don’t be stupid, no one’s dead yet. The ambulances would be in there if someone died.”

“It’s Cypress. No one’s gonna get shot here. Nothing exciting really happens.”

I chuckled to myself, kept walking, and snapped some pictures along the way. Some other residents in the neighborhood who had been out walking their dogs also happened upon the scene in bewilderment. Similar comments of how nothing like this has ever happened before were exchanged among bystanders. The dogs looked on for a while with mild interest, then began to sniff each other instead.

“I HEARD A GUNSHOT,” my mom texted me.

“Tell Kevin to take pictures!” I texted back. I don’t think she found humor in the situation the same way I did.

What I did next will forever define me. I went to Target. It didn’t seem like anything else was going to happen, and it was getting cold, so I drove to the nearest Target, which was open late for the holidays. I distracted my mind from all the terrible things that could potentially happen in the given situation and instead looked through Christmas paraphernalia and the $1 section.

I read somewhere that crimes – namely robberies – are most common around the holidays. The tougher times are economically, the more crimes occur. Perhaps the prospect of not being able to afford the holidays slowly drives people crazy. Surrounded by consumerism at Target, I felt a pang of remorse for joking about the situation earlier.

Half an hour later, my mom called me and told me the coast was clear. They had arrested the woman and taken her in. No one was hurt. When I got back to my street, the cops were rolling up the police tape. The SWAT trucks were gone, and the only trace left of the madness was one police car and a few residents standing outside, eager to exchange commentary. The Christmas lights on my neighbors’ houses blinked away the madness of the evening. Once again, Cypress had reverted to its natural state of repose.

I changed into warmer, more comfortable clothes, pulled out my record with relish, turned on the Christmas lights in my room, and fell asleep. Lying in a warm bed, I felt grateful for being safe under the same roof as my family, for having a roof at all.

Finally, a Silent Night.

Here’s the newspaper Orange County Register article about the incident:

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