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How a convenience store saved my life

I see there’s a debate going on about what to do with the property that was once a convenience store on the corner of 26th Street and Knox Avenue North in Minneapolis’ Jordon neighborhood. I have special interest in this because I took shelter in that store a few years ago, a decision I’m convinced saved my life.

It was a hot August night in 2002 when as a reporter for the Pioneer Press I was dispatched to that corner because it looked like a riot was erupting. Minneapolis police had tried to issue a warrant on a drug house across the street, when someone unleashed a pit bull on the officers. They shot at the dog, but the bullet ricocheted off the sidewalk and hit a youngster in the arm. Word went out in the neighborhood that the cops had shot a kid.
 
I worked out of the Minneapolis bureau of the Pioneer Press — I told people I was a foreign correspondent whose job was to explain Minneapolis to the people of St. Paul — covering the mayor’s office and city council. I’d never worked a police beat in my life and didn’t have a clue how to handle a simple burglary, let alone an explosive situation. Nonetheless, the paper wanted all West-of-the-Mississippi reporters on the scene.

I got a little lost on the way, and by the time I arrived, the cops had pulled out, leaving a TV van with a damaged antenna dangling like a broken arm, some torn down yellow police tape and a lot of broken glass. People stood around in groups talking in low murmurs.
 
I pulled my red Honda Civic del Sol — a gem of a two-seater convertible — into the parking lot of the convenience store, which was lit up like a surgical suite. Wearing shorts, a T-shirt and sandals, I got out of my car, locking my purse behind the front seat. Several people standing around eyed me — the only white person in sight — with curiosity. I looked like a lost soccer mom, except for my reporter’s notebook, pen and cell phone.
 
Crowd gathers
I seldom worked nights and my first thought was to wonder what time was deadline. Clearly I wasn’t going to have time to write a story, so I called the newsroom and started to dictate what I saw. I was in reporter mode and it didn’t occur to me to be frightened. I needed to get a couple of quotes from folks, and debated whether to approach the gaggle of people.

I saw someone run away from a car parked on the street below the branches of a huge maple tree and moments later a fire kindled inside. The crowd saw it too, and began to gather around while the fire grew. Soon the car was fully engulfed and I was afraid the tree would catch fire, and then the house behind it. People watched like it was the Fourth of July as the car exploded. Fortunately, the fire burned out without touching the tree.
 
As I stood in the parking lot the manager of the convenience store —called Big Stop Foods, but it was something different then — walked up to me and asked, “Who are you?” Then he told me he had dragged a man who had been beaten into the store. The manager had called 911 a couple of times to say the man needed medical attention, but no one was coming.
 
We were standing under the bright lights of the parking lot when we heard gunshots. Bang, bang, bang. It sounded like they were feet away coming from the backyard behind the house where the car was burning, next door to the convenience store. It wasn’t until then that I realized I was in danger. I looked at the store manager, he looked at me, and we both hustled into the store, careful to stand away from the windows.

Inside the store, I met the man who had been beaten. He was Howie Padilla, a Star Tribune reporter who had taken a brick in the back of his head. He was incoherent, asking me over and over again, “Who are you?” He asked where he was, and how he had gotten there. I answered his questions and then he’d start them all over again.

Police arrive
After what seemed like a very long time, three or four police cars pulled up in front of the store, blue and red lights flashing. Officers with shotguns and a big dog poured out like the cavalry coming to the rescue. One came to the door of convenience store, talked to the manager, looked at Howie, then asked me, “Who are you?” I was beginning to get used to the question.

She escorted Howie and me to the back seat of the patrol car and shut the door. I looked out the window and saw my car parked next to the convenience store. I’d already seen one car firebombed that night and knew mine was next. When I knocked on the window to get the officer’s attention — you can’t get out of the back seat of a patrol car — she told me to forget about my car for the night. “Get it in the morning,” she said. I’ll just bet, I thought.

The cops took Howie and me to a staging site just off Broadway a few blocks away, where there must have been 75 cops waiting to be called in, if necessary. Another cop drove me home.

It was just after midnight when I called the newsroom again to see if there were any questions about the information I had been providing all night. I was chastised for not calling the mayor and told to “show up for work in the morning.”

The next morning, I got another reporter to drive me to the lot outside the convenience store to pick up my car. When I got there, the bricks on the side of the store were scorched, and a man with one tooth was outside with a broom and dustpan. I learned later that the fire department had already hauled away the husk of my car, including the charred remains of my purse which had held $200 cash, a spare cell phone and all my credit cards.

“That was my car,” I said to the man who was sweeping up the last bits of metal. He reached into the pile, pulled out the “H” hood ornament, wiped it off on his pants and offered it to me. “I’m sorry,” he said.

The paper refused to replace my car, saying it paid reporters 36.5 cents a mile, to cover gas and my insurance. Besides, I was told, if the paper paid for my car it would have to pay for every car that got firebombed. I resigned.

I read a few years later an innocent young man was shot dead in that store. It made me very sad and served as a cautionary tale. The blood on the counter could well have been mine.

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