Barney almost shot me by accident, twice.
The year was 1970, and I was working the night shift on the loading dock of the Marshall Fields Department Store in the Woodfield Mall outside of Chicago. I unloaded semi trailers as they arrived and then sorted the packages into two-dozen piles, one each for the drivers who delivered them the next day.
I was alone in the cavernous basement. At first I had to hustle all night but soon figured out how to get-r done in about half the time allotted. Since I was unsupervised, that meant I had as much as four hours a night to read, sleep or roam the store. I especially liked going to the tearoom as cakes, cookies and other desserts were often left out for the cleaning crew to toss later. During this time I developed a keen appreciation for Waldorf-Astoria red velvet cake and ate it to the point that, well, that’d be too much information.
Even though I was an avid reader, power napper and eager eater, I’d occasionally get bored and lonely. During these times I’d visit Barney, the 40-something night watchman who sat by the main entrance reading Playboy and Hustler magazines. Once every two hours, Barney made the rounds of the store, punching in at strategic locations to prove he made the trip. It only took him about 20 minutes, leaving him also with long, lonely spans with nothing to do.
His real name wasn’t Barney, but I always thought of him as such because he resembled the character of the same name on the Andy Griffith Show in build and personality. A slender man, Barney fancied himself an expert on many things. He especially liked to expound on how the communists were trying to take over the U.S. by subverting the morals of young people. One of his pet theories was that the Chicago Picasso– the 50-foot cubist sculpture that graces the downtown of the Windy City– was a subliminal projection of a man and women having sex. “The untrained eye can’t see it,” Barney would say smugly, “but I can and I have inside information that ‘senior’ Pablo is really a commie.” Barney added the extra emphasis to “senior” with air quotes and a sarcastic tone because he hated “Mexicans.”
If he were alive today I suspect he’d be a Tea Party member. He was a hawk on the war in Vietnam but a carp about taxes. He had his nose in everyone else’s business on issues like abortion and gay rights, but was adamant about his own rights to do whatever he pleased. He assumed he was the only true patriot and everyone else was a “red.”
Like the Mayberry deputy, my Barney also carried a gun, a snub nosed .38 caliber. While talking, he often got it out and began manipulating it: snapping open the chamber, spinning it, cracking it back and taking imaginary shots while adding sound effects. Technically, he wasn’t supposed to have the pistol, it was against store policy but he carried it anyway, concealed in his back pocket. Once, while practicing his quick draw, he tore the pocket near in half. On another night, he sat down while talking to me and the gun popped out of the torn pocket and skittered on the tile floor a yard away from my feet. The gun didn’t discharge but my short life flashed in front of my eyes as it bounced and spun.
A few months later, Barney thought he heard a prowler in the women’s lingerie section and shot a plastic figure of a woman modeling a frilly bra. I was in the tea room enjoying a third slice of cake when I heard the blast. It was all too close for comfort. After the incident, I resolved to stay in the basement for fear of getting shot.
Luckily, Barney got transferred shortly after the mannequin massacre. Later I learned that the new store he was assigned to was robbed by crooks using jack hammers to burst through a wall while Barney snoozed in an another part of the building. If he’s alive today he’s probably hoping the NRA gets its way, and armed guards are posted in every public school. Then he could apply for the job where he was required to carry a gun.