Locked in the Freezer (A True Story)
Seventy-two, forty-one, thirty-seven, eight; the ages of the three generations of women in my immediate family. And thirty; the amount of minutes we spent locked in a commercial freezer. The irony of the entire day wasn’t lost upon me. The four of us had just finished posing for a series of generational photos, in a heavily wooded area with randomly cut trees, one rotted one in particular, really standing out to my mother. My niece, determined to balance on the logs, became fascinated, while I skittish, of the gophers who kept popping their heads out of the ground, as if to check if we were still there. Determined to take some nice professional photos for once, we trekked into this oddly placed, remote landscape in heeled boots and dresses on a cloudy day to take photos with the eldest and the youngest member of our little unit. It was a big deal, since we missed the opportunity to do so with my granny. So to end up locked in a restaurant freezer fearing for our lives at the end of it, was nothing short of ironic. That we could possibly all perish-three generations of us all at once due to an active shooter, after capturing all of our happy chocolate faces in photos, was definitely not something I could have ever foreseen. But then, how do you foresee that?
Sunday January 31st was the start to a new week, but the end to a somewhat tumultuous one. Remembering the death of Kobe and Gigi Bryant (sadly on the same day as we celebrated my only sister’s birth), while paying homage to Cicely Tyson who also passed away that week, it just seemed like death at various ages and stages was something we couldn’t escape from. But then again, if we keep things in perspective, in the midst of death, it’s a blessing to be alive. Typically meticulous with my schedule, I had somehow forgotten about the photo shoot even taking place and had to mentally shift in order to be properly prepared. And although taken by surprise, I thought it would be cool to do. I hadn’t taken professional photos for some time and never with just us girls. So after hours of outfit coordinating, hair washing, hair twisting and hair coiling we were late, but ready, streaming out the house with various fall shades of marigold, and blue with faux fur for texture for some and print for others.
Fast forward through to the end of the photoshoot and we were hungry. Four women in one car and nobody could commit to anything to eat, except for Miss Eight. She wanted pizza. It was us indecisive adults who couldn’t agree. So we decided on one food hall-like location adjacent to the pizza place to just pick something up. My sister and niece went ahead to order the pizza and my mom and I went to survey our options elsewhere. Once the pizza was ordered we all stood in the general hall trying to commit to anything just to get home. Being out in enclosed public spaces for any length of time is not my favorite thing anymore since COVID, despite mask wearing, but I was trying to make the best of it. I just didn’t have a specific taste for anything.
Even amidst the wafting barbecue smoke and scent of batter-fried fish, something about the energy just felt off and nothing food-wise excited me. Just when I was about to concede to some seafood-mexican food hybrid, I looked to the left of me and noticed a woman clutching a small child with an odd look on her face. As if she had been unexpectedly separated from her miniature human and after frantically looking for them, was reunited. A group of about six people, all appearing to be wearing black were congregating around her. The scene just seemed odd and out of place to me. Growing up Black in California in the 90s gang era, really conditions you to always be aware of your surroundings.
When I turned around to glance at the doors we had entered through just minutes before, I saw men rushing to the doors and locking them. From the inside. I said to my small woman unit, “something is happening, they’re locking the doors. We have to go!” My sister grabbed eight and I grabbed seventy two and we quickly ran away from everyone toward the back of the establishment looking for somewhere to hide. Hide because escaping wasn’t an option without knowing what awaited us beyond the exit doors. And seventy-two has a bad knee. So if running was required, it wasn’t happening. At the same time, we noticed a door. Like a small closet with mops, and liquor, and an ice making machine. I spotted it first, the big silver door to the freezer. We ran inside. Eight first. Followed by 41, 72, then 37. The only four women in my little family.
Outside of our hiding place lights were turned off. We couldn’t figure out how to turn out the lights in this room we were in. However I noticed a hidden sliding door that we could close while I tried to figure out how to open the freezer door; the primary goal being to put as much separation between us and whatever danger was outside, but at the same time keep us calm and focused. I tried turning the handle. Nothing. Then I gave it a firm tug and the freezer door opened. I pushed eight in first, then seventy two. I went in behind them. But my sister decided to crouch down behind the sliding door so she could hear. She said she’d rather know what was coming and then come into the freezer with us, as opposed to being clueless as to what’s going on. This of course did not set well with my mother, because as she puts it “one of my babies cannot be out there, while I’m in here.”
I focused on keeping eight calm by whispering to her about what was happening and what we may have to do. But my hand never left that freezer door handle. Because what I had figured out in the first few seconds of being surrounded by slabs of meat and veggies was that this door locked from the inside as well. And in a pinch, I would push it open enough to get my sister in, pull to close and turn to lock. Seventy-two was not staying calm. The nervous energy was building up, so I decided to open the freezer door. “Supposedly there’s an active shooter situation,” thirty-seven said. To me, but not directly, because she was also on the phone with the police. I didn’t panic. I just started looking for things that could double as weapons. Just in case. I didn’t panic because I typically stay calm under pressure. I didn’t panic because I needed to focus. I didn’t panic because I knew in my spirit that I, nor my little woman family, was going to die. Not that day. Not after taking generational photos with my mom. God wouldn’t let that happen.
My sister called her fiancé and asked him to call my dad. You see there are two more of us. Sixty-seven and thirty-two. The men in our little unit. She said “I love you,” blew a kiss and hung up. These are the calls you hear about on the news, I thought. Realizing I had no one to call because the closest people to me were in that closet, I was relieved. I definitely wasn’t going to panic my friends. I’d rather not have them worry about something they could do absolutely nothing about. The time dragged on. Or so I thought. Because every minute in a situation like that feels like an hour. I would know. Because this wasn’t the first time I had been in an active shooter situation. We just didn’t call it that before. Back then, somebody was just shooting. Clearly it was active because with every pop, you ducked a little lower. The other difference was back then, at the mall, my sister was separated from my mom and I. She was probably the same size as eight was now.
After what felt like forever, an employee, the same one who heard us and came to help us turn out our closet light earlier, told us that the police had cleared the area and we were free to go. But my sister insisted on calling the police herself to verify that. Once verified, we were able to leave. One by one we filed out of that closet and headed straight for the exit, noticing lines of sheriff SUVS along the sidewalk, but briskly walking to our car. I, arm in arm with seventy-two and thirty-seven clutching the hand of eight. We had given up on food altogether, so we left the already paid for pizza behind and headed straight home.
As it turns out, there wasn’t exactly an active shooter situation. More like an indoor fireworks to rob a place situation. But it isn’t lost upon me that Americans are in ways so accustomed to violence, we have unrehearsed routines ingrained in our DNA, almost as an evolutionary response to threats like these. Running, hiding, whispered ‘I love you’ phone calls. Children trained in school to find a hiding place and stay silent. Being able to scope out makeshift weapons in the event you have to defend yourself. It shouldn’t be the way we live. While the alternative may seem like a utopic vision to some, let's just reflect on a time before active shooter drills: when schools, and the movies, and church were safe places. When going to get food did not result in you at 41, your mother at 72, your sister at 37, and your niece at 8 being locked in a freezer and forcefully pushing away any thoughts that after making it this far, you could possibly die.
Tuesday, February 2, 2021 12:57am
© 2021 Evangeline Lawson