The two of them walked into the shoe store on South Broadway at noon last Friday and did not notice the sign on the door: "Smile, You're Being Monitored and Recorded."
It's the modern defense against the city's lawless: If you've got a camera, you've got a chance. If you let the lawless know they're being watched, maybe they'll leave you alone. Maybe they'll be intimidated.
Maybe they'll go after somebody else, who should be smart enough to carry a video camera of his own.
The two of them walked into the store, pretending to be interested in the purchase of sneakers, until they noticed the television screen behind the store's front counter. There they saw their own faces, staring back at them, being preserved for history. They froze, then turned away, vacated, headed north on Broadway.
"A blessing," the owner of the shoe store said yesterday. Months ago, he got the idea for the video operation when thieves were threatening him too regularly, when going to work each day became a gamble with his own mortality.
"A blessing," he said again.
For him, yes. But then the two men walked a few doors away, to the Gourmet Island health food store, where they found the owner, Tark Ahamed, 33, all by himself behind the counter: not a soul around, and not a video camera, either.
"I looked up," Ahamed said yesterday, "and saw two guns in my face."
"Let's go in the back," said one of the men, putting his gun against Ahamed's head and pushing him toward the rear of the store.
The other guy locked the front door while the first one put Ahamed's hands behind his back. He put handcuffs around Ahamed's wrists, so tightly that his blood circulation was cut off and his hands would turn blue and yesterday, three days after all of this happened, there would still be deep indentations in his wrists.
Then the two men began taking things: a wristwatch, a bracelet, a necklace, more than $800 in cash. Ahamed, a man who came here nine years ago from Egypt, fought back waves of terror and imagined his life was ending.
Then came a knock on the door: the neighborhood mailman, Columbus Brown.
"We're closed," said one of the robbers.
"Closed?" said Brown. "What are you talking about? This is the mailman."
"We don't need any mail today," the robber replied.
"Open the door," said the mailman.
Inside the store, everything froze. The man with the gun at Ahamed's head whispered to him that he'd better not scream. The robber at the door opened it a crack and took in the mail, then locked the door again. Columbus Brown, sensing something wrong, doubled back to the shoe store, where he called the cops.
Now the panic inside the health food store was general. Ahamed slipped behind the wooden counter at the front of the store and dropped down. One of the robbers aimed his gun and fired directly into the counter, toward Ahamed behind it.
The bullet did not reach him. It hit a bag of quarters, which Ahamed kept beneath the counter, and the robbers unlocked the front door and fled.
Thus, in a week when the city was marching toward its 300th murder of the year, Tark Ahamed narrowly avoided becoming a piece of the arithmetic. The homicide figure reached 300 on Saturday when a Govans man, Earl Wiggins, was shot in the backyard of a vacant house a short distance from his own home on Beaumont Avenue.
In a time of such random killing, it's easy to overlook the little terrors such as Tark Ahamed's. At such moments, we don't lose people. Just neighborhoods, piece by piece. Yesterday, Ahamed was still shaken, and now he was talking of moving away.
When the police arrived moments after his ordeal, they took descriptions of the holdup men from Ahamed, and then went one better: At the shoe store a few doors down, there was the video machine. On its tape were the two men, looking at sneakers, then glancing up to see themselves on a television screen, then beating a retreat into the street.
"Yes," Ahamed told the police, "these are the men."
He said it was the first time he'd been held up, in the four years since he opened the store. He said he was thinking of closing up shop. How many close calls do you need, he asked, before the message sinks in?