There are true stories that are unfortunate. Then there are true stories that are really really unfortunate. I was kidnapped, tortured, robbed and released while traveling on business in Shenzhen, China, exactly 5 years, 21 days and 14.5 hours ago but who’s counting. At this pt in time feels like it happened to somebody else.
I’m a bona fide New Yorker with street smarts so it is embarrassing to say I was mugged in China where muggings are rare. Anyway, on my 2nd day in Shenzhen, a city of 12 million, I was casually walking down a side street when four guys jumped me, dragged me into a dimly lit apartment, stripped me of my clothes, shredded my wallet, and despite the language barrier, made it as clear as an unmuddied lake, that they wanted the PIN #’s for my credit cards. (Woe is me - I never used my credit cards for cash withdrawals, so I didn't have a clue.) It was odd and weirdly exhilarating as my mind and body went into shock as they threatened me with a large rusty knife and a four foot pole with a gnarly 8 inch nail on its end, and, despite the language barrier, I had the correct impression that they would stick this up my nose if I didn't give them what they wanted. Fuck, I thought of ole Woody Allen line: “I’m not really afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
I would guess at PIN #’s, using usual permutations of kids’ nicknames, dog names, (Maxine the queen Finkelstein), e-mail passcodes, (shock & awe, guns n roses) etc. I’d point out the #'s/letters on a cell phone key pad, (no one spoke English) as they called their colleagues out on the street, with my credit cards, trying them at an assortment of banks. I surmised that they did not work after my kidnappers' received impatient cell calls back to them. They were not happy. They were low key and methodical. Hollow faces. All business. Except for episodes of white light chilling heart fear palpitations, seething silent screams, and incontinence, I was surprisingly calm and collected. Everything reduced to slow motion. I guess akin to the zone of when you're freezing to death and a sense of warm serenity and clarity unfolds. I was looking at the four guys, two guys in their 20's and two guys in their 40's, and I sensed that they could kill me and have lunch immediately thereafter with such regional delicacies of long dainty worms, live larvae, saliva of the pigeon. But in this odd calm, my mind raced around. Talking Heads song kept reverberating “You may find yourself in another part of the world, and you may ask yourself, well, How Did I Get Here?” Plus I had just gotten an Indiana Jones DVD for my sons, and I was trying to imagine how Harrison Ford would have escaped from this predicament. I checked out each of the bad guys looking for weaknesses. I scanned the dimly lit room and contemplated hurling myself through the second story window. I contemplated going medieval. You know, fingers in eyes, bashing heads, biting….
Anyway, they took out cigarettes, lit them, and burned my upper thigh and I checked out. I wish I could say that I had spiritual epiphanies supporting the notion that the closer we inch towards death the more we learn about life. No. Somewhere during the cigarette burns my mind left my body and I remembered having cocktails with a proper southern belle post too many peach champagnes. After the third one she told me her fiancé was “the” penile implant salesman of the year and she scribbled on a cocktail napkin the names of which People Magazine celebrities did in fact have penile implants (which is another story and probably subject to libel), So, while pondering that sort of enlightenment, some of my guessed at PIN #’s must have worked. After 6 hours of this horror, it ended. (Here are your nostrils back, thanks for the loan). I was back on the street in a dazed shock, fists clenched but happy to be alive.
I made it back to my hotel, the Shangri-la, and I took an elevator with a very American looking Disney/Mormon type couple and their two beigely dressed children. We shared this intimate space as the elevator slowly ascended to my destination on the 28th floor. In your every day idle conversation interaction, they said to me, (and I can only imagine what I looked like), "How's your day been?" I proceeded to foam from the mouth and simultaneously act out, in 30 seconds, every single detail of my horrific experience - the knife, the pole with the gnarly nail on its end going up my nose, the nakedness, the cigarette burns. As they hugged their children, all color drained from their faces. They grouped together in the furthermost corner of the elevator as far away from me as they could get.
That was my feeble attempt to reconnect with humanity in the confines of an elevator. I was a mess.
Anyway, a company colleague tells me not to go to Shenzhen police but go to Hong Kong and report the incident to the American consulate.
After a night’s parody of sleep, I arrive in Hong Kong and go to the American consulate. I pick up a form asking me to state my reasons for being there, i.e. visa, work permit, inoculations. I write, in large CAPITAL LETTERS, that I am an American citizen who was violently kidnapped and tortured. I hand the form through the narrow slot in the bulletproof glass partition. I am told to take a seat. Wait for my name to be called. I'm not real relaxed, feel like the addicts jonesing at the end of Requiem for a Dream. After anxiously pacing in the waiting room with a crowd of your regular visa application types, I become like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate scene when he bangs on the glass screen in the church, screaming "Elaine" at the top of his lungs.
I got peoples’ attention. I am granted a sit-down with the vice consulate, an elderly DAR type lady. A bureaucrat. She has a clipboard. She asks many questions. She tells me that before this incident may be posted on the official State Dept. travel advisory web site, she is obligated to specifically determine whether the horrendous acts perpetrated on me were, by definition, torture or enhanced interrogation techniques. As I sat there I broke out in another cold sweat, mumbled incoherent profanities. In my post traumatic stress state I believed that my torture session was not over and I basically checked out....maybe I was "paperboarded."
It is fascinating. In the most horrific experiences, my mind went to amazing places and protected me in a ninja like force field. Oh, here’s “the” napkin from that proper southern belle who wrote down the names of those celebrity penile implant recipients.