A Year of Conflict and Adversity
It was the summer of 2003 and there was no shortage of tragedy and conflict in the world. The first quarter of the year saw the Space Shuttle Columbia explode and disintegrate as it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, and the lead up to summer was consumed by the invasion of Iraq, which quickly evolved into a deadly insurgency.
Back home in Atlanta, the Falcon’s super bowl dreams were crushed after losing in the playoffs and the infamous Centennial Olympic Park bomber, Eric Rudolph was captured after leaving a trail of bloodshed and destruction. I too was experiencing some personal conflict, and was not in the optimal headspace. More on that later. At work, I had just transferred from an investigative unit to a supervisory position in the Uniform Division, assigned to the North Precinct. Thats where I met the Frenchman.
As I patrolled down the Buford Hwy corridor on the evening watch, the calm voice of the 911 dispatcher advised, “172, be en route to a business dispute at 2948 Clairmont Road. The Complainant advises the Suspect is refusing to leave the property and is becoming combative.” The officer quickly responded, “172 clear, en route”. I waited for my turn as the North Precinct Sector Sergeant, “112 is clear, I’m close, I’ll back 172.”
As I finished my radio transmission, I pointed my Crown Victoria in an easterly direction and navigated toward the address. North Precinct stretched from the Atlanta city limits in the Buckhead Community and continued North till it touched the southern tip of Gwinnett County. It was full of great restaurants, upscale hotels, and shopping. That’s not to say it didn’t have troubles. It was complete with its fair share of crime. Unlike some of the other precincts, it consisted of a very diverse and large international population along the famous Buford Hwy corridor, a place I worked plenty of cases as a Robbery/Homicide detective years before. Now, I was back in a patrol car helping supervise the precinct’s evening shift. As I glanced at my vehicle’s laptop screen for additional comments on the call, I discovered the business I was headed to was a restaurant called Violette. This small French restaurant was near the intersection of Clairmont Rd and I-85, just a few exits from the popular and upscale Buckhead community. I would pass the restaurant several times a day but had never responded to a call there, or eaten there for that matter. Frankly, back then, I would have never thought to eat there as I assumed it would be too expensive and “frou-frou” for my liking. Oh, the delights we miss when we don’t expand our horizons.
A Chance Encounter
As I took a right turn into the restaurant’s small parking lot, the other officer happened to be arriving on the scene as well. I could see two men by the front door in what appeared to be a verbal confrontation. One man was in his 50’s and wearing a white chef’s jacket and appeared calm. The other man looked to be in his 30’s and appeared disheveled and very agitated. As the responding officer and I both exited our cars, the man in the chef’s jacket approached me.
He spoke very calmly and politely with a french accent, “Hello, my name is Guy (pronounced G-hee), I’m the owner.” He explained that the other man was a former employee who was let go for continued bad behavior that stemmed from his ongoing drug addiction. Guy had given him many chances and offers of help, but the employee’s drug problem was all consuming and he was never showing up for work. The former employee had since returned to the location for a number of days, wanting more money, harassing customers and disrupting business. This time, he had thrown a large rock and damaged the front of the building. I couldn’t help but notice the owner never raised his voice even when the former employee became loud and confrontational. If anything, the Frenchman seemed conflicted that it had come to this. Eventually, we arrested the man for damaging the property. As the officer departed for the jail, the Frenchman approached me again. He extended his hand and apologized for any inconvenience. He further expressed compassion for the former employee and asked what would happen to him. We talked for several minutes just outside the front door of the busy French restaurant. I did my best to reassure him that he made the right decision under the circumstances. I said good-bye and returned to the streets. In the scope of a day’s work in Metro Atlanta, this was not a remarkable call in the least bit. But, I would soon learn how remarkable this polite Frenchman was. And just like that, with one small chance encounter, the real story began.
Sculpting Souls & Providing Comfort
Many cops go through periods of indifference and despair. Their meaning and purpose can go out of focus in an environment fraught with wicked deeds, bureaucracy, politics and the unfortunate event of working under sheepish leaders. You sometimes get knocked off course and over time can become conditioned to have a less than upbeat outlook, even flirting with depression.
In 2003, I had been going through a spell like this. I wanted to be a cop since I was a kid. I enjoyed helping others in trouble, protecting the innocent and doing my best to be the role model my father was. My calling to this special and profound duty was being assaulted by forces outside my control. So much so, that I decided to get back to basics and leave a command position in the detective division to return to supervising patrol officers, aka “street officers”. I was hoping to rejuvenate myself, but with all that was going on, I was definitely in a slump. However, when you think there is nothing left to fight for, sometimes, it is served up like a hot meal. Literally, in this case. A few days after the arrest at the restaurant, I stopped by to visit the polite Frenchman. As a patrol sergeant, I wasn’t assigned 911 calls. So, I had the freedom to visit businesses and walk around communities to build rapport with citizens and business owners. As I walked in the front door of the restaurant, employees and customers stared at me, probably wondering what the problem was. It wasn’t long before I was greeted by the big smile of Guy. He was very enthusiastic with a loud, “Heeeey, my friend!”, followed by a big hug! I was use to European greetings from my time stationed in Sicily as a young Marine. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, “So good to see you”, “are you hungry my friend?”…”do you like steak?” Once I heard the magic word, “steak” I think I gave in pretty quickly. Soon, my new friend and I talked while sitting at a small table by the front door. It was then that I was introduced to my new favorite meal in all of North Precinct, steak and frites.
As I smothered the bites of steak in the delicious sauce, he asked me lots of questions about my life. I answered his questions and asked about how he came to own a restaurant in America. I learned about his journey from France and that his girlfriend, Stephanie, was his business partner. She arrived a short time later and he introduced me like I was an old childhood friend. There was so much kindness in this man. In the weeks to follow, I would visit him often. We would break bread, sip coffee, share our philosophies on life and laugh. In a very short time, my life was feeling much more upbeat. I was actually laughing about things that weren’t dark humor, my normal go-to brand. I studied his behavior as loyal customers walked through the door and greeted him by name. It was as if they were there to see him just as much as eat his food. He would jump up from our table and go to shake their hands, hug them or place his hand on their shoulder as he greeted them. I wonder all these years later, if the Frenchman knew he was helping me. Indeed, I think he did.
A Twist of Fate
It seems that Guy was a handyman of sorts, in addition to his culinary talents. He told me he was remodeling a house he owned nearby. He added that it had been recently burglarized a couple of times. He had already filed reports with Atlanta Police, but I told him to let me know if he saw anything unusual and to be careful. At the time, I had no idea that these property crimes would evolve into something much more sinister. Not long after this discussion, I was on duty again and dropped by the restaurant to see my friend. As I parked my police car, one of the employees rushed outside and confronted me, “Guy has been shot and killed!” The moment you receive tragic news, it becomes a memory that will live vividly in your thoughts for the rest of your life, as clear as if it happened yesterday. Small details that would normally be too trivial for the brain to stow away somehow get etched in stone. Like, maybe the flag hanging in front of the building was twisted that day or a particular melody that was playing on the outdoor speaker. In the moment, time slows down, yet your mind races at breakneck speed. Shot and killed! How could that be true, I thought. Right about now I had expected to be sitting at the same small table just inside the door, talking with my friend. After all, I had a funny story to share with him. But, just like that, he was erased. I knew death very well, among other experiences, I was a homicide detective and picked up Death’s broken pieces for years. You could even say that I was comfortable around it. But, this felt strangely unfamiliar. I was the one who delivered death notifications, not the other way around. In seconds, I asked myself a hundred questions trying to make sense of it. Finally, I started to ask the employee questions. “When, where, how, why…who?” The tragic story that unfolded in the hours ahead made my blood boil. A combination of sadness and rage twisted me up inside. The three burglars returned to Guy’s house, but this time Guy was inside. They forced him into a van at gunpoint and drove towards Tennessee, quite possibly to a shallow grave.
Once over the state line, Guy seemed to have had enough. I suspect he had a long time during that journey to think about what waited for him at the end of this unexpected and terrifying road trip. I believe he came to grips with his fate and decided to take back some control. The once polite Frenchman who delivered happiness into other’s lives one meal at a time, now became the tiger and lunged at one of the kidnappers. As he struggled with two of the suspects in the back, one of them shot Guy and accidentally shot one of the other kidnappers. Chaos ensued inside the van and the suspects stopped along the busy interstate. Guy escaped the van, only to die from his wounds. But his actions that caused the gunshot wound to one of the suspects, would lead police to arresting all involved.
Needless to say, this was a conflicting time in my life. To discover such a genuine friend and lose them so tragically all at once, can leave one soul searching. I have often said that where you find tragedy, you can find evidence of beauty. This may be hard to agree with, especially if it’s the death of a loved one. My outlook on this is you have to be like a miner looking for that precious stone among all the dust and mud. In this case, the beauty was I met someone with a heart of gold. If you are convinced that you will be devastated forever, then you may subconsciously be driving the fulfillment of that prophecy. However, if you adopt the mindset now that any tragedy that besieges you going forward is only temporary, then you will overcome it and be aware enough to recognize beauty when it otherwise would have remained concealed. We sometimes confuse ourselves by believing we must remain in a state of absolute misery to show how much we miss someone who dies. What I’m getting at is that death and tragedy are often like an EMP (electric magnetic pulse) going off in your life. It shuts down the grid. But it also reboots the system. How you reboot will be based largely on your life philosophy and mindset. As I’ve written before about facing adversity, I immediately start looking for the crack where something good shines through. It’s not to say you won’t grieve or be devastated, thats a natural part of life, its to say that you won’t allow yourself to remain broken. When you think like that, you are more likely to recognize beauty, even in the middle of a storm. What was the beauty I saw after Guy’s tragic fate? Well, first, I believe that when we are in distress, sometimes a devine agent will visit us. When I stubbled across Guy, I was in the eye of my own storm. Perhaps Guy was an angel of the earth, who recognized my despair and invited me to join him for that first meal. I suspect the guardian angels of life are sometimes summoned home early. Maybe they are needed for bigger things. At least that is what I like to tell myself. Strangely enough, two weeks after Guy’s death, I would find myself in a deadly gunfight with an armed robber, resulting in the suspect’s death. With the incidents so close together I couldn’t escape the idea that the angel who visited with me at that little French restaurant may have intervened once more. Maybe none of that is true, but that thought, and my mindset and philosophy allowed me to thrive again and not remain in a dark place where nothing can grow. It’s a fact of life, we will all pass through the dark from time to time. But, you do not have to remain there.
Be the Light
At anytime, someone very special may enter your life and light the path so you can see through the dark. Maybe they will be with you until the end of your life, or perhaps just a stitch in time. If it’s short, don’t waste energy twisting yourself up over how brief it may have been. Instead, be thankful it happened, be grateful for the privilege of having known someone so special, and honor them by reflecting often on that gift. In turn, strive to be that light for someone else.
Guy befriended me during hard times in my own life. He treated me like a good father would treat a beloved son. Guy had enough character for three good people. He was a selfless, kind, and generous man. I have been told that when you die, other men will stand before your grave and speak of your reputation. But, angles … they will stand before the throne of God and speak of your character. The world was a better place with Guy in it and I’m a better man for having known him. There is certainly no tragedy in that, only beauty.
Merci Beaucoup mon ’ami…a too-ta lur