ENCINO, California — Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something blows your mind.
It was 1990, a stifling summer day in neighboring Tarzana, California, but I had no idea how hot it would get. Besides myself, there were three customers and three employees in my 2,000 sq-ft stamp and coin store. A man in his 30’s was buzzed in the outside door, entered the “man-cage” (an entry-way of iron bars, with three sides and a top), and was buzzed into the second door. Except for a white shirt, he was all in black, and wore a Fedora hat, which seemed odd in 100+ degree heat. He walked to the rear, then back to the front showcases. I was on the phone with a dealer in Philadelphia, but, instinctively, I swiveled to watch. Suddenly, from a folded newspaper, he pulled a revolver, raised it over his head, and shouted, “This is a robbery. Put your hands where I can see them, or I’ll shoot.”
Shiny tips of bullets were visible in his gun’s cylinder. I whispered, “Robbery, call police,” as I carefully hung up, and put my hands on the desk. My manager, Bob, obeyed the robber’s orders. He got a large plastic bag, unlocked the first showcase, but intentionally dropped his keys, taking his time opening the sliding mirrored backs of each case. Bob slowly loaded gold, silver, coins and jewelry into the first of several bags, stalling, hoping someone behind him had pushed a panic button. Five long minutes went by, but no police arrived. The robber dropped something, creating a split-second opportunity, so, ignoring the risk, I reached under my desk, poked the police button, and quickly returned my hands to the top of the desk.
Ten minutes went by, but still no police. In my five retail stores, spanning four decades, there were false alarms, and the cops always converged in a few minutes, often with shotguns. This was the real thing, but so far, there was no hint of the cavalry to the rescue. The robber turned, creating a second opportunity. Maybe I hadn’t hit the button hard enough? Very fast, I pushed it again, and returned my hands to the desk. To avoid false alarms, I had put thin scotch tape over the recessed hole of each of 20 buttons, easy to punch through if needed. Both times I jammed the button so hard, it hurt. Outside the large windows, there was no sign of law enforcement – something was wrong. This robber was the most dangerous kind, a nervous amateur, taking too long to complete his business. A pro would have been out in three minutes, tops.
The robber, with a $100,000 haul, turned to leave, but, when in the cage, just 15 feet from me, he swirled, shouted more threats, and pointed his gun. He might shoot at any second, I felt I had to do something; this terror had gone far enough. Everyone in the store, including an elderly lady and a young boy, was frozen with fear. I had no experience with guns in any crisis situation, but something came over me, compelling me to act. This creep wasn’t going to hurt anyone – not today. What if I did nothing and someone got shot? Still worse, what if I did take action – and someone got hurt, or killed? Even good motives can cause great harm; the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
In a few seconds, I made four mistakes, as my three beautiful daughters’ faces flashed in my mind. The first, I pulled a 380 Remington semi-automatic from my desk, released the safety, stood up, outstretched my arms, aimed, and shouted “Drop the gun or I’ll blow your head off!” The gun was in my right hand, with my left hand cupped underneath, after watching a lifetime of police shows. He pointed his gun right at me. I fired one shot, so loud it still hurts my ears today. My second blunder was warning him, which, when facing a loaded gun, I was under no obligation to do. My third error was firing only once – I should have emptied the clip. My fourth mistake, I remained standing, like an idiot, his clear target, after the shot caused everyone, except the robber, to drop to the floor. Better keep my day job; I’m not cut out for this.
After the blast, I was shaken, and temporarily deaf. The robber was visibly shocked, his face turned white, and he ran out. I put the gun back on safety, returned it to the desk drawer, grabbed my keys, and, like a fool, ran after him, 30-seconds behind, my fifth error in less than a minute. There’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity; Clint Eastwood I’m not.
In the large, sweltering parking lot, nothing was stirring, zero activity. I expected to see him running, or a car peeling out, but it was quiet. Then I saw a car exiting to Ventura Boulevard, so I followed, but the driver was a lady; it was the wrong car. As I returned, the police were arriving, guns drawn, pointed down. I told them it was my shop, but they weren’t sure and kept a wary eye, guns out. “Is he inside? Were there hostages?” I said no, and, when the officers were told he had a loaded gun, and that I’d fired a shot, it became a serious investigation. We were thrilled no one was harmed, the store had a festive atmosphere, and, yes, there was insurance.
We found my bullet’s shell casing, but could not locate the bullet itself. Detectives, employees and I searched, officers checked for fingerprints, and statements were taken. With no blood found, we assumed he hadn’t been hit, and I was glad –but where was the darn bullet? I thought I’d missed him by ten feet, but no bullet was found in the ceiling, floor, doors, albums to the right of the man-cage, the display on the wall to the left, and no glass was broken. Two mysteries, how did he flee so fast, and where was the missing bullet?
Then I saw, one of the iron bars in the man-cage was dented. The bullet hit the bar, ricocheted 45 degrees, and landed 20 feet back, fortunately behind an unoccupied desk and chair. One mystery was solved, as I stared at the mangled, jagged missile, flat as a dime, and realized how much damage a bullet can do.
One of the detectives ran a string from where I was standing, to the cage where the robber was standing. I hadn’t missed by ten feet, as I thought, or even by one foot. Surprisingly, it was potentially a perfect shot, and hit the bar chest-high, directly in front of where he had been standing. He’ll probably never come closer to dying, and I’ll be grateful, for the rest of my life, that the narrow iron bar, perhaps 3/8 of an inch, deflected the bullet. Some say he had it coming, but I consider it a miracle I don’t have to live with the memory of the robber being blown apart.
The alarm company said all panic buttons worked, except for mine, which was defective. The dealer, with whom I was chatting on the phone, instead of reaching the police, got the Sanitation Department. After the robber and I ran out, an employee called 911, and, once called, the cops came quickly. It was not their fault my panic button was inoperable, which, in an ironic twist of fate, may have saved lives. Had police come sooner, and cornered the armed robber in the store, he may have taken hostages, and there could have been a wild, deadly shoot-out.
Amazingly, the thief was soon arrested, 15 miles from my San Fernando Valley store, in Beverly Hills. After running out, he had ducked back to the alley, and ran behind the stores to Ventura Boulevard, to his waiting limousine. That’s right – he had a stretch limo, and driver, parked up the street, which is why I saw nothing in the parking lot. Before us, he had held up two jewelry stores. The driver had no clue, until the robber ran back from my store, flushed, pale and shaking.
While waiting, the driver had locked the limo, for the first time that morning. The loud gunshot hit the iron bar like an explosion, inches away from the robber. Panicked, out of breath, he ran to the limo from the rear, so the driver couldn’t see him coming. He banged the window with his fist, and yelled, which made the driver suspicious. On the ride back to Beverly Hills, the driver, from his sound-proof compartment, called police, who were waiting in the driveway, behind the bushes, guns drawn. The driver jumped out, and the robber, surrounded, gave up without a fight.
Why, you ask, was a Beverly Hills man, in a limo, robbing stores? In a bizarre twist, he’d been in a psychiatric ward, and befriended a patient from Beverly Hills. After his release, he was invited to stay in the home, but wore out his welcome, and was asked to leave. He knew where the owner hid a gun, and money, so, when the homeowner was out, he ordered the limo, which he met in the driveway. Nothing unusual, as some clients meet the driver outside; and some pay cash. Just another rich guy on a shopping spree, the driver thought, except this “shopper” was armed and dangerous.
At trial, the public defender was overheard imploring the defendant to plead insanity, based on his psychiatric history. Because he used a limo, the media was out in force. I was a key witness, having fired the only shot, and others also identified him as the armed robber; and, he had been caught with the goods. He refused to plead insanity, which might indicate he was mentally impaired, was convicted, and was sentenced to 19 years in prison.
I thought I made mistakes, and still do, but an assistant DA disagreed. He congratulated me for firing, which, he said, probably saved lives. The shot caused the armed robber to run away, and panic, the first time the limo driver became suspicious, which led to the arrest and conviction, which removed a dangerously unstable criminal from the streets. Had he escaped, he probably would have struck again, perhaps causing injury or death. None of us knows how we’ll act in a life-and-death crisis, until that magical moment of severe stress, of indescribable pressure, is upon us. What is your opinion?
That’s not the end of the strange tale of the limousine robber. Fifteen years later, in 2005, I was telling this story, when a man overheard it, and said, “I know that story; my son was the limo driver.” In California, with perhaps 35 million people, what are the odds?
Truth can be stranger than fiction.
By Jay Tell
ENCINO, California–Just when you’re on top of the world, you get blindsided. I was 21, in LA two years, my stamp and coin business was growing. I’d not smoked, but tried cigarillos. In the mirror I saw tiny specks on my chest, tried to flick off the dust, but it didn’t budge. I vowed not to smoke again, and never did. A friend suggested I see Stanlee B. Mazur, a woman doctor, unusual in 1965, who, quite simply, saved my life, making possible three beautiful daughters, sparkling grandchildren, and future descendants. It was the first time, but not the last, I would feel the warmth of God’s intervention. Truth is stranger than fiction. I’m no religious fanatic, but read this, and see if you, too, believe in miracles.
I thought everyone ran short of breath, playing trumpet in the high school marching band, running, playing baseball, basketball, or tennis, in which I lettered twice. Dr Mazur’s tests checked normal. After a puzzled look, she went to a closet, returning with a large, dusty device. She tested my thighs, showing half the blood pressure of my arms. “I’ll bet you have a coarctation of the aorta,” she said. The aorta, nearly an inch in diameter, is our largest artery. Mine was pinched, like a garden hose, to a pencil point, allowing a trickle of blood to my legs. It all started in my mother’s womb, not with cigarillos. She could have miscarried, except that nature intervened.
As a fetus, I was smart, even before I had a brain. A pinched aorta, blocking blood flow, should have been fatal, but I went into action. In the womb, I grew extra bypass arteries to carry blood around the crimped aorta. They started before the narrowed spot, some even going directly to lower areas, a miracle natural correction, to get me to full term, into the world, alive. No one should question research with stem cells, which can grow extra body parts – I am the proof.
However, there was a catch. The thin, frail, auxiliary arteries do not last. A slight heart murmur, undetected 21 years, was heard by Dr Mazur. The thigh test was a hundred-to-one-shot. But lower blood pressure can have many causes, so her diagnosis was a second bulls-eye. The combination boggles my mind. No general practitioner, to whom I’ve told this story, had taken a thigh blood pressure, or even owned a large-cuff machine. Have you ever had it done? Call it luck – I say it’s a life-saving miracle, Divine intervention. If that wasn’t enough, she sent a kid of 21, who knew nothing, to a renowned surgeon, Dr Jerry Kay. He taught Israel’s doctors heart surgery, which was in its infancy. After confirming the coarctation, Dr Kay told me how fortunate I was, to have seen Dr Mazur.
What’s the connection to chest specks? Those collateral, extra capillaries are temporary, to get me born, maybe to the teens. Doctors should have discovered this rare birth defect when I was a boy, but didn’t, and I was in trouble. Those hair-thin, extra arteries, those temporary conveyors of life-giving blood, sometimes last to 15, rarely past 20. They begin to burst, leaving pin-point specks on the skin, a warning they had done their job, but are giving up. By December, 1965, at 21 years, nine months, I was long overdue, perhaps within weeks of dropping dead. Yup, when the last of the extra arteries goes, you die; and, after an autopsy, they say, “Shame, unlucky guy, he had a coarctation of the aorta. Too bad it wasn’t discovered earlier.” Today, they can detect this in the womb.
In 1965 the operation was $5,000, but I had no insurance. I’d been on my parents’ policy, but, moving west, we let it go. I called, and, magically, the carrier said I was entitled to policy restoration on my own. I sent a check, and soon had a date for major surgery. Another miracle in this saga, and, as President Obama and the Democrats believe, no one should ever be denied insurance for a pre-existing condition.
Now for the hard part, telling my devoted parents, Jack and Bea Tell. In 1961, when I was 17, we moved from New Jersey to Reno, purchased Mark Twain’s Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, and moved to Las Vegas in 1962. In 1965 Dad began the Las Vegas Israelite, which is still going strong; brother Mike at the helm. Dad was a law graduate, press agent, and a New York Times assistant editor. I was a busboy-waiter at the Sands during the infamous Sinatra-Rat Pack era, and editor of the university newspaper. I moved to LA at 19, to expand my stamp and coin business, begun at 14 in the attic. By 1965, at 21, I had a store near LA’s Farmers’ Market. Later, I owned Nevada’s first health restaurant, Food For Thought, and published the Las Vegas Free Press.
I drove to Vegas on a Friday, but didn’t have the guts to tell my folks until Sunday. Surgery was set for Tuesday, but how would they react? “Dad, Mom, I need an operation.” Jaws dropped, panic drained them pale, a shocker from their seemingly healthy middle son. They had been through Mom’s seven life-saving, pioneering ileostomy and colostomy surgeries, when in her mid-30’s, 15-16 years earlier, in 1949-50, when I was six and seven. They knew seasoned surgeons at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, including Albert S. Lyons, Harry Yarnis, and the discoverer of Crohn’s disease, Burrill B Crohn, who had operated on President Eisenhower.
The operation corrects a birth defect, I explained. The aorta is snipped, the narrow section is removed, and the two wide ends are sewn together. I would have full blood flow for the first time, too late for growth (I’m 5-7), but vital for a normal life span. In closed heart surgery, they part the ribs through the left side. My parents were crestfallen, speechless, the pain in their faces. Then, Dad got angry, “We don’t keep secrets in this family!” This, I didn’t expect. Waiting to tell them was noble, I thought, but Dad wanted details. He called Dr Lyons, hero of Mom’s historic surgeries, after which she lived a half-century, healthy and vibrant, until her passing in 2000, from kidney issues. Personality-plus for 86 years, a happiness maker, she died too soon. Dr Lyons was home that fateful Sunday evening, three hours later in New York. Dad told the story. Did Dr Lyons know this birth defect, procedure, or surgeon? Should we call it off?
Dr Lyons said he’d call back in an hour. It seemed longer, and I regretted keeping this secret. Shielding family was, I realized, contrary to our close-knit bond. We got the call, on the edge of our chairs. “Dr Kay is one of the best, I don’t know how your son got him, but Jay is in excellent hands.” Talk about a last-minute pardon. This came from the doctor who saved my mother’s life. I now felt great, and was sure God was directing the show. After all, when tucking her boys in, Mom always had us say, “Thank you, dear God, for everything you have given us.”
My folks came to LA, met Drs Kay and Mazur, the operation was a success. Dr Mazur’s medical insight, and her sending a dazed kid to an eminent surgeon, still amazes me. She not only saved my life, perhaps within weeks of my demise, but made my young and stupid decision, to handle this myself, okay with my parents. Nothing gets better than that.
Five years later, Dr Kay casually mentioned a new discovery in this primitive field. “We now know,” he said in 1970, “that nearly everyone with a coarctation also needs their aortic valve replaced. Don’t worry, not for years, sometime when you’re older.” I was shocked, not good news, but at 26, getting older was way off in the future.
Dad passed on in 1979, Mom and my older brother, Don, at 61, in 2000, two weeks apart. I miss them every day. Fast forward to September, 2005, 40 years after the first operation. I was at my then-girlfriend Margie’s complex, with excruciating back pain. I put off seeing a cardiologist, despite shortness of breath. Denial is grand, but, remembering Dr Kay’s comment 35 years earlier, I knew. But this exhausting back torture came first, I couldn’t think straight. Doctors said I needed risky spine surgery, and who wants that? The aortic valve could wait. At 61, another mistake, just like at 21.
Hunched over, using a cane, I inched into the heated pool. A woman asked what happened. “Lower back, sciatic nerve, legs.” At that moment a stranger jumped off his chaise lounge. “I had the same thing,” he said, and we exchanged stories. I’d spent three days in the hospital, two months of killer pain around the clock, heavy morphine, an epidural, three surgeons wanted to operate. Jim, an athlete, had been incapacitated five years earlier, in bed four months. His problem, unlike mine, was inoperable. His doctors gave up, but he did not, and he found an amazing machine, an inversion table. Inexplicably, none of his doctors, or mine, mentioned this device. “It saved my life, you should try it,” he said. It was a slow, painful walk to his townhouse, but what the heck, I tried the gizmo. In just five minutes, it totally cured my back problem. If you have lumbar or disc problems, ask your doctor if you should try it.
Like most people, I’d never heard of an inversion table, a see-saw bench which rotates on an axle. You put your feet in sheep skin rollers, and slowly rotate to hang upside down, using gravity to straighten your spine, in some cases giving a bulge between discs room to recede, so it will no longer touch a nerve. Eight weeks of 24-hour back and sciatic pain magically disappeared –another miracle, like 40 years earlier. I profusely thanked Jim and his wife, and Margie, who was most supportive. I recalled an old wisdom: A stranger is a friend you have not met. I was now free to see my first cardiologist in four decades, for the other problem. That appointment was not likely without the back crisis suddenly cured, because of a stranger who overheard me say the words “sciatic nerve” to another stranger. What are the odds?
Echocardiograms, like sonar, use sound waves to create a movie image. Seeing my own pulsating heart and valves at work was fascinating to watch. The tech, Pat, and I chatted, but then her smile tightened. She took the printout, and left the room, a bit too fast. At 61, the time had come, the future had finally arrived. From age 26, I knew my aortic valve was part of the same birth defect, a rare two-flapped valve, bicuspid, instead of the normal three pie-shaped flaps. My two over-worked flaps were 75% closed, due to calcification at their bases. All flaps should be fully open, then, between heartbeats, fully closed, to prevent back-flow of blood into the left ventricle. My aortic valve needed replacement, yesterday. I needed urgent open heart surgery. Of the four surgeons recommended, one had been with Dr Kay back in 1965. This time, I did my homework. Doctors and patients raved about one surgeon in glowing superlatives, Alberto Trento, the gifted chief of Cedars-Sinai’s cardiac unit. His wonderful reputation was exceeded only by his caring. It was an easy decision.
My ex, Lorena, with whom I’m still close, kept me on her policy, each paying our share. In 2005 the surgery was $210,000, quite a leap from $5,000 in 1965. Dr Trento held my heart in his golden hands, all went smoothly. One surprise, the echo showed my flaps 75% closed. Afterward, in ICU, he said, “The flaps were 90% closed. I don’t know how you were breathing, but you’re fine,” another last-minute miracle. Since then, check-ups are good, with an echo stress-test on a fast treadmill. No medication, no restrictions, normal life expectancy. My cardiologist, Dr Blum, said he’d rather have my heart than his own. No smoking, drugs or alcohol, lots of water, no added salt or sugar, a calm demeanor – they all pay off. I should exercise more, however. No red meat, skinless chicken, fish, lots of fruit and vegetables. Blood pressure is 120 over 80, pulse 65; others say I look young. Most importantly, I was a shrewd selector of storks, with good parental genes.
With Medicare and a supplement, insurance is no longer an issue, but shouldn’t every American have peace of mind? Why should I have more rights to medical care than a younger person? The Democrats’ Health Care bill, the first in a century, is monumental, but only the first step. Selfish right-wingers protect insurance company profits, but every American has a fundamental right to health care. The Declaration of Independence says we have inalienable rights, endowed by our Creator, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; but they are impossible, if you don’t have insurance.
The Constitution’s preamble, We, the People, our first words of law, says the purpose, the reason for our nation’s existence, is to provide for justice, tranquility, the general Welfare. Franklin Roosevelt said the only thing to fear is, fear itself. How can those who do not have health insurance live without fear? Can you imagine a parent’s terror, when an uninsured emergency or illness dooms their child? We spend trillions on unpopular wars and bailouts of banks – the least we deserve is health care for all, like in other countries. At each precarious step of my medical history, from the womb onward, I was a hair-breadth from disaster. Wealthy folks, Exxon, and all large corporations, should pay more taxes, the middle class less, the poor should pay nothing. If, at 21 and 61, I hadn’t had two long-shot insurance policies, you wouldn’t be reading this.
Thanks to Drs Mazur, Kay, Trento, and all the medical professionals. Thanks to a guy with innate goodness, for insisting I try his inversion table. Thanks to my parents, who taught me kindness and loyalty, and to my wonderful family and friends, for making life worthwhile. Bobby Darin died at 37, in 1973, from a pre-existing heart condition, which made him uninsurable. I thank my friend for continuing to give happiness, every day, to millions of fans around the world; and for donating his body to UCLA for heart research, so other kids could be spared growing up with his death sentence. Thanks to Presidents Roosevelt, Johnson, and Obama, for Social Security, Medicare, and Health Care. And, thanks to all those fighting for the universal medical coverage all American citizens deserve.
My mother was wise. She’d call a setback a blessing in disguise. I’m grateful for my blessings, especially for my loving family and delicious grandchildren. In Judaism we believe our departed are guardian angels, which I experienced first hand, from even before I was born. I searched for Dr Mazur, but when I found her address, she had passed away. She’s been watching over me, protecting her patient. I’m sure she knows my gratitude.
All my life, I’ve been covered under a secret health care plan. The best is yet to come, and may God bless you, too.
Tell is a Los Angeles stamp and coin dealer and freelance writer.
Google ‘Jay Tell’ for his Bio, and the Bobby Darin Tribute. Email jaytell @ hotmail.com, or write Jay, at Americana Stamp & Coin Galleries, 16060 Ventura Blvd., 105A, Encino, CA 91436; phone 818.905.1111