Rajesh Gajra and Danny Patel stand behind a long counter lined with colorful packets of gum, candies, and the usual newsstand goodies. “I’ll take a $2 Powerball and one ‘Quick 5’,” says a man with graying hair across the counter. Gajra exchanges the man’s cash for some animated lottery tickets and a small smile.
Gajra and his co-worker and family friend, Patel, a portly, bespectacled man, banter from time to time. But mostly they’re in their own worlds, here in VDK Grocery on College Point Boulevard in Flushing, Queens.
Gajra, a 26-year-old graduate student, handles each cash transaction serenely, the same way he handled being held at gunpoint on April 24, just a week before he spoke to the NY City Lens.
“I thought he was kidding at first,” Gajra said of the dark-skinned man in the hooded sweatshirt who walked into the store at 10:45 p.m. on that Sunday.
“Give me everything,” the man said.
Gajra was holding two cokes in his hand at the time, standing near the door and doing his regular chores around the small shop. He told the man that he didn’t have anything to give. When a coworker at the register, Natubhai Patel, also indicated that he had no cash, that’s when the man whipped out a silver gun. It looked as if it were made of steel.
“Tu to gaya!” shouted Natubhai Patel, blurting out the Hindi words for “You’re gone.” Meanwhile, the man spun around to face Gajra, thrusting the weapon against the right side of his stomach. Gajra’s hands went up.
For the next 30 to 45 seconds, Gajra says, his world stopped. He glided away from the soda machine, past stacks of chips, and behind the cash register with the muzzle pressed against his ribs the whole time. “My mind was completely blank,” he says.
Cornered behind a long counter, Gajra’s hands remained above him as the man tried and failed to open the locked cash register. He flung open two other drawers before pulling the third out so hard that it fell to the floor. That’s where the money was. Nattu Bhai remained silent, his hands up in the air.
The hooded man took around $1,000 in cash from the drawer on the floor. As the robber then made his way back around the counter to exit the store, a customer arrived. Gajra whispered a warning to the new customer, using his fingers to discreetly demonstrate: a gun.
Meanwhile, the robber hid the metallic gun under his clothes and left. “ All these thoughts came rushing,” Gajra said. But before he could act, two women walked in to the store to buy milk. “The ladies were inside. I don’t want to scare them,” Gajra said. “I had to take care of them.”
Then he called 911.
The number of murders, burglaries, and robberies has declined in New York City this year—by 15.2%, 7.3%, and 1.4%, respectively—making such incidents even more alarming in areas like Flushing, Queens.
“I’ve been here for 10 years managing everything—I’ve never seen anything like this happen,” said Patel. His brother owns the grocery store.
For Gajra, in less than a minute his ability to move around freely in New York was tainted, just four months into his residency in the United States. He’s a little reluctant to go out at night now. He finds himself looking twice at men with hooded sweatshirts who resemble the culprit, trying to figure out if it’s the same person who invaded the grocery store.
Gajra came from India in December to pursue a master’s degree at the American College of Commerce & Technology. A family friend owns VDK Grocery, and helps him out with the costs of books and other miscellaneous expenses. In return, Gajra works at the store for a few hours a week.
The robbery remains a secret from his family back home in Ahmedabad, a city in Gujarat, India. “I’m not going to tell them what happened,” Gajra said. “My mom won’t let me complete studying.”
Police have not found a suspect yet, he said. The 109th Precinct declined to comment on the incident.