Yuzhen “Lisa” Ma thought the worst part of getting robbed in her Wissinoming grocery store on June 28 was when the gun-toting thug beat her in the head, choked her and tackled her to the ground.
Fortunately, the tiny Chinese immigrant and working mother was able to wrest the gun away from the hapless criminal, forcing him to flee the shop empty-handed.
Then the bills came.
In the days after the failed heist at the Lisa & Charlie Market, 6017 Torresdale Ave., the Philadelphia Fire Department sent a $1,000 demand note to Ma, claiming reimbursement for paramedic service and transportation to a local emergency room. Meanwhile, Aria Health sent a $5,500 bill to Ma, seeking payment for her brief hospital visit.
Ma, who doesn’t have health insurance, was examined and released from the ER in a matter of hours and did not stay overnight.
If those two debts weren’t enough, Ma also found herself shelling out a couple thousand dollars to have a safety cubicle built around the counter at the front of her store, just in case any other wise guys decide to give her a try. She also was victimized by another thug just two weeks earlier, on June 14.
All in all, thanks to the hospital and paramedic tabs, she’s been losing more money since she became an armed-robbery victim than she did during the crime itself. In fact, she never had $6,500 cash in the store to start with.
And she’s still scared.
“Of course, I am,” said Ma, whose native tongue is Mandarin Chinese. “That’s why I put this (cubicle) up. I don’t like this to happen anymore.”
Ma, 43, came to the United States in 1994 and opened the Lisa & Charlie Market about two years ago with her husband. Since then, her husband lost his green card and had to leave the country. Now it’s up to her and her 13-year-old son, Jack Jiang, to mind the store.
It’s open seven days a week, about 12 hours a day in the summertime. In winter, with the early onset of darkness, Ma closes shop a little earlier.
Without the grocery store, she would have no way of paying her rent in South Philadelphia or a multitude of other bills, so she keeps the shop. The place sells soda and candy, canned foods, breakfast cereal, house supplies and even some clothing items that Ma sews to pass the time. She even does on-site clothing alterations for a modest fee.
“I want to sell (the business). I don’t want to stay forever,” she said. “But I have bills every month I have to pay.”
Like many independent grocers around the city, Ma sees a lot of the same people day in and day out — local folks who stop on the way to work for a cup of coffee, at lunchtime for a snack, or on the way home for a loaf of bread or carton of milk.
A lot of kids stop in too, especially when school’s out in the summer. The little ones often show up with a fist full of nickels and dimes, hoping to have enough for a chocolate bar or a pack of chewing gum. The teens show up too, including a few who don’t particularly care about paying for the bag of chips or can of soda that they take.
“Teenagers steal soda. It’s just a few times, but they do,” Ma said.
Even though the shop is small, Ma’s video surveillance system offers no fewer than eight camera views of the place, all of which she displays openly to patrons on a flat-screen TV. But she generally writes off the petty thefts, anyway, figuring it’s pointless to call 911 and file a police report over a can of soda.
That’s not to say bigger crimes haven’t happened.
About two months after she opened the store, a man robbed her at gunpoint. With help from Ma’s description of the suspect, police identified and captured him.
“The neighborhood’s crazy,” Ma said. “One time, a customer came here, got my car keys and drove my car away. The police helped me get my car back, and (the thief) go to jail.”
More recently, a man robbed the store at knifepoint on June 14. He first showed up at about 3:15 p.m., Ma said, saw another patron in the store and walked out the door.
“He came back in fifteen minutes. He looked around and saw nobody. He pulled out a knife and asked for all the money,” Ma said.
The store owner gave up the cash. She’s not sure how much it was. The suspect, whom she didn’t recognize, fled on a black bicycle.
“Because he ride a bicycle, he probably from the neighborhood,” Ma said.
She had an even scarier run-in with a familiar face two weeks later.
“He comes in here for coffee, soda and milk,” Ma said of the alleged June 28 robber. “Sometimes, he brings the paper and makes copies.
“That day, he asked me questions (like), ‘Are you living there?’” Ma said, pointing to the apartment above the store.
Days earlier, the man brought a pair of pants to Ma for her to sew. The alterations were almost done by June 28, but the man indicated that he didn’t have money to pay for the job that day.
He asked Ma what time she planned to close the store that evening. Ma told him 7:30.
The man returned at about 7:10 p.m. — with a gun. He grabbed the storeowner and demanded money. She screamed.
“I was scared. He told me, ‘It’s not real, the gun.’ But being robbed too many times and (since) I’m a lady, I was scared,” Ma said.
Ma knows she shouldn’t have struggled with the robber, but he had already grabbed her.
“I don’t have a choice. If I’m not fighting, maybe he kill me. I’m not thinking about anything,” she said.
As Ma grabbed for the gun, her son dialed 911. Ma fell to the floor but refused to release her grip on the weapon. Though diminutive, Ma attributes her surprising strength to years of working in the fields and mountains of her native China as a child.
“Since eight years old I’m working. That makes me stronger,” she said.
Soon after releasing videotape of the June 28 robbery, police arrested Scott E. Reiner, 43, of the 7400 block of Loretto Ave. He is charged with robbery, inflicting serious bodily injury, theft, possessing an instrument of crime, assault and reckless endangerment. He was freed after posting 10 percent of $15,000 bail and was scheduled for a preliminary hearing on July 19. Information from the hearing was not available in time for inclusion in this article.
Meanwhile, Ma has bruises on her knee and a sore shoulder, and she continues to experience woozy spells.
Last week, a news reporter helped her contact the Northeast Victims Services, which may be able to help her pay her ambulance and hospital bills, along with other expenses she incurred as a result of being robbed. ••
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org