How Sullivan Learned to ‘Fake a Calm’

Maple Sullivan, 19, from Trenton, New Jersey, had a gun pulled on her for the first time when she was a freshman in high school. 

“Compared to the eight-ish times it’s happened in my life, the first time’s the scariest, for sure,” Sullivan says.  

Under her cap and behind her large framed glasses, Sullivan isn’t afraid to hold eye contact. Today while sitting in her introduction to journalism class, her hat reads “Fight Like A Girl.” She waves her hands in front of her and smiles as she reflects on the first time she faced the barrel of a gun. 

It was the middle of the night, both parents and younger brother were out of the house, and Sullivan, 15-years-old at the time, was trying to sleep. But the Hispanic neighbor living on the corner of her block wouldn’t stop roaring his motorcycle. 

Although he was known to the neighborhood as an aggressive drunk, Sullivan didn’t second-guess confronting him. She stepped out onto her porch wearing basketball shorts and slide sandals. Her neighbor stood along the sidewalk with a shaved head, in his leather vest, black boots, and both arms covered in tattoos. Sullivan wasn’t intimidated. She yelled at him to stop roaring his engine, and reminded him everyone was trying to sleep.

Then he pulled the gun on her. 

“Do you know that feeling when your stomach drops and you’re just like… uff?” Sullivan asks. “Your stomach churns. [I thought] ‘I’ve had a decent life. This isn’t the worst time to die.’ I was trying to rationalize it so, I wouldn’t die upset, or feeling like my life didn’t mean much.” 

In Sullivan’s neighborhood, an abandoned factory remains down the road, liquor stores sell to minors, garages catch on fire, and Crips and Bloods fight over street corners. Trenton is high in gun and gang violence. According to, the 2019 crime rate was 1.7 times higher than the nation’s average, higher than 93.9% of U.S. cities.

The altercation with her neighbor ended within a minute. 

Sullivan leans forward in her chair, and, for emphasis, matches her hand gestures with each time she curses. “He said, ‘Shut the fuck up, go inside, and fuck off.’ I did that!” Sullivan laughs. “I put on headphones, blasted music, and went to sleep.” 

Years after living in the city, Sullivan has known of worst things happening to other people and has grown to accept danger. Her acceptance has gone as far as keeping her first gun experience from her parents. After the Great Recession, she didn’t want to be another stressor to her family. 

“I already knew they had other life things to worry about like bills and keeping food on the table and keeping a roof over our heads,” Sullivan says. “I didn’t want to put another thing like, ‘Oh, now we have to worry about our child being murdered.’ It was more so for them than for me.” 

Sullivan believes it’d be even harder on her parents if she shared all the violent encounters she’s experienced throughout her teenage years. Too name a few, since her freshman year, she has been caught in a drive-by for merely walking her dog in a neighborhood that wasn’t her own, witnessed a shoot out at an art festival, and interrupted a drug deal. 

The next day after the first time, her neighbor was arrested for drunk driving and resisting arrest. Sullivan hasn’t heard of him since but continues to use what she learned. She’s more aware of how people behave, where they keep their hands while around her, how to “fake a calm” and talk it through with the gunmen to figure out their motives. She feels if she can meet their purpose then she’ll be okay. 

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