Operation Caffeination

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Safety in numbers

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Scenario 1: I am driving through my neighborhood, about to turn onto my street, when I notice a couple embracing on the sidewalk. Nothing unusual, but they caught my attention for some reason and then I realized that the woman was in tears, had her arms wrapped around her body in a protective stance and seemed to be pulling away from the man.

I slam my breaks on so hard that they squeal and roll the window down without a second thought. My kids are staring at me with big eyes through the rear view mirror.

“Do you need help?” I holler through the open window.

The man has lost all of his color and is hanging back from the woman now.

“She’s having a panic attack,” he explains. “I’m just trying to help her get to the bus stop.”

I ignore him and look back to the sobbing woman.

She is laughing a little through her tears and shaking her head.

“He is fine,” she assures me. “I am going to be okay. I am just having a bad time right now. I’m sorry about this.”

“You aren’t doing anything wrong,” I assure her. “I have a panic disorder and I’ve been there. Do you want a water bottle or anything? I’d offer you a ride but we only have one extra seat.”

“I will be fine, but thank you for checking on me,” she smiled a little again and leaned back to rest her head against her boyfriend’s supportive chest.

“Hope it all gets better soon,” I say and drive away, you know, to spend the next few hours fielding questions from my three year old about the nature of anxiety and depression, the causes of panic attacks and how exactly our car makes those super high pitched squealing sounds when we stop too quickly. What an afternoon.

Scenario 2: I’m at the playground with my kids and one of my son’s little friends in the middle of the morning. A fat, middle aged bald man with a thick mustache and a stained shirt arrives a few minutes later with a little girl, who is wearing a thin tank top and shorts where my kids are bundled in jackets and rain boots. She is also wearing a neon green wig.

As the kids race around on the play equipment, I overhear the older man asking the little girl some questions about her school. Is her school going to put on any plays this year? No. Does she like her teacher? Some of them are okay. It’s pretty clear that this guy is not a regular caregiver in this child’s life. I’m filing through my mental Rolodex of sexual offenders who live in our neighborhood and eyeing this guy suspiciously. He doesn’t acknowledge me at all.

And then he turns and asks the girl if she wants to see something cool. When she says yes, he starts leading her down to the secluded wetland area in the middle of the park.

I follow with my whole brood in tow.

My kids love the wetland and we play down there all the time, so they head immediately for the little stone bridge where they like to play fishing games. The man, on the other hand, leads the little girl off the trail.

I feel horribly conflicted at this point. This guy could be her grandfather. He could be showing her a bird’s nest or something awesome.

On the other hand, grandfathers sexually abuse their grandchildren all the time.

But he isn’t doing anything wrong. I just feel suspicious. Very, very suspicious, yes, and my instincts are screaming to me that this guy is a predator, that this is all very wrong. But what am I supposed to do other than make sure this guy knows that he is being watched? I can’t call the police on him for having a mustache.

I position myself on the trail where I can watch my own kids while still keeping an eye on the other little girl. My kids are having a blast peeking under rocks and tossing pebbles into the water. Everything seems calm enough. I start to relax and focus on my own kids again.

Then I hear the little girl shriek.

I’m sick to my stomach instantly. I can hear the old man telling her that “it’s alright” and offering to carry her wig for her. She tumbles back into the trail and I’m about to call to her when I stop. I don’t know why, but I just feel frozen, watching her. She doesn’t appear to be distressed. She’s busily swatting at imaginary bugs and chatting on and on about how gross the mud is. Maybe she’s just the kind of kid who screams when bugs land on them or when they get splattered in mud. The old guy is chuckling and suggests that they return to the playground, and she agrees, skipping a little ahead of him on the path.

I am still not sure how I should have handled that situation. I am still struggling to make peace with myself about it, because I think what happened was that I became more concerned with hurting the old man’s ego than with protecting a little girl’s right to a childhood free from molestation. I felt like I was in the wrong for thinking “icky” thoughts and lost sight of the fact that bad people do exist and they do horrible damage to little kids all the time. Any good grandpa should be glad to know that people in the community are watching out for his grandkids and should be willing to submit to a little extra scrutiny. The fact that this guy didn’t even acknowledge that I was suspicious of him makes me feel even less comfortable with how that situation played out. He could clearly tell that I was watching him. Every person is different, but if I felt like someone suspected me of something horrible and untrue, I would toss them a smile, make a joke, break up the tension a bit and try to demonstrate my trustworthiness. To respond to my suspicious glances by upping the ante…that seems like a pretty abnormal and maladjusted response to me.

Anyway. Thoughts on any of this? What do you do when your spidey sense begins to tingle?

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Written by GRSeim

April 17, 2012 at 8:10 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I think you handled both of those situations admirably – and I agree with your reasoning and motivations for why you did what you did. The trickiest bit about the second scenario is that, personally, I don’t know that any response from That Guy would have reassured me at all; I’d have wanted a second opinion. If he’d tossed off a joke at me or tried to make nice, it would have just increased my suspicion: “He’s trying to manipulate me into thinking he’s all right.” I don’t know what else you could have done to make that situation more “right,” because yeah, you really can’t call the cops on someone just for looking suspcious*.

    The only time I’ve ever been in a situation on your end of things was back when I was working at a cafe that catered primarily to stay-at-home mothers of young children. We once had an older man come in, dressed inappropriately for the weather (he was wearing a coat and it was well over eighty degrees) and looking, frankly, dirty (he had smudges on his nose and cheeks, and his hands were very unkempt). He didn’t purchase anything, but rather moved immediately to an area where he could watch the children playing, and then moved into the classroom area where a dance class was underway. Two mothers of young ones came to me to voice their concerns – they’d noticed him come in alone, and were worried – and eventually I called my boss and asked him to please come deal with it because this was so above my pay grade. It turned out that he was actually the parent of one of the girls there, whose mother vouched for him, and personally, I still don’t feel okay about the way he was behaving and watching those kids.

    I do have experiences from the other side, though, the one deemed suspicious. My race marks me as other from my youngest; my androgynous gender identification marks me as other from both of them, and I’ve more than once gotten side-eye and even questions from other parents that clearly indicated their mistrust of my right to my own children. And while the situations are different, given the various ways in kyriarchy is intersectional, I know that as much as it’s frustrating to me, personally, on a completely different level I am so, so grateful that there are other people looking out for children, even the ones that aren’t theirs.

    *Unless that person is of color, of course, because that’s how racism works.

    jaqbuncad

    April 18, 2012 at 5:06 am

  2. Stuff like this is so variable. It runs from obviously-drunk people who get on the bus to the creepy vibe I get from a group of dudes smoking in the park at night. I just try to enhance my strengths. I’m easy to overlook, small, and fast. As long as I can provide myself with an escape route if something goes wrong, I can approach people. Without that little safety net, though, I tend to err on the side of caution.

    Being an American I also tend to be paranoid like Americans are, and I take that into consideration. In other words, I try not to see what isn’t actually there. I’ve run like hell from things that were probably imaginary, and I know that I can make up a completely sinister story for something completely benign.

    That being said, when I saw my neighbor’s house being broken into, I was on the phone and we were taking pictures of the guys doing it. I was running around the block barefoot, directing the cops to where these guys were getting away with their loot. The perps were apprehended, but my neighbor didn’t press charges.

    Sometimes bad things are deceptive.

    Jonathan Hontz

    April 18, 2012 at 5:56 pm


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