Saturday, July 10, 2010


I went to a Big Box Hardware Store this afternoon to buy paint. Bump is refinishing furniture for Lula's room, and we were negotiating color choices this morning. I was being difficult because the correct shade of pink was not among the 45 frillion color chips he brought home (That's too light! That's not red enough! I want it to match the super-cute rocking chair Nana sent!) so Bump threw up his hands and sent me to the damn store myself -- well, with the chair.

I eventually found the right hue and collected all my purchases while lugging around a child-size rocking chair. I got tons of comments about it (it is super-cute, after all) and realized that my quasi-standoff with Bump about which of us was trudging back to the damn store with the damn chair to find the perfect damn pink probably ended the right way. While he is physically better able to carry a piece of furniture like a handbag, socially it was probably less awkward for me to haul a wee pastel chair around in public.

All the attention from strangers about the chair meant I wasn't alarmed when someone approached me in the parking lot with a smile.

"Are you Vietnamese?" he asked.

"Nope," I chirped. I always find that question a little weird. Sometimes I go out of my way to avoid satisfying random obnoxious curiosity, but I was feeling generous. "Korean."

I put the chair in the passenger's seat. By the time I got behind the wheel the guy was next to the car, waving expectantly. I rolled down the window.

He was earnest and stranded. His car had broken down. He called his friend but it had been over an hour and his friend hadn't arrived.

I offered him my cell phone.

He declined. He worked at a National Gas/Service Station Chain (a work shirt bearing the company's name was draped over his shoulder) and really just needed a ride. Did I live around here?

I answered vaguely. This was not the location of the Big Box Hardware Store I normally frequent. I had a navigation brain fart and failed HARD on the most direct route to get there, and at that point I was only pretty sure I lived in the neighborhood.

This guy was having a rough day. No one would give him a ride. He said something about a taxi, so I offered to call him a cab.

No, he didn't have the money for a cab. He really just needed a ride. Would I give him a ride?

I shook my head no.

He continued for a bit longer, and I listened sympathetically. He pressed again for a ride. I said I was sorry, but I couldn't help him. I drove off.

I thought about this guy all the way home, mulling ways I could help. Maybe I would send Bump back to the parking lot when I got home. Maybe I should have given the guy cab fare.

At the first traffic light, I noticed a bus stop on the corner. It's hard to give a stranger enough money for a cab, but I certainly would have given him bus fare if I had thought of it. Why didn't he take the bus? I realized he was probably unfamiliar with the area, and bus routes are confusing when you are familiar with the area. Hell, I knew where I was going -- in my car -- and still managed to screw it up somehow. I wasn't even exactly sure which Gas/Service Station Chain location he needed.

But if it was relatively nearby, as he seemed to suggest, why didn't he just walk there?

And if his car had broken down on the beltway, how did he get to the parking lot of the Big Box Hardware Store? I used to joke with Aunt Bob that seeing a male gynecologist was like using a mechanic who rode the bus. Had I actually just met a mechanic who couldn't fix his own car?

How can you find someone willing to transport you from your broken-down car to here, yet not convince them to ferry you to your not-incoveniently-far-away destination? The same destination where people bring broken vehicles for repair, I might add. (I can't quite get passed that.)

I understand waiting an hour for your friend to pick you up, but why would you solicit a ride from someone else instead of calling your friend again and being all "Dude. WHAT THE HELL? I'm stuck in an effing parking lot STILL waiting for you. Also, it is hot outside. Gitcher ass here now."

I started to realize what might actually have happened. I understood why I didn't do more to help this unfortunate guy. Why I listened sympathetically and smiled through an open window, but my hands were never far from the keys in the ignition.

It was the Creep Alert.

You know the one. At least I hope you do. (If you have never read Gavin de Becker's book The Gift of Fear, you must do so immediately. If any woman in your life has never read this book, get a copy for her right now.) It is that little voice that tells you something is . . . off.

It is the voice that excellent predators convince you to disregard.

I remembered hazy bits surrounding a young woman's recent tragic death. The story caught my attention not only because she was local, but also because the statistical "butler" when a woman is murdered -- the abusive husband/boyfriend -- didn't do it. I knew where she died was near another location of this Big Box Hardware Store. I thought this guy's story was odd enough to warrant a call to the police.

I apologized to the officer who answered the non-emergency line. I offered that "it was probably nothing," but I wanted to report it. When I mentioned the guy set off my "Creep Alert . . . you know what I mean?" the female officer said immediately, firmly: "I know exactly what you mean."

Tonight we went to a minor league baseball game to celebrate a friend's birthday. I can't help but imagine a different end to the day, one without hot dogs and lemonade and dear friends and fireworks. An afternoon when it takes me far too long to come home from the store, and my family's annoyance becomes concern which becomes fear and panic and horror and unspeakable grief -- because I ignored my Creep Alert and let a down-on-his-luck stranger into my car.

I really hope that my Creep Alert is oversensitive and some dipshit mechanic just had a terrible day, wasn't thinking very clearly, didn't know where he was, and lost a little faith in humanity today because no one would help him.

But I have to protect myself and pay attention when the Creep Alert is triggered. You must, too. I wish Vanessa Pham had.


Beth Fish said...

Huh. I was thinking this guy was just trying to scam some money from you, since similar things have happened to me in parking lots and have heard about it happening to other people more often lately. But his first question was an awfully weird way to start a conversation, and yikes. Glad the creep alert was working so well for you.

Julie said...

Yikes! I'm so glad you're OK - and maybe, if the police found him, you helped somebody else, too (either because the creep's in jail or the dipshit mechanic finally got a ride).

Kathryn said...

Insightful post. Thanks for the book recommendation.

kenandbelly said...

Don't second guess yourself. Every detail of your story suggests ya did right-- this all sounds 18 types of creepy. The mechanic's daughter in me is especially suspicious of the service station uniform bit.

Lorri said...

You absolutely did the right thing. I get asked all the time about my ethnic background, but usually by people I'm already interacting with - waiters, people at cash registers, etc. It would make me very cautious to be asked by someone out of the blue.

I always tell my children that adults don't need to ask children for help - they should ask other adults. If an adult asks a child for help, they have other things in mind. The same thing for men needing help - they should ask other men, not a woman.

Sarah, Goon Squad Sarah said...

I'm glad you didn't give him a ride.

Not June Cleaver said...

Wow! I was thinking about Vanessa Pham today too when we went to the Merrifield Home Depot. On the way there, I was telling my husband about it and about the videos taken from Unique. We were there today (Sunday) at 3:30 p.m., same as she was 2 weeks ago.

I'm glad you called the police. That first question of his was really weird. Pham is a Vietnamese name. That totally creeps me out. Hopefully you told the police about the uniform, the question, all that jazz. I have a big heart, but my creep hackles would have risen in that situation too.

(p.s. we met at Bossy's meetup in May)

Anonymous said...

I'm a guy. When I make a reasonable counter-offer of help that is refused, MY creep-alert goes on ... and stays on. IMHO you did the right thing.

Heather said...

Scary. His story totally doesn't add up. I used to not be good at listening to my inner creep alert, but I think being responsible to little children makes you more serious about those things. I think women especially are taught not to be rude to people even when they deserve it. I haven't read that book yet but now I will.

Marci said...

gives me the shivers. glad you are still with us.

Violet said...

Yeah he sounds like a creep alright. I am probably suspicious of any strange guy who starts off by wanting to know what my ethnicity is, because even if they aren't creepy, they are usually jerks.

bozoette said...

As I was reading I was saying to myself "Run! Run! He's up to no good!" I'm so glad you listened to me. And your creep alert.

Anonymous said...

You did the right thing. You provided helpful solutions that a person who was in real needed would have accepted. Also,, post pics of the furniture! I can't wait to see it!!

nonlineargirl said...

I'm glad you acted as you did. I'm nervous about men approaching me in that kind of situation, even in public and during the day. My creep sensor is strong, but it is also tempered by my "be nice to people" training. I am sure a lot of creeps rely on our training.

Em said...

Thank God you're just as sensitive to human behavior as you are to shades of paint.

Geez, I stop reading for a few weeks and you go and meet Ted Bundy at the hardware store.

This isn't the same big box chain that you were frequenting during the sniper attacks, was it?