Friday, December 14, 2007

Unexpected angels

This is a true story.

He was one of those people that can be a little scary. He was ragged, smelled bad, and was, worst of all, talking to himself while glaring at the ground and gesturing at things I couldn’t see. In the parlance of my family, he was a crazy. He was following me.

I was 13 or 14, coming into my woman’s body but still with some of the scent of girlhood around me. It was winter and I was in downtown Philadelphia to do a little Christmas shopping. Even though my family was secular Jewish, I had plenty of friends to shop for and loved the hustle and bustle of the city at this time of year. I loved the lights and sounds and the way the old department stores (Wanamaker's in particular) seemed so vast and elegant while the smaller shops were cozy and seemed to have secrets they were just dying to tell. I felt grown up as I wandered from store to store, mulling over my choices.

Then I saw him. I don’t know how long he’d been following me, but I first noticed him huddled by the doorway as I walked out of one store. I’m sure I thought something like I hope he isn’t too cold, as if being a little cold was okay.

Then I noticed him again as I left the next shop. And the next. When I looked around as I walked to the next store he was right there, just a pace behind me, mumbling to himself and glancing up at me every few steps. There was no doubt, he was following me.

I didn’t know what to do. This was the late 1970s in Philadelphia, I didn’t look upon the police as friends. There were hundreds of people streaming by, but I knew none of them and had neither reason to believe they would help nor hope that he wouldn't react badly if I asked for help within his hearing. He wasn’t following me into stores, just waiting for me outside, so I clutched my bags a little tighter and went into the next shop – these buildings were old and all backed into alleys, maybe I could escape that way.

“Excuse me,” I said to the woman behind the counter. Remembering her now, I can see she was barely older than I was. “Someone is following me and standing outside of the store. Do you mind if I leave by your back door?”

She glanced out the window quickly, then back at me. “We don’t have a back door. Sorry.” To this day I think she was lying. I think she couldn’t see him and thought I was a crazy, that at best I wanted to steal something, at worst, who knows.

That was the only moment that I remember being afraid. I didn’t know why he was following me or what he wanted. He was a crazy. And he was outside waiting for me.

I stood in the doorway of that shop, feeling her looking at me from behind the counter. I can only imagine her hand was on the phone, poised to dial the police. I took a deep breath and stepped outside, hoping he had gone away.

Of course, he hadn’t. He was still there, still looking at the ground, mumbling and gesturing. His glance flickered to me and I saw his balance shift, ready to move when I moved.

I looked across the street, pretended I was trying to decide what store to go into next, while I wondered if I should run. As I stood there, I heard what he was saying.

“You gotta be careful, you can’t let anyone get too close. You don’t know what will happen, you have to have someone around to keep you safe. You need to look out for yourself, you know. You have to be careful these days, it’s not like the old days. You gotta be careful.”

He might be a crazy, but maybe he wasn't out to get me. I looked at him. He glanced up at me again and kept telling me to be careful.

I took one step closer to him and he glanced at me again, still talking, but a little slower.

“I’ll be okay,” I said. “I promise to be careful.”

This time he didn’t look away. “You gotta be careful. You don’t know who’s out there.”

“I promise. I’ll be careful.”

We looked at each other for what felt like an hour but I’m sure was only a few seconds.

“Okay,” he said.

“Merry Christmas,” I replied, “Thank you for looking out for me.” I walked away. He didn’t follow me, though I could see him watching when I caught his reflection in the store window.

I kept my promise. But I have to wonder, who was I for him? Did I remind him of someone who wasn’t careful enough? Was he protecting me from a threat I couldn’t see?

I don’t know. Nor do I know why, in that moment, I stopped to listen. I can only be grateful that I did. It has made all the difference - not the being careful. The listening and the wonder and the moment of connection.

(c) 2007 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

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True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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