I left the chapel. It was the kind of bird-singing, blue-sky day even God sticks around a little while longer. Fr. Al talked about love, compassion, helping thy neighbor. The usual stuff that in the hands of a skilled orator made me want to save the world.
But not before breakfast. Our group ate first, then resumed secular life. Having had my eggs-over-medium-homefries-white-toast, I began the hike to my car that beautifully cliché summer morning–the type of morning nothing can go wrong.
There was a man in my path. Short greying hair, plaid shirt, big smile.
“Good morning,” he said. He waved to the university guard who returned the wave. I nodded, said good morning, eggs in my stomach, spirit of world-saving in my soul. The man began to chat. About schools, life, the universe, teaching in Providence. Small talk in a world where most of us disconnect.
Then I was at my car and it was time to part ways. I said “pleasant chatting with you,” and opened the driver’s side door. He spoke.
“Can you take me to my car? It’s at the shop. I can’t pick it up. It would be so kind…”
An inappropriate question, so polite in nature.
“No, I’m sorry, sir, I’m not comfortable with that. I don’t really know you.” He went around to the passenger side. Sundays are for helping people.
“Everybody knows me… I teach…the guard over there…” The one who waved back? “You don’t have to be nervous about…me…”
I never said “Okay.” He opened the passenger side door, smiled and got in. The course was set. Girls aren’t programmed to be rude. He told me where to drive.
“Down there.” Vague. I drove. He chatted. I tried to answer. It was tough driving because of the big red flag waving in my face. I couldn’t hear the chatter due to the warning bells and whistles clanging in my head.
“Take a right.” I obeyed. We passed the gas station where the car should be. “No…not there.” Where then? “Take a left. I did. The neighborhood changed. Graffiti. Broken glass. Abandoned buildings. He instructed me to pull over. There was a garage. It was closed.
I was in my early 20’s. I worked in insurance. No shop is open on a Sunday. I’d known that before he got into my passenger seat with a smile and a command. He got out, pretending to look for his car.
“Drive away!” The voice in my head spoke when absolutely necessary.
“That’d be rude,” I protested. Rude is wrong. Especially for girls.
“Forget rude. Drive!” The voice–intent, always present for the big things.
I hesitated. He who hesitates loses…Loses what? Maybe some money…or…maybe…life…
He got back into the car. The tone was different. Still smiling. But direct. Commanding. “Take me to the bus stop?” Drive.
There were bus stops everywhere. No need to drive. Still, I obeyed. “Go straight.” We drove straight. I asked where. He said “Just down there.” Four times. And then it happened.
“Do you have any money?” The look had changed again. Of course I had money. Of course I’d hand it over. Of course I was still driving…
Idiot! It was the voice–the voice in my head, the one that comes when life needs a decision or when I’m doing something particularly stupid. I’d already passed stupid and entered insane. Of course the guard waved. Don’t you nod and wave then say,”Who was that?” I’d been approached, conned, taken for money…and we were still driving.
Girls aren’t rude. I never said no so it stuck.
“Straight,” he said.
I waited for the voice. The voice doesn’t converse–just reveals. Then fades away. It was up to me to sort out this mess, a man traversing from conversation to command to threat. Still in my car. And me? Trapped more by social convention than any bad guy.
Small talk. Shaking. Abandoned by the voice. Driving down a rough street to God-only-knows-cause-he’s-got-Sunday-off.
This ends now. I unlocked my door slowly. I unrolled my window. I would crash into a pole. I’d run. Collateral damage–assessed. Cars are much safer than we think. Unless they’re filled with strange men. I’d survive a crash. A strange man, who knew?
Phone. Check. Bag. Check.
“Do you have any more money, I’m having a rough time.” He looked at my bag. What did he want? Money, a ride, something more?
The car swerved itself to the side of the road. If I wouldn’t end it, my trusty car would. Finally, I could speak. “Out! You have to get out. Now!” I looked into his eyes. Direct, with intent. “I’m late for my meeting. I gave you my grocery money. Get out. I can’t help you anymore.”
He shifted. Hesitated. I waited. This was the part in the story where I find out what happens to the heroine. Does the stand down end peacefully, or does he say, “That’s not the plan.”
The seconds dragged on. The watch ticked. Cars whizzed by. My window, open. Door, unlocked. Keys in the ignition. Pole ahead. Choices. Run now, be alarmist? Leave the car? Wait? “Are you stupid?” Not stupid. Frozen. An interesting feeling…logic out the open window, flags waving, brain dismissing each in turn.
He stared me down.
You can see the world in someone’s eyes if you just look–really look. He had flashes, swirling. Anger, intent. He shifted, he, too, contemplated his next move. Ice on an eighty-degree day. Seconds really do freeze. They really do feel like days.
Then…it cleared. A storm, blown out to sea. The con man smiled. Gentle and nonthreatening returned. The face of the teacher who knew the guard, the kind man who could get girls who are not rude to give him their money and drive him around.
He opened the door and walked away.
Relief… Shaking… The universe had been kind. Maybe God hadn’t taken Sunday off after all.
Next time, I vowed, I wouldn’t be so polite. I would say no when necessary. Be direct. Assertive.
But I never was. Not in work. Not in life. I was always polite. Gave credit to the team, let people pass me by on the ladder of success. Let my life, in times get carjacked by my inner programming to fix things for the world. Girls are often this way–or maybe it’s just me. I think of the man in the car. The carjacking that never was. And I think of life–being driven off course at times even with the flags waving in the air.
Sometimes I see it in my students. I’m glad to have had experiences I can use to teach them, but sometimes they need flags, bells, and whistles of their own before they can relate. That’s how life teaches us lessons that stick.
My friend said he wanted his girls to grow up in a world where they have the same shots as guys in work, where tech is gender balanced, and where girls don’t have to endure any more than the normal struggles to succeed–certainly none assigned because of gender.
That’s a perfect world. I think about that sometimes. My generation is the first generation sold the line that we’re all equal, and opportunities are there for those who work hard. It’s not always true, but some day, we’ll get there.
But meanwhile, I won’t get carjacked again. Because changing the universe starts with changing the thoughts of one person.
Today, that person is me.