When the Threat of Violence Rears Its Ugly Head

Perhaps I have become too complacent.  We live in a fairly safe area.  It’s normally fine to walk the streets either during the day or at night; there are rarely questionable characters lurking about.  Walking is important to me.  I have to get away from the computer, stretch my legs, and see the outside world.  It’s not enough to do my three-times-a-week yoga and calisthenics routine, although I am faithful with that as well.  I try to take a walk of at least a mile seven days a week.

I often combine my walk with chores such as shopping or going to the library.  Since there are supermarkets in two different directions it gives me variety.  Yesterday, for instance, I headed for the supermarket that is farther away because I had noticed some items for sale in its weekly flier.  If possible I stick to the side streets in this suburban area, as the air is cleaner and the view is more attractive.

I walk at a steady pace, not too fast and not too slow, keeping my breathing regular.  Since my recent fall when I broke my wrist, I watch out for cracks and other imperfections in the sidewalk or street.  I look at and appreciate everything as I pass: the architecture of the houses, the number of floors, the windows, the porches, the balconies, the paint, the extensions, the yards, the moss or lack of it in the driveways, the yards or gardens and the way they are kept up or neglected, the idiosyncratic decorations, the scattered toys, the political signs, the evergreens towering over all, and in these days before Halloween, the carved pumpkins.  Our neighborhood is replete with greenery, and the houses for the most part are attractive and cozy-looking.

So I take my walk, as usual, and I have just gone under the supermarket overhang and am reaching for a shopping cart when someone comes up behind me and says, “Do I know you?”

I turn.  He’s younger than I am, perhaps about half my age, so he’s not an old classmate from my long-ago school days.  I suppose I might have met him at a writing seminar or science fiction convention, but he doesn’t look familiar.

Plus he has a very unfriendly expression.

I mumble something about not recognizing him.  He replies by saying he lives in one of the houses I recently passed.  I say, “Oh, which one?”  And he says, “None of your business.”

That’s when the alarm bells start going off.  After all, he’s the one that accosted me, not vice-versa.  I was just going about my day.

Then he says, “I see you pass my house a lot.  You look at it.”

Well, okay, I pass by a lot of houses every day, and I look at all of them.  He’s not giving me much to go on.

But then it strikes me: he has been following me, stalking me in a sense, for God knows how many blocks, just because I happened to pass by his house and look at it.  If, indeed, he really does live in a house in the neighborhood, which I’m beginning to have my doubts about.  He had a distinctly malevolent and psychotic expression.  It makes no sense, and it really creeps me out.

Okay, so I went into the supermarket and did my shopping.  He went in too and pretended to shop, or bought one little item to justify his following me into the store.  On the way home I took another route, avoiding the temptation to constantly keep looking behind me but glancing back from time to time to be sure he wasn’t following.  When I got closer to home I increased my surveillance, as I didn’t want him to find out where I lived.  For the next hour or two I would periodically look out my second-floor windows to be sure he wasn’t spying on us.

Maybe I was being excessively paranoid, but I think I will avoid walking along the street in question for now.  He came across as the type of guy who would, the next time he saw me, rush out with a pistol or shotgun to supposedly defend his turf.  Understand: on my walks I never slow down or stop, and I never walk on anyone’s lawn or garden.  I stick strictly to the public sidewalks and roadways.  I’m sure other people take walks in their neighborhoods – I mean, why the hell not?

The experience reminded me that some people have a spirit of violence deep down in their souls, and it’s ready to burst at any time, at the slightest provocation.  I’ve met a lot of people like that on my travels around the world, but I have been lulled into a sense of safety by this normally safe neighborhood we presently live in.  It made me wonder how often such things would happen if I dressed oddly or were a person of color.  Many people because of their appearance have to undergo stark, random, bizarre, unfriendly, and inconsiderate encounters like this on a regular basis.

This world of ours can be fascinating and gorgeous, but it can also be abruptly cruel without warning.  It pays to always be aware and on guard as you enjoy the beauty.

*     *     *

After I wrote the above, I still felt puzzled and disturbed by this incident, but I couldn’t really put it all together until this afternoon.  I’ve started reading (or rather rereading – it all sounds familiar and I’m sure I must have read this several decades ago) A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of his years as a young writer in Paris.  Then it all came back to me.  I realize that I see few other pedestrians when I take my walks here in the neighborhood.  In the States, at least around here, people drive from place to place.  I have lived almost twenty years in Europe, mostly in Greece and Italy but also in the Netherlands and other places.  Europeans are great walkers, great strollers, and they would find it inconceivable that someone would object to pedestrians gazing upon their houses as they passed, or even stopping to admire and comment upon particularly striking aspects of them.  The owner might come out and chat, and both residents and pedestrians would benefit from the experience.  This reluctance and lack of openness to the views of passers-by is a solely American paranoia, and it is a sad one.  That’s not to say all Americans are like this – I have met congenial neighbors on my strolls – but it would never happen, for instance, in Greece.  There the people you pass by would be more likely to invite you in for a coffee or a quick sip of ouzo.

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