« Wednesday in the Valley of Fur | Main | Help for the hatless, and other Q & As »

October 16, 2008

Thursday, not my walkday

Usually I go for a walk (walk/pathetic-jog, but more on that another day) at the unseemly hour of FIVE A.M.!!! and it's mostly quiet on the little streets of my neighborhood. There's still a surprising volume of traffic on the main road but whatevs. It's Los Angeles.

Thursday is also trash day. Each house gets three bins from the city, these big plastic containers with hinged lids and two wheels that you fill up dutifully and roll to the street each Wednesday night in anticipation for trash day. There's a black can for trashy trash, a green can for yard clippings and a blue can for recycling.

Every Thursday (and sometimes late Wednesday night) a few people come into the neighborhood with shopping cats and roam from blue can to blue can taking out all the recycling before the trash trucks come. I guess they take the aluminum cans and maybe glass bottles and take them to recycling centers for cash. I know they leave behind the cat food cans (heh) and the cardboard. By the way, this activity is illegal but I've never once seen anybody do anything about it in the 14 years I have lived here in crazytown. My neighbor next door won't put his cans out until right before the truck arrives but he's retired and stays home all day and some of us are already long gone when the truck comes, so there are lots of cans out just waiting.

Usually I walk so early in the morning that the wandering trash pillagers aren't out yet. The sun isn't out yet. It's pitch dark at 5 a.m. and most of the world is asleep, aside from a few commuters and the faithful handful of morning exercisers. But since the economy has taken a turn for the dramatic, I've noticed Thursday mornings have gotten crowded real quicklike. Last Thursday I was out walking my normal route and there must have been ten times the amount of strange men roaming from can to can. But this time they weren't just going through the recycling blue containers, they were opening up trash bags, rooting around, upending the contents and sifting through even closed bags in the black cans.

I'm my own worst critic and don't need people telling me to be more compassionate, I'm usually banging myself upside my own head whenever I have a twinge of something not sweet and kind like the Nice Southern Girl™ I was raised to be. But truth be told it was dark and kind of cold and there were strange men digging through trash cans in my neighborhood. Lots of them. And instead of empathy I felt the slightest twinge of fear.

There were also a few trucks driving up and down the streets, not trucks that live in my neighborhood (walk every single day in your neighborhood for a few years and you get a sense of what belongs and what doesn't) and these trucks were collecting loads from the scavengers. One truck stopped outside a construction dumpster and someone got out, started picking through it. And there was this one car, a melange of car parts of different colors put together to make a single vehicle with a loud muffler. It was driving slowly up and down the streets, and inside were two young men maybe 19 or 20 years old.

Now we have our share of hooligans in my neck of the woods, but they aren't usually out driving up and down with their hazard lights on at five a.m. I usually see the same faces each day -- fellow walkers and joggers and dog-walkers -- and nod or wave or say good morning. It's really comforting, seeing the same couple jog past me each day with their border collie, the friendly older guy with his three golden retrievers, the two women who always pass me right at the corner crosswalk each day.

But these two guys in the car, I had never seen them before. I guessed they were waiting for one of the fellows digging through the cans since they had a few bulging trash bags in the back seat. Then they passed me and saw me, one turned his head, and before long they made a U-turn and came back and pulled up slowly alongside me and stared. Apparently they are from a land were women never walk so the sight of me, a woman walking, must have ENTHRALLED them so much that they menacingly drove alongside me until I turned and said in my loud outside voice, DO YOU HAVE A MUTHAEFFING PROMBLEMMO WEIRDOS and waved my pepper spray. Then they sped off.

I was shaking. Then I sped off myself, cutting past two streets to go home and lock myself safely indoors. I decided that perhaps Thursdays are best spent indoors on the treadmill from now on.

- - -

Security expert Gavin De Becker wrote a book called The Gift of Fear. I haven't read the book but I heard him speak once, and he told this story about a woman standing waiting for an elevator and when the elevator doors open she sees a man inside the elevator who gives her the heebie jeebies (I am paraphrasing of course.) Mr. De Becker said the woman will get on that elevator nine times out of ten because she tells herself, "Oh, I'm just being silly, I don't want to be rude." In an instant she'll begin to make excuses, justifications in her mind and so she smiles and then she gets on the elevator.

He says that we are the only ones in the animal kingdom who will get into a steel enclosed soundproof box with a man who makes us feel unsafe -- all because we think we should give him the benefit of the doubt, and we don't want to be rude.

- - -

I thought I'd lived in this city for so long that I'd learned to sharpen my instincts. I don't often find myself in troubling situations, I'm just not on that wavelength I guess. When someone is doing something untoward, even if it's small, I try to listen to my instincts and get the hell out of dodge.

Sometimes, though, like last Thursday I don't listen, instead I talked myself out of it. On that day I immediately noticed there were more men on the streets and it was very early and this was not normal and it felt... a little unsafe. But I thought to myself, "Laurie, if you were telling this story to someone they'd come up with all the very logical reasons these men are digging through the trash. Other people wouldn't be immediately fearful, you jerk. They'd be kinder, more allowing. Other people would be more understanding, compassionate. After all, these guys are just people like you, people who are trying to feed their families. They're probably good people simply trying to make a few bucks. Don't be alarmist, don't be rude..." and on and on and on.

It's true that these folks are probably just decent folks trying to pull together a few dollars. It's also true that it felt weird. Something was off. I kept on walking though, right up until I got threatened, and I was threatened, having two strange young men pulling up in a cobbled-together car at 5 a.m. staring at you like you're a piece of meat and they're rabid dogs is never, ever a good thing.

It was a sharp and immediate reminder. Listen, listen to your instincts. I'd rather be impolite or politically incorrect and safe than sweet and nice and in harm's way. And whose feelings am I hurting if I decide to walk the treadmill one morning a week? Isn't that the most insane part?

So this morning I suited up and got my sneakers on and got ready to walk indoors. There's only one small impediment to my treadmill workout, but surely with some well-placed catnip -- in another room -- we can all learn to share on Thursdays ...


Posted by laurie at October 16, 2008 9:10 AM