Saturday, October 27, 2007

Close Encounters


It was about 11:30 at night. I'd just gotten done babysitting for some close friends so they could finally have a real date away from their 16-month-old daughter. The night had gone well - the baby was in a fun mood and went to bed with nary a peep - but I was still feeling kind of wired as I got into my car. I was also a little peckish, as I'd had an early dinner. I'll just hit the 24-hour McDonald's in Uptown, I thought. Get a cheeseburger and a shake and eat it on the way home, give myself some time to wind down. OK, yes, it's a little gross to eat fast food at that hour unless you're a college student pulling an all-nighter, but it sounded good. And in fact it was even better than I'd expected. Something about the distinctive blend of cheap beef, white bread, plastic cheese and warm pickle took me back to other late nights: coming off a bender at a grad-school conference; satisfying a "Big Mac attack" during exam week; making a last-minute run to the hometown Mickey D's and getting back after curfew. This being the weekend before Halloween, Uptown was hopping with costumed people in various stages of inebriation. Safe in the confines of my car, I enjoyed the parade of firemen, cowgirls, be-boppers, mermaids, and even a pair of women dressed as large breasts. The night took on an almost dreamlike quality, with the streetlights casting their surreal glow on a motley assemblage of fantastical creatures. I decided to take Lake Street over to the east side of town, where I live. It takes longer than my usual route, but I was in the mood to stay in the city lights and soak up the late-night goings on.

I can't remember exactly which intersection I was at when it happened. I think I had crossed over to the east side, but maybe not. What I do remember is this: I had stopped at a red light, and I was the third (and last) car in the right lane. There was a white compact car in front of me with two people, a man and a woman, in the front seat. On the sidewalk to our right a man was walking. He wasn't that distinctive looking: average height, heavyset, dark hair and a beard, wearing what looked like hospital scrubs with a light stain down the front. He moved towards the car in front of me as if to get in the back seat. Odd spot for a pick-up, I thought, but whatever. And then I thought, Maybe it's a drug deal. He lifted up the handle of the rear passenger door and it was locked. He stepped back from the car as if to give the driver time to unlock the doors; only then did I notice that the people in the car were looking back at the man as if he were crazy, gesturing at him to move away, back off. The man stepped forward again to try the front door, this time, and the car pulled forward and over to the left in an attempt to shake him off. Giving up, the man turned in my direction and started heading towards my passenger side.

I'm not sure at what point I locked my car doors - it was sometime before the man turned towards me but after I realized that he was not just getting a ride with the car in front of me. I don't usually ride with all the doors locked, so it took me a few seconds to find the master switch in the darkened car. I locked it, and watched the man approach. I remember thinking, I hope the doors really are locked, I hope I clicked the switch in the right direction. But I didn't feel as though I had the time or ability to check to make sure. I also remember that the man's face had almost no expression as he walked towards me. He didn't look angry, or crazy, or sad or desperate. Hopeless, maybe. A little wary. I thought, maybe he'll just pass my car by, but I knew that he really wouldn't. He walked right up to my passenger door and jiggled the handle, looking me in the eyes as he did so, still expressionless, saying nothing. When he could tell that the car was locked, he gave up and continued down the street, headed who knows where.

The whole encounter took less time than it takes traffic lights to change. Ten seconds? Fifteen? Not even enough time for me to be properly scared of the possibilities, though looking back I can see that it was scary. I wonder what would have happened if the doors hadn't been locked. What did the man want? Would he have asked for money? Or for a ride somewhere? Tried to steal the car? Used violence? The light turned green and I drove towards home, sucking down my shake and thinking about what had just happened. Most of the time, due to the accident of an upper-middle-class birth, I am able to travel through the world on a cushion of socioeconomic privilege, rarely brushing up against the harsher realities of urban life. I extol the virtues of living in the city: coffee shops within walking distance, art-house movies, family-owned businesses, people of different ethnicities and lifestyles living together in peace. Cue the John Lennon soundtrack, please. I don't know what that man wanted, and I'm just as glad I wasn't forced to find out. I suspect I'll be more inclined from now on to lock my car doors on late-night travels through the city, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. But the man's face will stay with me for a while. Maybe it's not such a bad thing now and again to have a close encounter with how the other half lives.

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