Thursday, February 25, 2010

When you see too many familiar faces in the mugshot book, it's time to stop calling the police, and start calling your friends

How your respond to things has a lot to do with your past experiences. Last night, that point was driven home, when a series of events led me to tap into a well of fear that was old, dark, and deep. Real deep. At about 3am, when I woke up with a gasp and lay there, panic stricken, going over and over in mind how I could have done things differently, whether I made the right decision....I went to a place in my mind that I hadn't visited in a while. Trust me when I say that it was not 4 star accomodations, it was not even a Motel 6 quality was horrible and dank and left me chilled and wishing I could just erase the last 8 hours of my life.

I don't know if I should just tell the story about last night, or give a little history first..... I guess I'll start with the backstory, then fill in recent events.

In highschool, I was robbed. I worked in a small boutique in town, and one winter evening at about 5:30, after it had gotten dark, and many of the other stores were closed, and not a soul was on the streets because of the blowing snow and gusty winds and sleet, the door opened and a customer walked in. At least, I thought it was a customer.

He was trying on jackets, and it *was* cold, and it *seemed* reasonable. I felt a little nervous, for reasons that I couldn't quite put my finger on, so I stayed behind the counter and let him sort of help himself - I was just a few feet away, it was a tiny store, but somehow, I needed that big wooden barrier between us.

He was there for a good long while, tried on a bunch of stuff, and in the end he said he would come back later. After he was gone, I went to the fitting room to gather up all of the different jackets he had been trying on......and the fitting room was empty.

He had left, taking every single fucking jacket with him. Under his own coat.

I freaked.

I locked the door and called the police with shaking hands. I filled out a police report, called the owner of the shop, apologized through my tears, and was escorted to my car by the responding officer, because by now, it was quite late, and the streets that had seemed merely deserted before now seemed menacing.

The next day, a detective brought over a huge leather satchel with binders full of mugshots. As I flipped through the pages, I saw one familiar face after another - not the guy who stole the jackets, but people I saw and interacted with every day in our little village. Fellow students. Friends. Customers. The guy who worked at the convenience seemed like I knew someone on every page.

"I am surrounded by criminals" I thought. "I know too many people in that mugshot book. I have to get the hell out of this town." Dramatic? Well, maybe, I was a teenager. I was in Drama Club, for god's sake. I had comedy and tragedy masks on the side of my class ring, and matching masks as earrings. I was definitely in the "dramatic" category. But I was also right. If you surround yourself with people who invite drama, who involve themselves in activites to which the police night respond, then you can count on having trouble in one form or another.

Being robbed, even without having a weapon involved, was scary. It was a violation not just of my safety, of the law, but also of my sense of the world, and of right and wrong. Of my innocence. Everyone who entered that store was now a potential criminal. And it changed how I interacted with customers from that day forward. It also affected how I feel about my personal safety.

Maybe that's a good thing. I lost my naivete so early on that I protected myself from future threats by being cautious from the outset.

Years later, when I was a young mother of an infant, and spent my days at home alone in a very isolated area, a beach community in summer that was vitrually abandoned in the winter, with no neighbors or close friends, this happened. I don't even want to revisit the story here, you can read the link and google to your heart's content......but that story Fucked My Shit Up. We moved shortly thereafter, to someplace warm, someplace with lots of neighbors and year-round sunshine and a job that would keep my husband nearby. The fears I had buried, my concerns about my personal safety, my bubble of joy and contentment with my new baby and my little cottage by the ocean all fell completely and totally apart.

Over time, I let go of the fear again, as people do. But I always remained vigilant, I do not take risks, I do not invite trouble, personal safety is always first and foremost. But I was able to forget for the most part why I make the decisions that I do. Why I lock my doors the second I get in the car. Why I call my husband from inside the bar before I leave, and from the car after I have driven away, doors safely locked and motor humming reassuringly.

Fears I thought I had put to rest long ago actually do affect my every day life - but it's not fear that motivates me or keeps me vigilant, just the awareness. The knowing. There are dangers out there. Do not let down your guard, because when you relax, when you trust too much, you become careless.

And then on Sunday, a woman went missing here, just a few miles away. Again, I am not going to hash out the story here, I have my opinions, and I also have respect for her friends and family, and what they must be going through as the search resumes today - 4 days later. All I can say is that by last night, I was on edge. Once again, all of those old fears were back, lying just under the surface. If I remained vigilant, I could keep them at bay. I would take extra precautions, it was a reminder that you can never let your guard down. Ever.
Which brings me to last night.

It had not been a great night to begin with. The feeling in the restaurant Not tense, necessarily, but people were being less then friendly. There was a lot of attitude. I was spoken to as though I was "the help". I am not "the help" - I am helpful, yes. I am threre to help, absolutely. My title is "server" - a fact I am 100% comfortable with. I love to take care of people, love to feed people, love to talk about food and wine, and my job is an extension of that. So eventually the tables left, taking their attitudes with them, and we were cleaning up. Except, there was a customer who was not quite ready to go.

She had been waiting, she told us, for a friend. She was meeting a friend to celebrate his birthday.
He never showed.
She became increasingly agitated.
She was making birthday card after birthday card for this person, this friend who was not coming. She kept reapplying her lipstick and then kissing the cards as she made them, trying to get the perfect lip-print on the paper. She was drinking wine - had ordered a bottle when she came in, I guess. To share. With her friend. To celebrate his birthday.

But he never showed.

She was starting to slur her words, and we weren't sure what to do. She wasn't driving, we knew that much. She didn't appear to have anywhere to go. No one else who could come and get her. And, eventually, we learned that she had no money. No money to get a room, no money to pay for the wine, no money to call a cab......she didn't know the phone number of the cellphone she was using. She didn't have an address.

She started telling stories, about her past, about a pregnancy and a baby shower - but strangely, not about a child, about an apartment in LA, about a childhood on a neighbor island, about siblings and friends. And then the stories became more recent. The stories got dark. Darker. Beyond dark. Scary. Frightening. Violent. She was crying. She didn't want to leave. She wanted us to drive her somewhere.

We were alone, 2 waitresses and this woman who had no where to go and no way to get there. It was late, later, too late for the bus, all the stores were closed, night crews had left the grocery, streets were deserted, the dishwasher had finished cleaning the kitchen and left.

Our cars were in the back, in a poorly lit parking lot.

We weren't giving her a ride anywhere. Her stories were wild enough to be true, scary enough to make us uncomfortable. Where earlier, we had been concerned for her safety, now we were concerned for our own. Now we weren't sure if it would be a good thing if someone DID show up for her.........her "friends" didn't sound like anyone we wanted in our empty restaurant, or the empty parking lot. We did not want to be involved. We could not help. This was was too much.

We tried to call her friend - she had given us his name and number. Our call went to voicemail. She was upset, thought we were calling the police. Why would we call the police? Should we be calling the police? "Stop." she commanded. "Hang UP." she was raising her voice now, shill and verging in hysterical. "If you call the police you will make it worse. I will flee." Flee. What a strange word to use. What a strange situation. We assured her that we were definitely NOT calling the police. That we were trying to reach her friend. That we wanted to leave him a message. That we wanted to try to reach him, for her.

She went to the bathroom, and did not reappear for a very long time. What the hell was she doing in there? The restaurant had been closed for hours. Our last guest had left over an hour before. I called my husband and gave him all of the information she had given us. Described her. Told him something weird was going on. That she was involved in some weird stuff. That I didn't really know how this was going to end, or when.

I told him to call the restaurant every 10 minutes, to make sure I answered.

I thought of my kids, thought of the woman currently missing from a spot just a few miles away. So close. I called my manager, but he didn't pick up. I texted him, but he didn't respond. And I was feeling very alone. And those other feelings were creeping back. Tapping me on the shoulder. Be safe. Be vigilant. Don't be stupid. Have an escape plan. Don't turn your back. Keep the phone in your hand. Be ready.

We hid our money, we kept all of the doors open, we hoped she would just leave.

But she didn't.

She came back from the bathroom, still crying, still making excuses, slurring her words. She had left her purse in the bathroom, was just checking to see if her friend had arrived. She assured us she wasn't doing drugs - but we hadn't asked. We had stopped asking questions. We didn't want to know any more.

My husband called. He called again. He texted. Each time I assured him that I was fine. He wanted to see that for himself, he was at home with sleeping babies, he couldn't leave them alone, but he was considering it, considering going to the neighbor's house and asking them to stay with the sleeping kids. But it would take too long. This was all taking too long.......

He called 911. He told them that we were unable to leave. He told them we were unable to call. That the woman did not want us to call. That we were alone.

As he was making this call, we were finally ushering her out the door. Gently, so gently, no sudden movements, stay calm, just get her out the door safely. And when she was out, we slowly, calmly, closed the door behind her. And locked it. Locked the second door. And then, simultaneously, the phone rang and a car pulled up outside. The woman who had been sitting on the sidewalk crying was now up, leaning through the window, talking animatedly to whoever was inside.

I answered the phone. It was the dispatcher. "Are you OK?" she asked. "Yes, thank you, she is outside, but there is a car here now, someone talking to her."

Descriptions were given, information was exchanged, and within monents a police cruiser pulled up outside. The woman stepped back from the car she had been leaning against. The car pulled away. She was there, alone on the sidewalk. Weaving slightly. Face tearstained. Makeup smeared. Lipstick gone from making all of those prints on all of those birthday cards. For someone who never showed. Or maybe he did, but it was too late.

We turned off the lights, set the alarm, walked out into the parking lot and put our bags in our cars. I was shivering - maybe from the cold, maybe from the circumstances. We rounded the corner to the front of the building to hear the cop raising his voice, and we both froze. Another cruiser pulled up, another cop arrived. Now we were being questioned. Name, address, phone number, date of birth. I answered the questions calmly, until I gave him my date of birth. I recited the numbers back slowly, then looked up at him. "Too old for this shit."  I said.

He smiled. "I have everything you need, you are free to go."

Free to go. To go home. Free.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, doors locked and heat blasting, I looked in my rearview mirror.
A third cop had arrived.
They were standing there on the sidewalk, their cruisers parked facing the wrong way, blue lights on, faces so serious. And she stood there, with them, her white shirt blowing in the breeze, glowing in the lights, surrounded by the dark, The dark uniforms. The dark night. The darkness.

I shuddered, and drove away, leaving it behind me.

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