|Jul/Aug 2006 Nonfiction|
Intimidating Man Receives $10
A 24-year-old woman who was visiting a friend early Monday said a man who appeared homeless intimidated her into giving him cash outside an apartment building, city police said. The woman said she was leaving an apartment about 12:30 a.m. Monday when a man approached her from behind, got very close to her and told her he needed money. She said he told her he had just gotten out of the hospital and no one would help him. The woman said the man, who appeared disheveled, did not threaten her, but she felt intimidated and gave him $10 from her wallet. —Ann Arbor News, November 4, 2005
Two people: one out-of-towner approached by a homeless man who was intimidating. Since when was that a weapon? Is it fear? Fear of what he will do, fear of saying no? Fear of not being able to break a ten? Many of us give a quarter, a couple of dimes. We'll give a sad look, a skyward gesture with our empty palms. I'd love to help, pal, we say, but I've got nothing, see, nothing at all.
The out-of-town woman balked. Was she looking in her wallet for something smaller? Change, maybe? Perhaps that was part of the act: Empty purse as a center-stage prop. See, mister, see? Not only am I not lying to you, but, look, here's proof. But then, instead of nothing, came the green portrait of Alexander Hamilton peeping out, and where's a good lie when you need it?
What then? Save face. Nothing smaller, so, here's the ten-spot, homeless man.
Got any change? There's the turnabout, the Samaritan asking for some money back as her ten-dollar bill disappears into the stranger's rough grab, then into his pocket, then down the street. Loss? Shock? Got any change? The shoe is on the other foot. The homeless man becomes intimidating when he's got your money in his pocket. And is that how they see us, with our ten-dollar bills we choose to hide? Is that what makes us intimidating to them? Powerful? The homeless man had nothing—nothing—until he got that $10 bill. Then, after the fact, he became a threat, he became solid, not a misty apparition to be looked through, around. Having that money made him real, made him daunting.
If she had accidentally shown him Benjamin Franklin, would he have become Superman?
Man in Many Shirts Robs Spa Business
A man wearing several shirts smashed a mirror with a gun during an early morning robbery. The man entered just after 8 a.m. and smashed a display mirror as he demanded money. The man had a handgun, and the employees gave up $85. The robber was described as wearing multiple shirts with the top shirt appearing to be white and red plaid. —Ann Arbor News, November 4, 2005
Look past the obvious symbolism of the suspect, pay no attention to sophomore-level sociology class theories. Childhood beatings? Alcoholism and drug abuse? No doubt. Rage against society? Post-traumatic stress disorder? What sort of coat of many colors will that weave? Below the clothing, however, tailored with bad luck and stitched with jealousy and fury, there is surely a damaged man, driven to a life of crime, aided by and hidden in his supervillain uniform. But go deeper. What really motivates this man?
It is easy to dismiss the mirror-smashing attacker as a broken or damaged anomaly. Comforting, even, to read about him over breakfast, on the bus, in the living room, and know that we could never be that person: We've dodged the bullets that drive the unlucky into the life of crime. We're not a collection of abuses and sins, enemies of society. We can look at our wardrobe and know our shirts and skirts are clean, tasteful, and well-pressed.
But what if it's not the clothes that make the man?
Man Beaten with His Own Cowboy Boots
Attackers pulled cowboy boots off of a 27-year-old man Monday and used them to severely beat him in the face during a robbery attempt. The man said he was knocked to the ground and pummeled in the face with his boots. He was able to get away, but collapsed in the grass of a neighboring apartment building. It doesn't appear the attackers were able to get any cash. The man had serious facial injuries. —Ann Arbor News, November 6, 2005
What irony: Beaten with your own boots. The last word in masculine footwear used against you, brought down and broken by your very symbol of intimidation. (Even tattered and combat-stained boots worn by front-line soldiers don't come close, looking dusty and shabby instead.) Cowboy boots add at least a couple of inches of hidden height, and their machine-tooled toughness bespeak a frontier machismo. And to have them pulled off and used as weapons against you...?
An attitude of levity should be forgiven, perhaps condoned: boots are unnecessary, a prop, an element of machismo that in a nonrural setting seem somehow out of place, and it's difficult for me not to snicker at the irony of a ten-gallon city cowboy brought low by the very image of his invulnerability.
I wonder if, like a tragic hero, having fallen from a high (well, relatively speaking—two, maybe three inches high, tops) to a low place, the victim was forced, ignominiously, to walk home in his socks?
I read my local newspaper's police blotter more closely than I do the national news or the editorial page, and my familiarity with this section has led to a seemingly crass and insouciant tone. Intellectually, I sympathize with the victims. I understand—with some distance—the seriousness of their loss. But I, too, feel for the criminal, identify with the hulking intimidator, the knife-carrying delinquent—although not in the condescending manner of a latter-day Clarence Darrow.
No, truth to tell, I root for the bad guy.
In the hundred millennia or so that we've been human, we've put a lot of geographic distance between ourselves and the Tanzanian plains from whence we dropped out of trees. But we're still the same animals, driven by reptilian brains (though these have been replaced and modernized by Freud with the id), and in reading these articles, these dispatches from real life, I can see people thus, unmasked, how they act when they fear no retribution. In doing so, my own id, my brain's shadowy, ferocious middle, born in the Precambrian age and which can't be wished or ignored away, twitches and is aroused. Instinctually, I can sense—almost taste and smell—the soft, fragile weaknesses of those around me, even as I recognize them in myself. Although (and perhaps because) their vulnerabilities, their softnesses are mine, I wonder how best I can use them, master them. What must it feel like to intimidate? To see others cross the street as I pass? Savage fantasies, true, but ultimately pointless: Even as my id pushes me to become a street punk, my superego, my civilized cerebral cortex, keeps me on a short leash, shaming me into a polite smile, mild words: You've nothing to fear from me.
Don't listen to the politicians. Forget fear. You can realistically ignore crime. Statistics confirm this: It isn't something that will touch most of us. My world, especially as a white male, is a pretty safe one. But I—we—have made this deal with the devil: Be nice. Be good. Be solicitous, even, and you'll be secure. Do this, and the mean and the brutal will not be part of your world. I have a lasting comfort and convenience and safety, but what have I traded it for? Though I'll never admit it in polite conversation, I feel emasculated. I fear never knowing who (what) I really am, whether I'd react the way my primal ancestors—whose traits are genetically keyed into my instincts—would have. As a human being, am I really missing something? My instincts tell me: Yes.
How hard would it be to find out, to taste the forbidden? I've done a really good job of distancing myself from the streets. My interpersonal skills are second-to-none. I've never lost a fight, because I've never been in one, because I know how to avoid one. But I could pick a fistfight in less than a minute. I've never loaded a gun, much less held one, yet tomorrow I could enlist and kill and die in some desert firefight.
And how hard would it be to smash and grab, reaching for a new Swiss wristwatch or a pair of earrings glinting on purple velvet display cases?
What about: Your money or your life.
I have no need for violence, no coat of many abuses, no grudge against the world, but the instincts I can barely acknowledge openly—and that won't leave me alone—tempt me with these actions. Although I'm a productive salaryman, a teacher, a father, a role model, I still feel from those brief articles the pangs and instincts of a forgotten animal from the African savanna. But I'll do nothing: Fear of punishment, fear of censure, and, above all, fear of losing my comfortable daily existence stay my hand. I'm safe. Harmless. Kind and charitable. My sharp teeth are hidden under a warm smile.
Every day, I read the police blotter, smirk and make a snarky joke, see the world as if under a microscope, and nod in understanding, partly happy that I'm reading it and not living it, and yet sensing deeply that something is missing, that someone else, some petty crook jailed by the police and off the streets, is having all the fun. I turn the page and look for the crossword.