Although the temperature was rapidly dropping toward freezing, he wore only faded jeans and a loose T-shirt. But that wasn’t what set off alarm bells for me. It was, I think, the fact that he wasn’t acting like he was cold, and if his story was true, he bloody well should have been.
I locked eyes with my friend, who’d gone inside to pay for the gas we were putting in her car and was approaching from behind me. I could tell that she’d gone to heightened alert too, even before she heard the young man’s story (”I just walked five miles in the cold, can you give me a few bucks for something to eat?”) But my attention was focused on him, and on the fact that he kept inching closer and closer to me.
I stepped back and over, keeping the car between me and him and also giving me a clearer escape path. Behind me, my friend did the same. “Sorry, I can’t help you,” I said, polite but firm. He took another step toward me, and I moved again. My eyes stayed locked on his hands, which hovered near the pockets of his jeans. As long as you can see his hands, you can tell what he’s doing, I thought to myself. He continued to try to get close to us, and my friend and I kept moving – not back, mostly, but sideways. After a minute he gave up and approached another motorist, who gave him some money. And just like that, he vanished in the night. If I’d had to guess, I’d say that money wasn’t going to be spent on food.
- If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. The man was not acting like someone who’d just walked five miles in the cold, and his body language wasn’t that of a cold and hungry college student. Rather, he projected a predatory vibe, desperate and needful. When my friend and I talked later, we both guessed he was looking for drug money, but it’s possible he saw me standing by the car and approached with other intentions, only to be surprised by my friend’s return. I really don’t know. But I do know that it didn’t feel right, and I’ve learned the hard way to trust those feelings.
- Don’t just stand there. Sometimes bad guys will deliberately invade your space, hoping both to catch you off guard and to assess how likely you are to be compliant and “not make a fuss”. Once a threat enters your radar, taking decisive action is probably the best way to head off trouble. Moving to a place where you have distance and an escape route – “getting off the X” – is a great first step, but sometimes first steps don’t work. Always be thinking, planning alternatives, evaluating the situation. The threat isn’t over until it’s over, and standing still is almost never the right response to a two-legged predator.
- Watch the hands. A predator’s hands will give you lots of good information. Most importantly, his hands are what will reach for a weapon, and bad guys often unconsciously touch or pat the spot where they’re concealing a weapon before they go to draw it. But a predators hands will also telegraph which direction he’s moving, sometimes. I made and kept eye contact with the man in the gas station, but my peripheral vision – which biology has keyed to respond to movement – was tracking his hands.
- Decide on your rules of engagement ahead of time. As soon as my mental alarm bells went off, I made a couple of snap decisions – about how close I was willing to let him get before taking more aggressive evasive action, and about the conditions that would need to occur before I drew a weapon. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do either of those things, but having made the decisions ahead of time freed me from the most time consuming part of the OODA loop – actually deciding what to do.
- The threat isn’t over until it’s over. Even when he broke off his approach to me and headed toward the other motorist, I kept my eyes on him. He could have come back, or he might not have been alone. For all I knew, the interaction with the other driver could have been staged for my benefit – I doubt it, but one never knows. Once the threat has triggered your “condition orange” or “condition red” awareness, you need not to let your guard down just because there’s a lull in the action.
In this case, I had probably a best-case outcome: I saw the potential threat coming, responded appropriately, and the situation ended without incident for anyone. Any way you slice it, that’s a victory. But had I not been aware, had I not responded to communicate to him that I was a poor victim, had his intentions been other than a few quick bucks, things could have ended very differently.
In all probability, he was just looking for a handout. But you never know when the young man in the faded jeans will turn out to be something more. Be cautious, be aware, be prepared, and you’ll dramatically up the odds of staying safe.
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