Encounter in the street

What with regular newspaper reports of hijackings, shootings, robberies and muggings in pretty much every neighbourhood in Cape Town, I tend to be rather paranoid whenever I leave and return to our home. Reversing the car out of the garage and into the street makes me feel like a sitting duck.

This freaks me out.

I guess what I would need to feel safe(r) is a massive wall with crenellations for archers, a moat with a drawbridge, and a small be-weaponed entourage of knights on proud steeds.

But, alas, that doesn’t seem likely at the moment. And not just because we aren’t by law allowed to keep horses in our backyard. Because that really wouldn’t stop me. 🙂

Thus, in an attempt to feel a little safer, I park my car in the street in front of our house when hubby leaves for work, until I have to leave too.

Perhaps you think it’s ridiculous – and a little sick – to be so afraid.

I’d agree with you.

This morning, I walked out to my car, and had just un-blipped it (central locking). I was about to put my bag in the trunk, when I noticed a coloured man and woman standing three houses down the street from me.

He had spotted me, and came towards me, raising up his hand to signal ‘wait’. He wasn’t just walking, but jogging towards me.

I hurriedly re-blipped the car, still clutching my bag. 

My heart was pounding so much I thought I would faint. My knees were shaking, and I felt the blood rushing into my head with that sickening anxious feeling you get when you think your life is in danger.

I stood there, paralysed, and thinking, “There’s not enough time to get back into the car. I won’t have time to start the engine, because the immobiliser takes so long to disengage. Should I make a run for the yard? Will he laugh at me if I run? What does he want? Does he want my money? What if he’s harmless? What if he’s got a gun?”

I don’t even think these thoughts were conscious – they were the old, familiar, almost sub-conscious thoughts that run through my mind every time I go anywhere – to the shops, to the petrol station, to the park, to work, into traffic…

As he came closer, he was kind of smiling at me, saying “Merram, please, do you have some matches for me?” I didn’t understand him, so I just stared at him, waiting…

He reached into his inside pocket, and my heart leapt into my throat. He was so close, there was no way I could run now. If he had a gun…

But he was reaching for a box of cigarettes.

I shook my head and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t smoke.”

He repeated, “Don’t you have a light for me?”

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t smoke.”

“Don’t you have some matches inside…” he gesticulated towards the house.

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t. You really shouldn’t smoke. It’s bad for you.” What the ??? Where did that come from?

He smiled apologetically, and said ruefully, “I know it’s bad, but it’s nice.” Then he walked back to his companion who was still waiting outside the house down the road.

When I got into my car after that little exchange, I felt stunned. My thoughts were whirling around in my mind like crazy, and my emotions were somersaulting from relief to shock to gratitude to anger and back to relief. It was really hard to concentrate on driving after that.

Why did I lie to him and say that I didn’t have matches in the house? We do, I mean we have a bloody fireplace and candles and we’ve just been through three months of load shedding, so we’ve got flippin’ matches!

But I didn’t want to walk back inside the yard with him following me, and I didn’t want to have to be rude and ask him to stay outside, and I didn’t want to unlock the security gate and the door with him watching, and I didn’t want to search in the cupboards for a spare box of matches while he was waiting just outside.

And there was no way I could say all that to him to explain why I was being so unhelpful.

So I took the easy way out and I lied.

What has happened with me? Surely I didn’t grow up in a world where I had to mistrust and distrust everyone’s motives? In the world in which I grew up, strangers were just friends you hadn’t met yet. They weren’t automatically the enemy, out to kill or rape or steal from you.

But over the years I’ve learned to make split-second judgement calls, like “that’s a dangerous-looking person, don’t walk down that road, he looks like he’s going to ask me for money, watch out for that taxi, cross the road quickly…” I look over my shoulder all the time, and am constantly scanning my surroundings, and noticing who is behind me or approaching me from the side.

And I instantaneously judge their intentions as good or bad, based on how they look, what they wear, and what their body language is.

I treat them as a potential threat: ‘guilty unless proven otherwise’.

Is this really the way I want to live? I keep thinking that I must be missing the point of life, if I go around with my armour up just in case. How about giving all those strangers the benefit of the doubt, realising that they are also HUMAN BEINGS and, indeed, treating them as friends I just haven’t met yet?

I don’t know. It’s not going to be as easy as all that.

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