Those words, spoken by a long-lost friend in a well-lit place, might bring a smile of joy. But in the dark, deserted parking lot, slurred in my general direction from close behind me, those words created a reaction that was both visceral and instantaneous. Gooseflesh shivered to prominence on my forearms and a bright, metallic taste filled my mouth. But although my body was already most of the way into its instinctive fight-or-flight response, my brain was still struggling to catch up. And that was nobody's fault but mine.
A little backstory is in order: I was a college student, working as a waitress in an all-night diner, and as such I'd had to deal with more than my fair share of People Behaving Badly. Some of them were disruptive; some of them were rude; some of them were messy—it came with the territory, and I was well able to handle that. Unfortunately, every once in a while one of them would get an idea that I owed them something more than a stack of pancakes and scrambled eggs served with a smile. The man stumbling toward me in the parking lot as I came off-shift at five a.m. fell into the latter category, and I had suspected from the moment he'd seated himself in my section that he was going to be a problem. It wasn't that he had been rude; he hadn't been. It wasn't that he was any more visibly impaired than my average late-night/early-morning customer; he wasn't. It was just a bad feeling that I'd gotten about him...a bad feeling that I had ignored, rationalized away, and forgotten about until I spun to face him (much, much too close to me) in the midwinter pre-dawn.
If you spend much time reading books and blogs by the people who specialize in self-defense, or attending personal protection seminars like NRA's Refuse To Be A Victim, you'll hear stories like mine over and over again. "I had a bad feeling about the guy, but..." "There was something about the whole thing that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, but..." "I didn't want to go, but..."
Call it what you will: your guardian angel, your gut instinct, your subconscious. Whatever you call it, we all have it, but so often we seem to go out of our way to override that "something's wrong here" feeling about people, places and situations because we can't consciously find a reason for it. We convince ourselves that we're overreacting, and that we're going to look silly or dumb if we listen to our hunches.
We've talked in this space about cultivating "Condition Yellow" by eliminating distractions like headphones or cell phones. We've also talked about getting past the fear of being seen as "mean." What we haven't talked about is getting past the fear of looking or feeling "silly" because we're paying attention to what our hunches tell us, and acting accordingly. (In my case, I had decided that I didn't want to look paranoid to my co-workers or bosses by asking them to walk me to my car.) But we should all ask ourselves: What is so terrible about looking or feeling "silly"? It's certainly a lot easier to recover from a minor social faux pas than it is from a mugging or an assault.
I was lucky that morning. I purchased a valuable lesson—that I should have listened to my gut—very cheaply. Just as I turned to face my "admirer," two off-duty police cars, fresh from their own shift change, pulled into the parking lot...and my bottom-shelf Casanova suddenly remembered urgent business elsewhere, probably a county or two over. But we can't always be as fortunate as I was. As much as law enforcement officers would like to protect us all the time, they can't be everywhere at once. So it's up to us (and our guardian angel, subconscious or survival instinct) to be our own first line of defense.