RSS Feed

Posts Tagged ‘police’

  1. I Mean You No Harm

    May 21, 2017 by Diane

    I sat alone on a bench in the park having lunch on one of those days when the sky beams blue, nibbling on a chocolate chip cookie, when I heard this:

    “I mean you no harm. I just want to eat my lunch.”

    And a young black man in a green parka sat on the bench next to me.

    A green parka.

    On a hot day.

    I mean you no harm.

    My brain, the lizard part, sort of bolted upright. The lizard part is the deep, dark center of all that gray matter in your head, and when it bolts upright, it sends chemicals zinging through the body. Adrenaline. Cortisol. The stuff that gets the heart pumped and the feet doing a getaway jig beneath the body. It’s the part of the brain that makes you venture out of the cave at dawn and hunt for food in Safeway.

    The lizard brain quickly scoped out the situation.

    I mean you no harm.

    This is something someone will say if harm is exactly what they intend to do. Like the dentist who says, This won’t hurt a bit, and then pulls your lip back and jams a needle into the soft part of your gum.

    I mean you no harm.

    Years ago, in another park, on another bench, on another lunch hour, another black man sat next to me. “Some people stole my stuff. I’m gonna blow them away with an Uzi,” he said, and I believed him. His face was full of angry scars. The nearby businessmen in their suits got up and walked away. The women with their carriages put away their snacks and hurried off. Even the policemen who patrolled the park on horseback had disappeared. I was left alone with an angry black man, and my empty Calistoga bottle. I curled my fingers around it to use as a club.

    Across from that park sat a historic courthouse. The story goes, on a November night in 1933, a crowd of over 6,000 enraged people stormed the courthouse, dragged out two men who had murdered the son of a department store owner, and lynched them. The tree still stood. I was sitting underneath it. That park radiated bad vibes.

    Had my lizard brain been awake at the time, I would have followed the mass migration out. Instead, I tried to talk the angry man out of his plan.

    “You’d be as bad as them,” I said. “Worse. Have you filed a report? Contacted the police?”

    “They won’t do nuthin.”

    We discussed the situation. Something I said reached him. Maybe it was just the fact someone took the time to listen. Park benches seem to invite people to unload on strangers. Free therapy. But I needed to get back to work. When I got up, he got up. When I headed off, he headed off beside me. “We’ve got to stick together,” he said. “We’re alike, you and me.”

    I stopped and squared off,  all 5 feet 4 inches, in front of him.

    “You’re not going to follow me,” I said. Free therapy was one thing, a man with an undisclosed mission was another.

    He backed off, hands raised. His version of  I mean you no harm.

    I didn’t know what the man in the green parka on a hot afternoon meant by his statement, but I felt unsettled, remembering the other park, the other man. I tried to play it cool. Nibbled a little faster on my cookie. From the corner of my eye I saw him reach into a brown paper sack. He started to pull something out. The lizard brain yelled: duck and cover! I scarfed down the cookie.

    The man unwrapped a sandwich.

    The lizard brain settled down.

    I mean you no harm.

    This is something someone will say if they’re afraid the other person is going to do them harm. Like when you come upon a strange dog that may or may not be rabid, but just to be safe, you offer the flat of your palm for him to sniff.

    I mean you no harm.  

    Reassure him, my emotional brain told me. This is the second layer, the one that makes you drop a dollar in the Salvation Army bucket and then cluck the bell-ringer under the chin. It urged me to tell this man he can sit wherever he darn well pleases. Don’t make this about a lone white woman sitting next to a lone black man. Did Rosa Parks say “I mean you no harm” when she sat her tired self down on the bus?

    My rational brain, the outer cortex, told me to leave the man alone. He just wants to eat his sandwich in peace.

    All of this happened in a flash. Sandwich. Rosa Parks. Peace. The time it took to crumple my cookie wrapper. I got up, ready to head back to work, and so he wouldn’t think I was leaving because I felt threatened, I said, “Enjoy your lunch.”

    He sighed. “I’ll try,” he said.

    There it was. The veiled inquiry: is this therapy bench open for business? Or was it something else? A desire to connect with another human?

    I wanted to place a comforting hand on his shoulder, prefaced by: I mean you no harm.

    But office hours were over.


  2. Intrigue at the Laundromat

    February 26, 2017 by Diane

    Laundry machines in public laundromat

    I was at the laundromat on a Friday morning washing the big stuff—comforter, mattress cover—the stuff too big to cram into my landlady’s washer. It was just me and three others: a geeky-looking guy with earbuds reading a book on Communism; a woman covered in tattoos sorting through newspapers; and a blonde in a purple pants-suit standing at the dryers.

    While my stuff spun dry, I sat in my car with a clear shot of the laundromat, feet on the dash, reading a detective novel. Suddenly a cop breezed by my open window, marching a young guy in handcuffs straight through the laundromat, past the blonde who fell back a step, and out the door.

    I roused myself. “That was weird,” I said, checking my lumpy load in the dryer. I added a couple more quarters.

    The blonde looked over with worried eyes.

    “You know him?” I said.

    “He’s my fiancé.”

    “Oh. Gosh.”

    The geek and tattooed lady got real fascinated with their reading.

    The blonde looked out at the police car, at the guy in the back seat, his head turned away. She sighed a lot as she folded her sheets. The cop nosed around an RV parked nearby. I figured it belonged to the blonde and her fiancé; maybe they were on their way through town, decided to catch up on laundry and rip off a nearby liquor store. I wanted to know the story, but didn’t want to pry.

    Then again, maybe she needed to talk.

    “Are you okay?” I said. Stupid question.

    “It depends on what happens,” she said.

    I couldn’t read her; did she want a sympathetic ear, or did she want to be left alone? If I was a stranger in town and my fiancé got arrested, I’d want the sympathetic type to sort out the mess in my head. But not everyone wants a fix. An ear, yes. Not a mouth to go with it. So I kept mine shut, and hovered nearby in case she wanted to talk.

    She went back to sighing, snapping her towels as she folded them, occasionally glaring at her fiancé stuck in the heat. Was the cop making him sweat it out? Thirty minutes later, they drove away.

    By then, I had my feet back on the dash.

    The tattooed lady appeared to be doling out the sympathy, leaning one hand on the counter while the blonde folded clothes, nodding. Over the top of his book, the geek’s eyes darted behind hipster glasses.

    Sometimes, when I’m in a public place, I’ll think: what if a couple of thugs wearing ski masks burst through the doors right now waving their guns, ordered everyone to hit the floor, and then tied us up? We’re all strangers, and suddenly we’re bound together.

    I had that thought as I pondered the three I might be bound to, and zeroed in on the tattooed lady. I’d seen her arrive in a beat up four-door. A man dropped her off, staying just long enough to wrestle the heavy basket of dirty clothes from the trunk. Her husband, I’d assumed, or boyfriend, judging by the peck on her lips before he roared off, no doubt to do manly things involving a six-pack and football while she did the woman’s work. That’s the story I spun. Watching her with the blonde, the way she leaned in with legs firmly planted, then rested back against the giant dryer, arms folded, looking like she’d heard it all before, been there before, had come out wiser—she didn’t look like someone who took the backseat to any man. Shows how wrong you can be, judging people.

    I decided if I was held hostage in the laundromat, I’d want the tattooed lady tied to me.

    The next week, I scoured the papers for any mention of the arrest. Evidently it was so uneventful it didn’t warrant a sentence. I don’t like stories that leave me hanging. Why was the kid hauled away in handcuffs? Did the blonde forgive him? Did she bale him out, or leave him sitting in a jail cell while she drove the RV to the Sierras? Maybe the tattooed lady joined her on some wild Thelma and Louise adventure.

    And what about the hipster reading the communist book? There was something big there, something waiting to be discovered.

    If I was a detective, I might nose around some. But I’m a writer. I’ll leave it to my imagination.


  3. This is How a Writer’s Mind Works

    November 20, 2016 by Diane

    Does this ever happen to you?

    You’re trying on a pair of pants, and the zipper gets stuck. It takes five saleswomen to get you out of the pants. And that’s not the end of it. You have to pretend to want to buy them, but everyone knows you’re too fat, or the pants too small. Whatever. It’s not a match made in heaven. So you browse the racks, and the salespeople watch. You make a selection. A pair of striped socks, and you pay for them. But when you walk out the door, the alarm goes off.

    And that’s not all.

    The security guy eating a hotdog at a wrought iron table outside the store is your nemesis from high school days, the boy who flipped burgers at the joint where you worked the counter. You’d turned him down when he asked you to the movies, so he wrote stuff about you on the wall of the employees’ bathroom, at least you think it was him. Fuck you Holcomb. Stuff like that. Not even a comma between “you” and “Holcomb.” And there he is, stuffing his face with a hot dog, when he hears the alarm go off. He tries swaggering over like a real cop, but he doesn’t have the coordination; he swings one side of his body and then the other until he’s right up in your face. You see him remembering. Or trying to. There’s something about you he recognizes, but he can’t place it.

    Does that ever happen to you?

    Yeah, me neither.

    Only in the fictional world in my mind.

    This is how a writer discovers characters.

    * * *

    At the library, I look around.

    A gaunt man wearing glasses, baseball cap, and blue windbreaker types secret messages into the computer, the cords of his neck prominent. A spy?

    A man with a rusty goatee and toupee scouts around, his eyes flicking from table to chair to corner to shelf. He spins on his heel and dashes off. A detective?

    A woman makes a bee-line for the newspaper rack. Her oversized shoulder bag, hanging diagonally across her body, bumps her thighs. Something heavy in that bag. A severed head?

    This is intrigue at its highest. The stuff of an anxious mind. Or a writer spinning plot ideas.

    * * *

    Crossing the street, I find a dollar bill. And another. And a five. What luck! Nearby, someone’s iPhone. Rats. The money has an owner. It’s an expensive phone, with a red leather case that opens like a book. Tucked inside, the owner’s driver’s license.

    A brunette, she smiles with perfect teeth.

    I’m a hundred yards from the police department. It’s Saturday, but the lobby’s open. The receptionist behind the bullet-proof window jots down my name and number. I try to slide the phone and money under the glass, but she stops me.

    “I’ll send someone out,” she says.

    A compact guy in uniform swings through the door, shakes my hand. He opens the leather case and exhales. “Whoa!” he says, inspecting the license. He uses an index finger to scroll through messages on the iPhone. “Looks like her husband is trying to reach her.”

    “I hope you don’t think I stole anything,” I say. “The money’s all there.”

    He laughs, but shoots a look at the receptionist.

    She nods, her eyes cutting to me. “I have her name and number.”

    He gives a thumbs-up.

    Later, I feel funny about the whole thing. I play what if games in my head.

    What if the cop notifies the husband? What if the husband is abusive, and the woman is on the run, in hiding? Now he knows where to hunt her down. What if the woman is already dead, and someone finds her body in a dumpster? My fingerprints are all over that phone. They’ve got my number. Me, a Good Samaritan, suddenly a prime suspect in a murder case.

    This is how a writer mines for story ideas.