Saturday, April 21, 2007

Moooving Manipulations

If you've never been to the intersection of Madison and 19th, go by it one day soon. The old Fratelli's ice cream building on the northwest corner has a painted pastoral landscape with cows under Mount Rainier. Not just any cows: one is a surrealist Dali-esque cow, one a Jackson Pollock cow, one a Pi-cow-so, and there are many others. Go by and take a look if you can, as that area is under redevelopment and the building may soon be gone.

One summer day maybe 5 years ago I was bicycling to class, stopped at the red light at that intersection. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a woman coming towards me, disregarding oncoming traffic. That was my first warning sign. She's still at a distance when she shouts her question: do I live in this area? I shake my head, and she continues approaching and shouting her tale:

"I was driving home from a camp for disabled kids--I'm on staff there--when my car broke down on I-90. And I need to get home, I live in on Whidbey Island, and I need some money for the ferry. Could you help me? I tried my parents, they live around here, but how was I to know they're in New York for the week, and I left my key to their house at home. I also left all my credit cards at home, and my cash, I can't believe I did that! I really need to get back, I have two dogs to feed! I asked a guy for money, and he said sure I'll give you some, if you give me some, and he wanted me to suck him off, so I decided to only ask women because I don't want to deal with guys like that."

Did I mention this is a LONG red light?

I pointed to the church across the street as the light FINALLY turns green, said I don't carry cash but someone in there may be able to help. She gave me a disgusted look as I pedaled across and away.

I'd been teaching self-defense for a while, and I knew about ploys and manipulations. I assessed her as not a physical threat, recognized the pattern of ploy with layer upon layer of excessive detail, and intellectually knew NONE OF IT WAS TRUE. Still, as I rode away, I felt pangs of residual guilt. I recognized that I felt more comfortable justifying my refusal (by saying I don't carry cash) rather than just flat-out saying NO. Like many of my students, I want to feel like a helpful human being, a mensch (BTW, that's Yiddish for "good person"); the thought that I may have turned down a person in need wasn't so easy to settle. Days later, I felt some anger at the attempted manipulation--after all, if it wasn't for connivers like her, it'd be lots easier to help the truly needy, right? Much later, by a couple of years in fact, compassion crept in. People who are homeless, or have so little in such an affluent culture, have learned a crucial lesson: you do and say what you need to survive. I learned that when I was teaching safety skills to women in day shelters and transitional housing. Who among us can't say they might do the same?

I never saw her again, and likely never will.

Go see the cow mural, before you never will.

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