I have mentioned before that I recently bought and read The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker.
The book got good – and interesting – reviews from people I trust; plus, it sounded like it could help me deal with anxiety and fear I have more often than is probably normal healthy.
When I first leafed (there has to be a better, Internet equivalent for this verb) through GOF on Amazon, I was delighted. It promised to give me specific tools I could use to determine if a situation – or person – was actually dangerous, thereby reducing my levels of normal all-day-every-day anxiety and suspicion.
The book was a great read. Very interesting. And De Becker DID give me some tools to help me reduce my fear of being murdered on any given day.
But I’ve had a peculiar encounter and I find myself without my GOF to consult and so I don’t know if what I am feeling now is REAL fear or MANUFACTURED BY MY STUPID BRAIN fear.
(Suggested sales copy for the back of De Becker’s next edition: Don’t leave home without your copy of GOF! You will need it to pick out the Scary Crazies from the Normal/Lack of Boundaries People!)
Of course, as you will know if you have READ GOF, it doesn’t really matter if the fear is Real or Manufactured. If I get kidnapped/murdered, it’s my own fault for not listening to my intuition; if I DON’T get kidnapped, then clearly I wasn’t LISTENING to my intuition RIGHT.
The thing is, Gavin De Becker – for all his important insights into the human psyche – is not a woman. Perhaps he understands women very well. He certainly seems sympathetic in the book – he seems to realize that women are afraid in situations where men are not, and that they are more vulnerable on the whole than men are. (He has multiple statistics about violence done specifically to women. They are not comforting, and did nothing to reduce my anxiety level.) But I don’t think he can really get it unless he has experienced, for himself, that feeling of needing to be on high alert because you are vulnerable and no one is looking out for you. Maybe that’s unfair, I don’t know. I AM feeling a little petulant because it seems like no matter what I do, fear-wise, I will be Doing It Wrong, so maybe I’m taking my frustration out on Gavin by claiming he can’t possibly know how I feeeeeeeel.
My husband is taking his Step 3 board exams – a two-day test – which means I am stuck in a Hampton Inn by myself. Normally this would be fine. I’ve stayed in many a Hampton Inn. With the exception of one in downtown Pittsburgh, they are usually clean enough, fairly quiet, and perfect for a night or two.
Yesterday morning, I went down to the lobby to get coffee for my husband before I drove him to the test. It was 6:30 in the morning; I was wearing a sweatshirt of my husband’s, a sweatshirt that says the name of our university on the front and our class year on the back.
As I walked back, coffee in hand, toward the elevator, I passed a man coming out of one of the staff-only rooms. I don’t know why he caught my eye.
But as I was just about to round the corner to the elevator, the man called out “Oh three!” and I turned around.
“What’s oh three?” he asked me.
“Oh, it’s my college year,” I said pleasantly. I smiled at him and continued upstairs.
At lunch time, I left the hotel to get lunch at the Chipotle across the street. The man was in the lobby, mopping the floor.
I was halfway to the door before he called out, “Did you go to College Name?” I was wearing a jacket, so he obviously recognized me from nearly six hours earlier… and not only that, but had remembered my sweatshirt.
“Yes, I did,” I said, pausing by the door and smiling at him. Isn’t this a typical response? – politeness? I always try be polite because I assume that people are good and normal and not crazy. That’s probably for the best, considering that most people ARE good and normal and not crazy.
He seemed like a friendly guy, if a little lacking in the Normal Social Boundaries department. He is in his mid to late fifties, I’d guess.
“Is College Name in College State?” he asked.
“Yes, it is,” I responded, still smiling. Patient.
“I have a friend whose son goes to College Name. His name is Phil.”
“Do you know him?”
“No, I sure don’t,” I said, smiling apologetically. (But seriously? It’s a big school. I attended college more than nine years ago. And he didn’t even give me a last name.) Conversation over, I headed for the door. The automatic doors slid open and I had one foot through them when he said,”Oh three was the year you graduated?”
“Oh. What do you do for work?”
Even without Gavin De Becker, I know that it’s inappropriate to give too much personal information to a stranger, no matter WHAT situation you’re in. (Remind me to tell you about the airport waiting area conversation I overheard a few weeks ago, where a 17-year-old high school junior told an 18-year-old college freshman ALL about herself, her family, her tumultuous relationship with said family, her slutty ex-best friend’s boyfriend-stealing ways and midriff-baring shirts, etc. “TMI, young lady! This guy could be a murderer!” I wanted to yell at her. [He didn’t SEEM like a murderer. More like a college freshman who wanted to get laid.]) Of course, occupation is a fairly non-risky detail. My standard answer is “writer,” which is true-ish without being overly specific. (Listen, I know I sound suspicious and overly guarded, but just because you ASK me a question doesn’t mean I am OBLIGATED to give you the answer.)
“Oh wow, like a journalist?”
“Nope, not that kind of writing.”
“My daughter’s friend was a journalism major at OSU,” he said. “She got a full ride.”
“She works for one of the papers here in town. Do you know her?”
“No, I sure don’t!”
“Well, I won’t keep you,” he said. And I went to lunch.
This morning, I went down to get coffee for my husband before driving him to his test.
As I got off the elevator, I ran into Hotel Guy as he was coming in to work.
“Hi College Name!” he said, as though we were old friends.
“Good morning!” I said.
“I was thinking… you’re a writer, right?” he said.
“Well, I have some ideas for you.” He rattled off a few sentences about something political that I didn’t understand.
“I have some papers with me,” he said. “Why don’t you come out to my car and I’ll give them to you? Or what’s your room number?”
It seemed like he instantly knew each of those options was inappropriate, because he quickly followed with, “Or maybe I can show you later down here.”
“Maybe later,” I said. Despite his requests, I didn’t feel FEAR around this guy. I felt like maybe he was a little odd, maybe he didn’t understand what constituted normal boundaries between two strangers, maybe he even had some form of Asperger’s or another social interaction issue.
“We have to be careful,” he said, eyes darting around conspiratorially. “Ken doesn’t like it when I do that.” (Ken, I only know by chance, works at the front desk of this particular Hampton Inn.) “That’s because he’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat.”
He looked down the hallway toward, I presume, Ken’s post. “Ken’s kind of a Nazi,” he told me in hushed tones.
Then he rattled off some more details about his political ideas. “You know,” I said when he paused for breath, hoping to put an end to the conversation, “That’s not really the kind of writing I do. I do advertising writing.”
That stymied him for only a second. “Well, I know exactly how you can use this in your advertising,” he said, and talked for a couple minutes more.
Then he told me he needed to punch in and went through the door into the staff-only room. I headed to the coffee station.
As I was stowing sugar packets and little plastic cups of creamer in my pocket (why did I do that? I didn’t do it yesterday – I doctored the coffee right there at the station…) to take upstairs, Hotel Guy came up beside me.
“It’s really funny – my daughter got a master’s in marketing and business administration,” he told me. “She works at Target for $48,000 a year. She got a huge raise this year. She’s really turned it around.”
“How wonderful! That sounds great,” I said, trying to fit lids on the coffee cups. He walked with me as I headed toward the elevators, talking about his daughter. But he stopped at the staff room and I kept going.
On the ridiculously long elevator ride, I went over our conversation in my head. What kind of man asks a woman he doesn’t know to come out to his car? What kind of hotel staff member asks a stranger for her room number?
Gavin De Becker clearly said that a person who doesn’t wish you harm won’t ask you things like that.
But… I didn’t get any sort of fear response from this guy.
Should I listen to that lack of fear and brush this guy – who is probably a kind, lonely guy who doesn’t have great social skills – out of my mind?
When I got back to the room, I handed my husband his coffee and told him about the guy. “That’s weird, isn’t it?” I said, asking for confirmation that I wasn’t reading too much into the conversation.
“He asked you to come out to his car? Yeah, pretty weird,” he said. But that was the end of the conversation; he was preoccupied with his test. And he’s not a woman – specifically not this woman, who is hyper-aware of potential danger. (After dinner last night, we’d driven around the city in search of ice cream. We ended up on a very cute albeit deserted block in a little suburb. We decided to walk up and down the street, peering in shop windows. At the end of the block we spotted a teenager type who was wearing short sleeves despite the 35 degree weather. I noticed the kid, dismissed him as potential danger, and we kept walking. But I noticed him. And when he seemed to be taking a long time to walk down the block, and then paused in front of us, I noticed him and kept an eye on him. My husband didn’t.)
(I am also that woman who tries to stay hyper-alert in parking garages. The woman who notes the location and appearance of every man in her proximity, trying to determine his Danger Level. The woman who surreptitiously looks under her car before getting in, who locks her doors at all times, who frets over the fact that alarm system installation guy knows our alarm code.)
After I dropped my husband off this morning, I continued to perseverate on the encounter with Hotel Guy. I seem to remember that GOF listed several warning signs that intuition can send – fear is only one of them. Wasn’t “feeling uncomfortable” on that list? WHY DON’T I KEEP A COPY OF GOF IN MY PURSE?
“Well, I hope he doesn’t kidnap me!” I said out loud to myself as I parked in the hotel parking lot, trying for a joke.
Dark humor is DEFINITELY something Gavin De Becker says to keep an eye on. It can voice a real, justifiable fear that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Back in my hotel, I tried my key in the door and it didn’t work. I headed back downstairs, fretting over whether Hotel Guy would be in the lobby… whether I’d have to tell the desk clerk – in Hotel Guy’s earshot – my name or my room number in order to get a new key. No sign of Hotel Guy – but I still hurried.
Safely back in my hotel room, I turned on the shower. Stepped in. Stepped out and pushed the metal U on the door over the latch (the equivalent of a chain lock – you can open the door slightly without unlocking it), deadbolted the door.
When I got out of the shower, the metal U was in the up position – as though someone had opened the door.
When my heart started beating again, I looked out the peephole. A housekeeping cart was parked across the hall. The housekeeper must have opened the door, thinking – rightly – that I’ll be checking out today. Glad I closed the U latch so she didn’t catch me in my altogether!
Listen, I know that Hotel Guy is probably harmless. He didn’t say or do anything that made me think otherwise. Aside from some inappropriate lacking-boundaries comments, he didn’t try any of the Bad Guy tricks Gavin De Becker lays out: no “forced teaming” where he tries to show we have something in common; no favors that make me feel indebted to him; no light insults that make me want to prove him wrong; no compliments.
I know that I am probably doing exactly what Gavin De Becker warned me against: which is allowing my inner Chihuahua to get into a hysterical frenzy of barking over what is probably a leaf blowing outside and not a stranger approaching the door.
Nonetheless this is one of those situations where I don’t know what to do.
Do I allow the lack of those Warning Signs to soothe me, to convince me that there’s nothing to worry about? If the guy IS harmless, I’m sure Good Ol’ Gavin would say, yes, of course he’s harmless: the tricks I taught you PROVE that!
Or do I give in to the nagging unease I feel? If the guy turns out to be a Psycho Kidnapper, Good Ol’ Gavin would say, yes, of course! Your intuition is TELLING YOU to be wary!
Of course, one choice is correct and the other is not. And if I choose wrong, well, it’s my fault.
I think what I’m going to do is call the front desk before I check out. I’m going to ask to speak to a manager. I’m going to say that an employee has been making me slightly uncomfortable and I would appreciate if the manager escorted me to my car.
Internet, if you think I’m being ridiculous – which, I admit! I probably AM being ridiculous! – I don’t really want to hear it. The fact is, when you are a Woman Traveling Alone, you SHOULD be cautious. Is there a point where you can edge into being TOO cautious? Probably. Especially according to The Gav. But I would rather be a ridiculous, hyper-sensitive, blows-situations-out-of-proportion, edgy-over-nothing girl than a dead, polite one.
Now it’s your turn. I would like to hear about a time when YOU felt afraid, and how you dealt with that. Or a time when you felt silly… and the silliness was justified. Or a time when you felt silly, but you weren’t being silly, you were being smart.
(And if you don’t hear from me in the next two weeks? Well, you know where to direct the cops. And you know which new Cautionary Tale you can recommend to Gavin De Becker for his next book.)
UPDATE: I am fine! I know you are super relieved. Sadly, I chickened out on calling the manager. Instead, I a) went out a different door to put my luggage in the car and b) followed another guest through the lobby to the registration desk to check out.