Last week, while in San Francisco for a writers conference, I was walking with my young daughter on Geary Street near Mason, not far from Union Square, when I noticed him: a towering, disheveled member of the city’s vast legion of homeless people, keeping pace behind me.
I deliberately altered my pace—already considerably slower than the rest of the people who were streaming past since I was holding the hand of my toddler—to let him pass. But instead of disappearing into the upstream swim of pedestrians, he slowed, too.
Angling myself to keep him in my periphery, I took him in: 6’4, solidly built, and dressed in a green zippered hoodie with bulging front pockets. With eyes that darted around as if they were tracking an invisible swarm of bees in front of his face, he mimicked my movements. When I walked on, he followed. When I slowed down, he did too. I crossed the street and sure enough, he was right there behind me. It was only when I had stopped completely—pretending to point out something of interest in a store window to my daughter—that he finally seemed to have disappeared. Believing my new unwanted friend to have slipped back into the anonymous flow of pedestrians, I stopped briefly into a Starbucks to buy my daughter a promised hot chocolate before continuing on to Union Square.
Living in Seattle, there’s nothing like a warm, cloudless California day to flush the rainy Pacific Northwest gloom from the system. There was an art fair happening in Union Square, and my daughter and I decided to camp out on the steps in the plaza and soak it all in. But we’re only there a few minutes when I felt a presence behind me. I turned around to find our stalker hovering over us. I sprang to my feet, placing myself between him and my daughter and asked him what the fuck he wanted.
“What do YOU want?” he hissed. His posture changed, and he became aggressive, the ambiguity of his intentions dissolving before my eyes. He was no longer following invisible swarming bugs but was instead focused directly on me. At one point I kicked over my coffee and he laughed sinisterly. Then, looking at my daughter, he asked me if she belonged to me. He actually used the word belong. I looked over to where two women were sitting nearby.
“Excuse me,” I called out to them. “Can you take my daughter for me?” The women only made brief eye contact with me before quickly looking away. A man walking past pretended to be oblivious to what was happening. As a former cop, I’d been in enough fights with the mentally ill and drug-addled to know that I’m outmatched. When you’re psychotic or drugged out of your gourd, the pain is muted. Reason is fleeting. And to top things off, I’d been struggling with my self-confidence all morning ever since it had been pointed out to me that oily White House hopeful and Boston Strangler-lookalike Ted Cruz owned a red-checkered button-down shirt just like the one I was wearing at the moment.
By now, my aggressor was making quick, jerky, jumpy motions toward me like he was about to hit me. He was standing in an elevated position over me and the way I saw it, I could either keep standing there and wait for him to kick me in the head, or I could act now, drag his legs out from under him before he could react and start smashing his head into the concrete.
Just as a physical attack—one way or the other—seemed inevitable, the guy abruptly stood down. As I maneuvered myself up to where he was standing, he slinked away and ran off. Within moments a uniformed Union Square security officer appeared and asked if I was okay. I explained what happened—that the guy had been stalking my daughter and I for blocks—and he took off after him.
When it was all over, I glanced around at the people who were seated nearby when all of this was happening. Whether out of guilt or out of fear, not a single one will make eye contact with me. At some point, the women I had implored to safeguard my daughter have crept away from the scene altogether when I wasn’t looking.
In every plan I was making to do great bodily harm to my would-be attacker in defense of both my daughter and myself, I failed to take the good ol’ bystander effect into consideration. I should have known that rather than have someone do me a favor by safely removing my daughter from the danger at hand, we stood a better chance of having our beating deaths idly filmed by a couple dozen people with their cell phones.
Like it has in Seattle, the lax regulatory policies on homelessness in San Francisco have created a crisis for the city. In both cities, and others like them, the drug culture, mild climate, liberal approach to social services and high cost of housing has created a favorable atmosphere for the homeless. In Seattle; a 100-acre expanse of greenbelt beneath a section of the city’s I-5 freeway known as the “Jungle” has been turned into an encampment of homelessness and crime (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/02/05/3-boys-charged-with-jungle-murders-were-collecting-moms-drug-debt-cops-say/).
Since the incident, I’ve been reading up on aggressive panhandlers and learned that I may very well have been the target of a “soft mugging”; an extortion-like tactic where a panhandler will essentially stalk and follow a target menacingly until the target pays him to go away. In all my experiences with homeless people and/or panhandlers, this guy was undoubtedly the exception, for in all the number of times I’ve been hit up for cash on by panhandlers, I’ve never been straight up menaced.
I’m not going to pretend to be ignorant to the complexity of issues that ties into homelessness in America. Arguably, better access to mental health treatment and drug abuse intervention would be a great place to start, but I’ll leave the dissection of that social issue to the experts. For this is intended as a cautionary tale.
The radioactive decay of my Flint, Michigan upbringing had no sooner reached its half-life, you might say. I dress more conservatively these days. I’m not as grumpy as I used to be. And on a few occasions, I’ve even caught myself believing that most people are inherently good. But the incident in San Francisco has derailed me from my Doodles Weaver complacency. It’s a fact: we’re a hypocritical society; one that bemoans the changing mores of social decency while being gleeful consumers of its modality. While waiting for a New York City train in 2012, 58 year-old Ki Suk Han was pushed onto the tracks of the subway by a deranged homeless man named Naeem Davis. As the train was bearing down on him, Han’s last images weren’t of helpful bystanders scrambling in vain to pull him to safety, but rather the incessant flashing of a New York Post’s photographer’s camera capturing his final moments of life (http://nypost.com/2012/12/04/suspect-confesses-in-pushing-death-of-queens-dad-in-times-square-subway-station/).
So, you see, it’s important to keep in mind that even when surrounded by throngs of friendly bystanders, you shouldn’t rely on anyone to come to your aid when you’re being pummeled to death for the five bucks you have in your wallet.
You’d be better advised to just smile for the cameras.