Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How does it feel?

I think I mentioned yesterday that I was going to sneak away to see a movie: The Town with Ben Affleck (written, produced, starring, etc. etc.). Unless you like shoot-'em-ups, extreme violence, hateful language and interminable car chases, don't go. I only went to see Jon Hamm, who was dishy as ever (but he might as well have had a sign on him saying, "Good Guy". In fact, he did wear a shirt that said FBI).

But it was afterwards, as I navigated Vancouver during the busy time, that I had my memorable (sort of) experience. Normally I dodge panhandlers, for my own safety as much as anything else. They are ubiquitous on the street, and reach out to you with baseball cap in hand and "Spare change?" on their lips. Others sit cross-legged all day behind damp slabs of cardboard with mini-histories of personal disaster written on them in black marker.

But there's another sort of public approach: people asking the time, or for directions. Usually, these requests are on the level. People simply want some information, and are generally polite and grateful for the help. I'm hopeless about directions, since I don't live in Vancouver and am one of those people who has nearly no sense of direction. But for some reason, people always seem to come up to me.

The man approached me and immediately stood closer than I would have liked, bending toward me. He was short, with stringy receding hair and nondescript clothing. The first thing he said was, "Please don't tell me you're a tourist." I told him I wasn't, but didn't live here.

He seemed to have a legitimate question about getting somewhere. He told me "as an American and a teacher, I don't know my way around here." He had a map of the downtown in his hands. I didn't feel right, but couldn't put my finger on why. I gave him my muddled explanation and said, "Please confirm this with someone else. I don't want you to end up in the wrong place."

At the beginning of this encounter, the "American teacher", a stranger in a strange land, said something about having two questions, but the second one (I was trying to get away from him by now) wasn't a question at all, but something along the lines of, "About five blocks that way, there's a Blenz Coffee, and you better stay away from it. I just had my wallet, my passport and my. . . "

You could feel a breeze from me speeding away.

Even though I was standing in the middle of the sidewalk with people flowing all around me, I was shit-scared. With his ingratiating, slightly oily manner and offputting vibes, I wondered if he was going to pull a knife on me or something. I only knew I had to scram, so I quickly inserted myself into the pedestrian flow and turned into a side street as soon as I could.

So what caused this reaction? There were several things, and I only really understood them in retrospect.

He did not have the manner of a person who had just been robbed. There was none of the anxiety and fear and anger a normal person would feel. He gave off a slippery geniality. Not only that, he didn't lead with his problem, but softened me up first with his claim of being lost, a ploy to incite sympathy.

He kept saying he was "an American and a teacher". He said it more than once, maybe even three times. Why would I have any interest in this? Maybe because teachers are, well, sort of admirable, or at least respectable/harmless. The impression he was trying for was being powerless and disoriented in a foreign country with no friendly people in it.

But he had a detailed map of the downtown in his hands! Why did he need me at all? The map was frowsy and used, with yellow highlighter all over it. Not a tourist map at all. It was a prop.

His appearance didn't match his supposedly-respectable description of himself. For one thing, he had terrible teeth. I mean, really terrible. A front tooth was missing, and the rest weren't yellow so much as brown. They weren't the teeth of an American teacher, no matter how ill-paid.

I was both proud of myself for escaping the scam so quickly, and ashamed that I let him take me that far. I've heard the stolen wallet/new in town/hungry children thing before, and my radar is usually good enough to spot the swindle. (If you steer them towards the Salvation Army hostel or other resources, they look offended and walk away. My daughter used to try to give them McDonald's coupons, but usually they didn't want them.)

No doubt this guy would have hit on the next available person, asking for "directions" and hoping for an "oh, that's terrible! Let me give you $20.00 to tide you over" sort of thing. Or, better yet, a trip to the ATM to take out some serious money.

I don't know if this guy was armed, or just creepy. Maybe it was the violent Ben Affleck movie that freaked me out, I don't know. But the thing that really gave him away was the black hole behind his falsely ingratiating smile. The vacuum. Street people all seem to have this. It's a sucking void that pulls in anything that isn't tied down. Endless, voracious, insatiable need.

We're supposed to support the homeless, right? But what about blatant panhandlers with phony stories of being ripped off? If we "support" them, we'll end up even more ripped off, and being ashamed that we fell for it. In other words, abused twice.

My husband has a practical, if imperfect solution. "Support the institutions that help such people. Don't get out your wallet, it'll only go on drugs."

As I sped away in the crowd, I couldn't help but remember Dylan's mystery tramp, "the vacuum of his eyes". A void where there should be a conscience. And a human being without a conscience is the scariest thing in the world.