Too close for comfort

So Clare regaled us with the best and worst of Australia yesterday.
My vacation tale is a bit more raw-edged. Over Labor Day, I nearly wound up as road kill at the hands of a schizo. Make that tram kill, since I was on a train in Portland at the time.

Here’s what happened: We were in Portland so that my daughter could attend an anime convention. Anime, as you know if you’re from any planet in the galaxy, is the world of animation. Basically, an anime convention is like a weekend-long Halloween party—everyone gets dressed up as their favorite characters.

So while she was romping around dressed as some kind of warrior princess, I spent the weekend taking in the sights of Portland. And for the most part, Portland is a lovely, charming city. But during my day-long walking tour, there seemed to be quite a number of homeless people around. And they were, how should I put it, extremely…loud. At one point I said to an acquaintance, “Maybe it’s because we never walk in LA, but don’t a lot of people seem to be shouting here?”
For example, one lady I called the “Sun Worshipper” because she threw her head and arms skyward every time she stepped into a patch of sunshine, and let loose with a holler. A hell of a holler.
Other shouters were the types you’d cross the street to avoid.

And finally, there was the guy I encountered on the train. I’d stepped onto the train—called the MAX—because I was too exhausted to keep walking. But then the train didn’t move for a while—God knows why.

While the train was stopped, a homeless-looking (and smelling) man grew increasingly agitated. He was pacing, shouting and air-boxing.

Now here’s something you should know about me. I attract crazies. I attract shizos on the street like people who don’t like cats attract every feline in the house. I’m like the Doctor Magneto of madmen. Why? I have no idea. My husband claims it’s because I’m too engaging, outgoing, and I never mind my own business. And he may have a point.

Take the guy on that tram in Portland. When I sat down, he was doing little circles around and around the middle of the tram. Each lap of his circle brought him closer to me. Sitting next to me were a couple of elderly ladies, and they were getting quietly nervous. Meanwhile, the guy kept trying to make eye contact with me. And his shouts were getting louder.
Finally I said to the ladies, “I think you’d better move to the front of the car.” Which they promptly did.
It was my next move that got me in trouble. On the next lap of this guy’s ranting orbit, I stood up, stepped toward him and said, “Now would be a good time for you to step off this train.”

For a second he stopped air-boxing and stood there, dumbfounded.

So I repeated, “Now’s a good time to leave the train.”

That’s when all his anger returned, only this time, it came back as a Category Four hurricane. And I was New Orleans.

There was a sheet of Plexiglass between us. He kung fu kicked it with tremendous force, right where my face would have been if it hadn’t been for the Plexiglass.

It’s amazing how alone you can feel when you’re in a crowd and someone is going after you. Everyone simply sits, silent and frozen, like spectators watching something on TV.

Even I felt like a spectator. I stood there, watching this guy pummel the Plexiglass, screaming at me. I wondered what it was going to feel like when his foot or his fist made contact with my flesh.

But then something miraculous happened.

He stepped off the train. And then the train began to move, and the door closed.
He continued to beat the window of the train. He pulled up his sleeve to show me some kind of tattoo. It looked like something religious, or maybe it said “Death from Above.” I couldn’t tell.

The fact that the train was leaving without my attacker put me in a decent mood, so I gave him a thumbs-up for his tattoo. Then I waved good-bye as we pulled away.

After the action was over, it was funny how convivial and chatty everyone got all of a sudden. One guy asked me why the man had taken out after me like that. I said, “I don’t know, I just have that effect on men.”

But one thought stayed with me during the entire episode (besides not giving instructions to crazies–that one I’ve totally learned). I decided it would be a good idea to carry some kind of weapon.

Not a gun—too lethal, and way too many sticky gun control laws. Not even a knife, I think. No, I’m looking for something disabling without being deadly. Anyone have any good ideas about that?

Anyway, next year for the anime convention, I’ll satisfy myself by donning an electric-blue wig and fake sword to play-act the warrior princess. Becoming one in real life is way too hazardous to one’s health.

13 thoughts on “Too close for comfort

  1. You can carry mace or pepper spray. The problem with both of those is they aren’t a good weapon in close quarters, you’re just as likely to inhale the stuff as your attacker.

    One of the best ideas is likely to attend a self defense class. These are often offered as community courses through your local police department. While they won’t make you a kung-fu fighter over night they do help with situational awareness, body awareness and knowing how and when it’s worth it to hit someone.

    Another great weapon fits securely on any keychain…and that’s a nice metal whistle, the kind that coaches use. Most people will back off of someone making a lot of noise and if you can breathe you can work a whistle. 🙂

    You stayed calm though, and over all there’s a lot to be said for calm in a time of stress!


  2. Thanks, jsb! I always wondered about the mace and pepper spray–figured there might be some “blowback” from that. I like the whistle idea. I also read something about a flashlight that strobes and emits a siren, although I don’t know if it actually works. I’ll try the self defense class too!

  3. When I was younger a friend accidentally let off a burst of pepper spray in a kitchen full of girls from the neighborhood, we were making pies for a bake sale, and EVERYONE in the room got sick from it. Mace and pepperspray only help if you’re in a position to spray your attacker right in the face and run for it. The point is to distract them and make it hard to see while you scamper and call for help. Inside a tram…ugh…everyone there would suffer, so not a good location for its use. 🙂

    I’ve seen the flashlight strobe and the only problem with that is what happens if it gets bumped and goes off accidentally, or if the strobe confuses you more than it helps you. It’s why I like the whistle. It’s not likely to go off in my pocket on it’s own, it’s small and easy to carry and serves both in self defense and for an emergency.


  4. Whoa, Kathryn! Problem is I’m pretty sure you can’t take mace or pepper spray on a plane. But I’m going to recommend if this ever happens again moving as far as you can in the opposite direction-you just never know when the crazies are armed, and we recently had an incident here in SF where a female PO was almost killed when she tried to subdue an agitated homeless man. Best to get as far away as possible, even if that means stepping off and catching the next train.

  5. Kathryn,

    I’m not a lawyer, but I play one in my day job and I may write about one some day. Anyway, you should keep in mind that the force you use should be appropriate for the situation. And it requires a “reasonable person” test. That is, what would a “reasonable person” consider necessary to protect you from a person kicking a piece of plexiglass? It gets tricky.

    Non-lethal things like pepper spray can be good IF you are directly threatened. And Michelle is correct, you can’t carry it on a plane.

    So be careful. Walk softly and carry a big stick. I sometimes carry a six foot walking stick (unweighted – California law) and I’ve been to class on how to use it.

    There’s a good book by a Sacremento attorney (I’m sorry I forget his name) titled, “How to Own a Gun in California Without Going to Jail.” I don’t necessarily recommend owning a gun but the book has a good discussion of appropriate force along with examples.

    It’s sad that we have to be so careful while protecting ourselves but, on the other hand, it keeps crazies from being able to get away with saying, “I kicked the crap out of you because you asked me to leave the tram.”

    Self defense training is highly recommended but…Be careful out there!!

  6. Something no one else has mentioned is hairspray. They make these little travel sizes that fit in your handbag. Don’t know if they’re allowed in airline carryons, but once on the ground keep it in your pocket. If you need to use it, aim for the eyes. Not lethal, but very unpleasant. Won’t necessarily stop someone bent on mischief and mayhem, but it will slow them down and distract them so you can get away. Personally, I prefer my .357 magnum, but can’t take it everywhere I go. Hairspray is small, legal and non-lethal.

  7. Thanks for the advice, Bill! One always does have to be aware of legalities. Janis, interesting thought about the hairspray. Would really put the oomph behind the marketing line, “Extra Strength Control”!

  8. I’m sorry you had that experience. It can be scary when faced with someone who may be experiencing a psychotic episode/alternate reality. In my day job i’m a psychologist. Disclaimer: I’m not diagnosing the individual you described. These are some additional strategies that people can do in stressful situations like this that may help. This is not a guarentee these will always work but these things can help. Use your judgment.

    You did a great job staying calm, which is key. Suggesting that the ladies move to the front away from the man was also great.

    Stress, close quarters, lot of noise, quick movements, etc can increase the individual’s agitation making the person more unpredictable as they get more upset and unable to stay calm themselves.

    a) Try to avoid direct or extended eye contact (can make them feel threatened, & if they are responding to delusions it is hard to know how the eye contact will impact the delusion). b) Try not to confront them – if they are experiencing a psychotic episode they will have difficulty reasoning logically at that time and can respond unexpectedly and/or feel threatened even if in reality that is not what is happening. c) Give them physical space as they will likely feel more comfortable. d) If possible, remove yourself slowly and calmly from the situation, especially if they seem to have focused in on you for whatever reason (it is often nothing you’ve done, you may just remind them of someone or fit in to their delusion in some way). e) standing to the side of them not directly in front of them, may help them feel less threatened.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment, but sometimes it can help to know that there may be some things we can do when we feel at risk. I hope some of this was helpful, and great job staying calm!

  9. I pass along some ‘advice’ I was given after having been mugged at Symphony subway station in Boston:
    1. Don’t wear nice clothing; the more ragged the better. 2. Don’t wear any makeup or perfume. 3. Wear flat-heeled shoes in case you have to run away. 4. Don’t carry a handbag of any sort. 5. Don’t let your hair hang loose. In other words, if you are attacked, IT’S YOUR FAULT! Defense is unacceptable!!

  10. Wow, Anonymous–I believe I did everything wrong. I intitiated the encounter (because the elderly ladies were frightened); I made direct eye contact throughout the incident (even at the time, I felt that was probably inflammatory, but did it anyway); I guess the bottome line is, I’m lucky to still be here!

  11. Oh, and Jeana, I’m sure your advice is correct, but I hail from a family of NRA-card carrying self-defenders. To not defend oneself is against our clan’s motto (grin)!

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