For as long as I can remember, I have had a strong aversion to being waved across the street by a motorist when I’m walking. I do not know when this started or why. If I come to a corner and a car stops there, I try to avoid making eye contact with the driver and wait until she or he goes through the intersection before crossing myself. I may even wait for several cars to go through, pretending as though I’m waiting for someone or going in a different direction. I’m not afraid to cross; I merely am uncomfortable with cars waiting for me to do so.
That was the not the only quirk I picked up as a child. Again as far back as my memory goes, I’ve noticed and memorized license plates. It was in part a desire to be responsible, so that I could give the information to the police in case of an accident. It was also, in part, paranoia. In case the owner of the car followed us home or something. Honestly, when you’re six, you don’t really have great reasons for the things you do. An idea gets into your head, and you try your best to follow it to its logical (and completely bizarre) conclusion.
I was around nine or ten years old and was walking home from school. Well, not exactly. We lived about 4 blocks from my school, but I wasn’t headed there. My dad worked with his father out of his parents’ house. At the time, I was too young to stay home alone, so after school I would walk to their place, about 10 blocks or so in a different direction, and wait for my dad to finish work.
My route took me east for a ways, and then north. I came to the corner where I was going to turn, and I saw a car headed towards the four-way stop. So I turned around and looked at the house behind me. The sidewalk was set back from the street a bit, so I thought it would be easy to look as though crossing the street was the last thing on my mind. I waited to hear the sound of the car pulling away.
Instead, I heard a man’s voice calling, trying to get my attention. He was white and scruffy and driving a boat of a car, probably an Oldsmobile. The large passenger-side window was rolled down, and he had an envelope in his hand. Across the street to the east was a mailbox. He wanted me to take the envelope and mail it for him. One thing I remember very clearly, I could see no address or stamp on the envelope.
This was many years ago. Kids played outside long into the summer evening without adult supervision. They walked home from school alone. But we weren’t completely naïve. Just about every school year, a fireman came to the school to talk to us about fire safety. We were told how one in every three homes experiences a house fire and we needed to have a plan just in case. I don’t remember how many times I heard variations on this, but the house burning down was one of my big childhood fears. The other one was being kidnapped. (Well, there was also something about vampires behind my headboard, but that’s not relevant here.) Just like the fireman, a police officer would come regularly to talk to us about the dangers of kidnapping. (The drug talks were after my time. That’s how old I am.) He told us how to be safe. Mostly it was admonitions not to go the bathroom by yourself when you were out in public.
So I was constantly expecting my house to burn down. And to be kidnapped. That latter fear came rushing forward, and I started making excuses as to why I couldn’t help him. My mother was waiting for me, and I was already late. Obviously, that was a lie since I didn’t live with my mother, and I wasn’t headed home. But he couldn’t know that.
He repeatedly pointed out how close the box was, and it would be easy for me to mail it. But I continued to refuse. It wasn’t even that I was stubborn. I was terrified and all I could do was continue refusing; the thought of running away or calling for help never occurred to me. I just kept repeating that I couldn’t do it, that I had to get home. Exasperated, he drove off, squealing his tires as he raced right past the mailbox.
I finished walking to my grandparents’ house where I told my father. (I thought about not telling him. I didn’t want him to be mad at me, but I thought I should say something in case he tried to kidnap someone else.) He told me that unless I had his license plate number, there was nothing we could do.
And that’s how terrified I had been. I had completely forgotten to note his license plate. This thing I always did, I had forgotten entirely. This quirky habit that I have to this day, vanished when I could have used it the most. So we didn’t do anything. And I never saw the man again.
In the intervening years, I’ve had many occasions to think back to that day. (I still don’t like being waved across the street.) Maybe the envelope was addressed on the other side? But the envelope seemed rather flimsy, as though it was empty. And why didn’t he stop to mail it himself? Sure, it was less convenient, but if it was important enough to ask someone else to mail it, it needed to be mailed, didn’t it? Did he kidnap someone else?
I have no answers to any of these questions. But I doubt I’ll ever forget that day, and I’ll always wonder how close I came to being just another statistic.