Last Sunday, I dropped my partner off at work and headed downtown for breakfast. There's a cute little cafe in Knoxville's historic Old City called OliBea. They've a hip southern menu with local sourdough, a full espresso bar, and fresh horchata on the menu.
USA Cycling was hosting a massive road race right through downtown, causing much of the normal flow of traffic to be disrupted. I was re-routed around where I wanted to go and chose to park in one of the public parking lots under the interstate. It'd be a quick walk to the cafe from there.
It's 10:45 am and the parking lot is fairly quiet while the racers whizz by. I pulled through the parking lot and parked close to the street closest to the cafe. Off in the distance, I hear a faint hollering - I couldn't understand what was being said, but it was said loudly nonetheless. I thought little of it, chalking it up to possibly be one of the many vagrants or prostitutes who frequent the area. While not an unsafe place, it's a place where you see all walks and I try not to judge anyone differently than the next.
As I get out of my car, I start loading up with my backpack with my back and driver doors open.
"I'm coming up behind you." I've now tuned in clearly to what the hollering is about.
"I'm coming for you. Ha ha I'm right behind you. Ah ha ha I'm right behind you."
In an instant, I whip around and a rather dirty, slightly deranged looking man is grinning no more than a foot from my face. He chuckles, I stand still, careful not to trigger him to lose his mind any further.
I have one back in my hand and one on my shoulder. I can't reach the box cutter in my bag. He puts his hand on my upper ribcage, pushing me toward my open driver's side seat. He leans in and whispers in my ear,
"He he, I'm gonna fuck you hoe."
Incredulously. Commandingly. Completely scared out of my fucking mind.
I sidestep out of his path, this is happening at lightspeed but my vision is moving in slow motion. Out of his immediate path, nearly behind him, I slam my car door and push past him, fishing through my bag for my car key and making eye contact with a USA Cycling race volunteer who is directly addressing an otherwise completely unaware uniformed police officer.
"Hey! Hey! Where ya going? Where you going?"
He's continuing behind me, I can barely feel the ground under my feet. The USA Cycling volunteer waves at me. I sidestep around the cop and stand in front of him, placing him directly between myself and the vagrant.
The USA Cycling volunteer doesn't miss a beat as he turns to me and says, "Hi, nice to see you. Please, join us. Would you like to sit down?"
I look to the police officer and say to him, "There is a mentally ill man behind you who stalked my car, touched me, and said, "I'm going to fuck you hoe" and I am very afraid."
The look on his face was unforgettable.
"What?" Incredulously. Commandingly. His jaw set, he turned on his heel, and walked right up to the mentally ill vagrant, who was seemed to be waiting to continue walking me to breakfast, and handcuffed him. The man was locked in the police car and I finally sat down.
The police offer handled the entire situation with a careful, patient demeanor. He took notes, spoke with a witness who saw what happened from her car. She stayed, even though she looked like the top who typically avoided the law, just in case something bad might have happened. After gathering the info he needed, he asked me how I would like to proceed.
In this conversation, I learned what the word "assault" actually means. What comes to mind is a violent image, like someone beating me over the head with a pipe. "No, not at all." explained the officer. "Assault is when someone aggressively puts hands on you or makes some kind of contact with you that instills fear for far worse contact."
Did I want him to be charged with assault? Did I feel fear that he could have hurt me much worse?
Had the police officer and the USA Cycling volunteers not been there, I would've been on my own. Under an extremely noisy interstate. At least two blocks from an inhabited business.
I was vulnerable and had I not almost immediately made eye-contact with potential saviors, my fear of the worst would have been immense.
Let it be said that I abhor the idea that prison punishment rehabilitates. It does not, and nor is it of any benefit to the mentally ill. It was clear this man need psychological support, and no matter what option I chose, he would not receive it.
So, I thought of other people this could've happened to. I thought about people who are hurt by strangers and think they somehow deserved it, or could have prevented it. I thought about strangers who hurt people and what a life that must be.
I requested he be charged with assault. If needed, I'll go to court to speak on that subject.
The day this happened, I scribbled furiously in my journal each lasting detail. For my memory, and possibly for court information should that be necessary. I did my very best to put on that this incident wasn't a big deal, and that it'd just fade away as an awkward memory that I no longer needed to talk about.
But, @thekittygirl took a closer look at my obstructed journal page in my latest post...
Truthfully, I'm glad she called me out. I'm grateful to have a place to share this story. Not because the story was overly damaging to my day-to-day mental or as some PSA to make women warier of strangers out in public. There are a few things on my mind, though, that I believe are personal takeaways:
While it's great that you don't want to profile individuals, finding a balance of safe awareness and deductive reasoning does not make you a prejudice or otherwise bad person.
Keeping calm was definitely better than screaming your head off, no matter what other people might think. You trusted your gut, and you didn't enrage a stability-unknown person.
Police officers aren't bad + scary + untrustworthy all the time. Fearing the police state is one thing, but realizing you've been prejudice toward an entire profession made me lose sight of the humanity in each one of those uniforms. The police officer not only protected me, but he was enthusiastic about it. He was humbled by the opportunity to make the world safer for others.
Sharing stories, no matter how uncomfortable they may make everyone feel, is better than carrying them around, only letting them slip free as the butt of a bad party joke.
Thank you for reading this, and for bearing a small weight of the experience.
And, shout out to the USA Cycling volunteers, who were from the University of Tennessee on assignment for their Event Management course. The first volunteer I met eyes with laughed heartily later on in the morning after I was calmed down.
"We keep a journal each day of our experiences. Our journal entries will be almost entirely about you. I'm glad we were here. And really, this is event management." We all just laughed, and swapped more stories about favorite breakfast joints.