Thursday, November 10, 2011

Casa del Viejo

I love going for morning walks with my son. It's become a part of our morning routine over the past few months; I load up the stroller with my Kindle, cup of ice water, smartphone with fitness-tracking app (I've lost fourteen pounds since the summer), and last but not least my very excited two-year-old. Han loves seeing the same houses, dogs, people, and occasional cluster of chickens every morning. It makes him feel like he lives in a safe and interesting place, and up until recently, I felt that way too. That was before the old Mexican man moved onto the block.

Before I go any further, I'd like to say that there are many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who live in my neighborhood. I'm (mostly) white but grew up in heavily Hispanic New Mexico, so the mere presence of Mexicans doesn't bother me at all. In fact, I go out of my way to be friendly to all my neighbors, whether they look like they understand English or not. I've found that with a smile, wave, and friendly "good morning," I've managed to make nice with most of the people who I see out watering their lawns or working on their cars and I feel safer knowing that they know that I'm out there.

But this kindness came around to bite me in the ass with the arrival of el viejo (Spanish for old man, and since I don't know his name this is how I think of him). When I first walked past el viejo, he was out in his driveway glowering at a utility worker across the street. The worker, who looked like a contractor for the city, was standing near a utility pole writing something on a clip board, looking up from time to time as if wondering why he was being glared at so fiercely. I smiled at the worker, as is my wont, and then turned to the old man with a wave and wished him a good morning. His scowl dropped and he smiled delightedly. My unexpected greeting had obviously made his day and I went on with my walk feeling like a good, decent person.

Unfortunately, el viejo couldn't leave it at a friendly greeting and before long he was walking out to the driveway and stopping me for a chat in Spanish. I didn't really mind, at first -- I like to meet people from other countries, and I was grateful for the opportunity to practice my rusty Spanish skills. But then he asked if he could take a photo of us. That seemed a little weird, but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he had a digital camera or one of those disposable Fun Savers that old people seem to love, and he just wanted to show people back home that he was making friends in his new neighborhood. A somewhat naive assumption, I know, but at this point I still thought he was a lonely but harmless old man. He asked if I would be walking by the next day and I said I would.

But I had forgotten that the next day was Saturday and I was scheduled to attend Dale McGowan's Parenting Beyond Belief workshop. I actually felt guilty all day Saturday, imagining the old guy standing in his driveway holding his camera, forlorn, staring up the street and wondering when I would come. On Monday I walked by again, and the old man glared at me and said, "un foto?!" in an accusatory tone. This should have been my signal that the guy wasn't right in the head -- after all, was I really obligated to take a walk on a day I usually stayed home, just so a stranger could take my picture for some mysterious reason? -- but my guilt won out and I tried to explain (in Spanish) that I only walk four or five days per week, and not at all on the weekends. I finished my spiel with "Lo siento," ("I'm sorry.") and continued on my way.

Big mistake. After that, he stopped me every day, blathering about the alleged "foto" (yet he never produced a camera) and asking questions about my husband, whether I believe in God and where I go to church. I found these questions intrusive and rude, so I did my best to extricate myself politely from the conversation and just go about my walk. But the next time, he put his hand on the stroller handle as if to prevent me from leaving, picked up my Kindle and asked a bunch of questions about it (a real challenge for my limited Spanish) and then, as I tried to push on down the road, he asked if he could kiss my cheek. Now, if anyone ever asks me this again I will firmly say, "No." But I didn't want to hurt his feelings so I gave him a kind of cringing shrug that he apparently interpreted as a "yes". As his leathery lips grazed my cheek (I was leaning away with a look of horror), I decided that enough was enough. I don't take my daily walks so I can stop for long, uncomfortable, boundary-pushing conversations with a weird old Mexican man. I take my walks for exercise and so my son and I can have an enjoyable time together in my neighborhood. El viejo was interfering with all that, and it was because I was letting him.

I asked a couple of friends for advice and thought over the best way to handle the situation. Clearly, I couldn't go from chatting politely to yelling, "No me molestas!" if he tried to talk to me again. But I had to make it clear that he wasn't in control of my walk -- I was. And I don't have to stop for anyone if I don't want to. I felt good about my decision, though I was dreading having to be rude to someone who thought I was a friend. But I knew it was something that had to be done, so the next day I went out walking again. Sure enough, el viejo walked down his driveway to intercept me. But instead of stopping, I started running, passing him by with a wave and a "good morning," just like I do with all my neighbors. His eyebrow went up and I could tell he wasn't pleased, but I didn't care. I felt great. I had taken back my walk and with it, my power to say no.

The next day he was out there again, glaring as we drew near. Once again I smiled and waved, and he reflexively raised a hand in greeting. I hoped he understood that this was how things were going to be from now on, and wouldn't push it any further. But the next day, not only did he glare at me, he also glared at my child. Han was waving happily, saying, "Hi, man!" as we went by. But el viejo stared daggers at him, projecting malevolence at us both until we were past.

Now, that pissed me off. Be a dick to me all you want if it makes you feel better, but for crying out loud, why do you have to be a dick to a two-year-old? I shook my head and said, "What an asshole," loud enough for him to hear. Then I said to my son, "That man is rude. He should have waved back." I resolved to ignore the old man from then on -- if he couldn't be content with casual friendliness, then that was too fucking bad for him. He was a stranger and I owed him nothing.

I thought about changing my route to avoid him, but that really stuck in my craw. Was I really going to let one grumpy old man stop me from walking down my own street? Was I going to change up our comfortable routine, stop saying hi to the people and dogs I was already familiar with, just because an old man had taken it upon himself to make me uncomfortable? No. Fuck that. I've lived in this neighborhood for almost seven years and by god, I will walk down my own street. I talked to a sensible friend about it (she has done wonders making her own neighborhood safe while staying within the confines of the law) and she told me that as long as he stayed in his yard, he was probably best ignored, but if he pushed things any further I should file a report with the police. I felt good having a plan, and was resolute that no old man was going to frighten me off my block. The next day I headed out with a palpable sense of dread, armed with a contingency plan I hoped I wouldn't have to use. Maybe he wouldn't be out there. Maybe we could have a pleasant walk, undisturbed.

But no. As we drew closer to la casa del viejo, I saw him coming down the driveway to intercept us. I sighed and kept going, but then the old man continued out into the road, where he stood blocking my path, hands on his hips. I was still a good block away and I stopped, unwilling to get any closer. Clearly he was going to talk to me whether I liked it or not, and considering his posture and previous behavior, it was likely to be a confrontation. I shook my head in an exaggerated fashion. No, I would not be stopping to talk. He started gesticulating wildly. He may have been saying something, but I couldn't hear him from where I was.

I got out my phone and called the sensible friend, hoping that the sight of me calling someone would be enough to send him back into his house. No such luck. She was of the opinion that it was time to call the police, and I agreed. I dialed 911 and told the dispatcher that I was being harassed by a neighbor while attempting to walk down my block. They said a unit was on the way and I hung up to wait for the cavalry.

That was when el viejo started walking down the road in our direction. Oh, hell no. I turned and walked the length of a few houses, keeping the distance between us constant. I turned to look at him. He was waving one arm in a shooing gesture and I realized he was telling me to go back the way I had come. He was trying to chase me off my own block, preventing me from returning to my home along my chosen path. I couldn't resist: I raised my arm and flipped him the bird. No, old man. Fuck you. He flapped his own arm harder in reply, then leaned on a neighbor's van and crossed his arms, prepared to wait me out if I persisted on walking up the street.

I've never been so happy to see a cop car in my life. They pulled up alongside me and I gave them a quick, concise, and calm (which always wins you points with the cops) version of what had been going on. One of the cops suggested that he may be emotionally disturbed (ya think?) and that his house might be one of the city's designated mental health houses. They assured me they would take care of it and drove up the block to talk to him. I continued my walk (while on the phone with the sensible friend, who was on her way to my street with her husband to help me out -- what friends!) and went by while the cops were still talking to him. He sounded agitated but I tried to ignore him the best I could. A few minutes later the cop car pulled up alongside me and said that he had agreed not to bother me any more. I thanked them and they took off.

I admit it felt like a victory, for a little while. After all, the old man didn't get what he wanted (to force me to talk to him) and I did get what I wanted (to pass through my own neighborhood without being forced to talk to someone I didn't like). But still ... I haven't taken my son past his house since then. In fact, I devised a whole new walking route, one which bypasses my own street almost entirely. I was sick of the dread, the creepiness, the potential for confrontation. So in a way, el viejo won -- I will not be passing by his house any more, at least not without my husband or a friend. But in another sense I won, because I haven't let it deter me from doing something that makes me healthier and enables me to spend pleasant time with my son.

So, what do you think, fellow lucid parents? Should I have done something differently to avoid escalation? Was I right to change my walking route or should I have stubbornly insisted on using my right to walk down my own street? What would you have done?


  1. I would have done the same thing. Including step one: be obliging and awkward for the sake of not hurting a strangers feelings.

    It's one thing to have control, but it's not worth it if the guy goes berserk or pulls a weapon with Han there, waving away in his stroller. If the man is mentally unstable, you need to be "invisible" to him, so I would avoid him altogether.

    I am not a paranoid person, but I grew up in the city of Chicago and have had run-ins with unstable people. The types that are prone to violent outbursts are the same folks who do weird, delusional things like what you are describing. The best thing to do (since you can't lock someone up for being creepy) is to try not to be on their radar. Let him focus his angry fantasies on someone else. You have to protect your son.

  2. @misshum22: I'm glad you agree that avoidance is the best policy, even if it feels like defeat. It's hard to know what the "right" thing to do is sometimes, but as soon as the cop said "emotionally disturbed," the game changed for me. This wasn't just a battle of wills, it was a potentially volatile situation. There's no way to predict what a mentally ill person will do or how far they will go. The best I can hope for is that he'll move away eventually. Until then I'll just swallow my pride and try to enjoy my walk.

    Thanks for the feedback!

  3. I had kind of a similar experience one time, when this strange (possibly homeless) man at the train station insisted on walking me home. I'm pretty sure he meant well -- in his mind, he was probably just protecting a heavily-pregnant woman after dark -- but it went way beyond my comfort zone, and it didn't help when he made some weird and vaguely sexist remarks along the way. He was there loitering the next few evenings trying to strike up a conversation, and bizarrely accused me of "cheating on him" one time.

    My strategy became to just smile and nod and keep on walking, largely ignoring him. I didn't feel safe around the guy, and I had a similar reaction in terms of adjusting my walking route and feeling resentful that one person could change how I felt about my own neighborhood. Thankfully it never came to a confrontation, and he sort of just disappeared after a while, but I probably would have done exactly what you did (call the police to report someone harrassing me) if it came to that.

  4. @Sarah P.H.: I think that as women we're socialized to be polite, which can make it even more difficult to tell a creep to get lost. Being pregnant would make that even more difficult, since provoking a confrontation is the last thing you want to do when you're that vulnerable. I'm glad your creep disappeared -- what a relief that must have been!