The scariest of days.
Updated: Dec 4, 2018
Always listen to your gut. Always. A little over a year ago, I met a man on the Atlanta Beltline. I was attending a community service event when he approached me. He was small in stature, wearing a Falcons shirt to which I gave my normal greeting to a fellow Falcon fan, "Rise up!" "Rise up," he echoed. He asked what we were doing and I explained to him our mission to foster connection and community through the art of listening. Already there was something about him that felt off and almost immediately, he encroached on my personal space ever so slightly. As such, I offered a seat as it was spaced a comfortable distance from mine and he accepted. He had an indiscernible look in his eye that continued to feed my uneasiness. I asked him where he was from and he said somewhere in California, if memory serves. He said he had come to Atlanta to be with the love of his life. "Oh, she's from here?" I asked. To this simple question, his response was, "she is in all people." And there it was. Confirmation that my read in the first few seconds was correct. He started to talk about how he was on the planet to combat Satan and spread love. After that, his words no longer registered as I was formulating an exit strategy. It wasn't soon enough, however, because without warning he grabbed my wrist and held it tightly, gazing at me with an intensity that I can picture to this day. An immediate knowing came over me that if I were to react by screaming or pulling away that things would escalate so instead, I calmly said, "I'm going to need you to let go. This is not okay." He continued to tighten his grip. I looked him square in the eyes and said it again. "I need you to let go. This is not okay." He loosened his grip and relaxed back in his chair and added, "I'm always doing things wrong." I remained calm outwardly, though I was trembling. I stood up and said that we would have to wrap it up. As he announced that he wasn't finished, I made eye contact with another volunteer who mouthed, "are you okay?" to which I could only respond with my eyes. "nope!" She alerted the lead volunteer who came over to help resolve the standoff and he finally moved away. Still, there was no relief. I walked away with cell phone in hand. I sensed that if I called the police in front of him, it would set him off. As I continued to walk, I turned back to find him on the sidewalk on all fours, like an animal and thought: he is going to pounce on me any second. I started to walk more briskly and then my instinct, again, was correct. He sprung up like a wild animal and started to chase me through a crowd of people. I found the tallest man I could find and hid behind him while telling him that someone was chasing me. I thought briefly about my actions and about how my choice was putting others in harm's way, but I just didn't know what else to do. Well, it turns out, the tall man was with his family. He and his wife, their three grown daughters and a boyfriend to one, were all over 6 ft tall. They encircled me like a human shield and the father told my predator that he was not going to hurt me. He paced like an animal still, peering at me between my rescuers until he finally walked away. It wasn't over. I called the police and as we stood around waiting for them to arrive, I heard a voice say, "he's coming back." My heroes jumped back into action. The mom handed me off to three gentleman manning a hot dog cart indicating to them that some man was chasing me and they were now responsible for keeping me safe while the others continued to keep an eye out. Without one more word, the men hid me behind their cart and continued to set up as though nothing else was going on. It almost seemed like well-rehearsed choreography as one draped a banner so that I couldn't be spotted on the ground behind the cart. Another twirled a big sun umbrella, also to obstruct his view of me. The third, setting up the food as they normally would so that he wouldn't be alerted to my whereabouts. He ended up stealing a bicycle and a cell phone and rode out of sight. It was only then that I felt relief. The family waited until the police came before they went on about their day. I imagine they thought they were just going out for a bite to eat and a stroll when they encountered me. The hot dog vendors were just trying to go to work. When it was all over, hugs all around. Herein lies the beauty of human connection. Perfect strangers created a wall between me and who knows what without any regard to their own safety and I'm so very thankful for each of them and the lesson that Ram Dass is correct when he says, "we are all just walking each other home. "