On Being Thought a Creep

Jul 01 2015

I was at a park. Worse, I was near a playground.

It was late afternoon on a weekday. My wife and my son wanted to walk to the little park not far from our house, and they asked if I wanted to come along. Because I work at home and my hours are flexible, I am often faced with this choice: of course, I could take a break. But if you can always take a break it’s hard to know when or whether you should.

“Sure,” I said, “I’ll come.”

I brought my laptop with me. While they played, I would sit at a picnic table and type away, thus neither getting anything done or actually engaging meaningfully with my spouse and offspring. I am the modern mobile father, forever connected and distracted.

That is what I did. My wife and my kid spent quality time building memories while I stared at a laptop nearby. Because I was staring at the laptop, I did not notice the woman approaching me.

She didn’t approach me. She sneaked up behind me.

“You must be brave,” she said.

“I’m sorry?” I said, turning to face her.

“You must be brave.”

I had no idea what she meant.

“I have no idea what you mean,” I said.

“You must be brave, a man here alone,” she said.

“I seriously don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“A man alone here in the park with all these children.”

She gestured toward the slide. She actually gestured directly toward my wife and son, who were going down the slide together, grins on their faces, joy in their hearts. There were other children around, too, one clinging to the side of the plastic climbing wall, several others caught in the giant pyramid net contraption that’s a million times cooler than the monkey bars of my own sad youth.

Let’s look at it from her perspective. I was a 30-something guy, dressed in jeans, a collared shirt, tennis shoes, sitting at a picnic table. I was focused intently on my laptop. I was wearing glasses. I had a beard. A beard! I might as well have been sporting a trenchcoat and holding a fistful of lollipops. I was like a wanted poster come to life.

No doubt I had come to the park with malicious intent. No doubt my laptop contained more than just half-finished essays and never-completed to-do lists.

Even with her helpful clarification it took a second for my brain to process the implication. Oh, I appear to be a threat to the children. I’m guessing she has 9-1-1 on speed dial and is already mentally taking notes for when she testifies in court.

“That’s my wife over there,” I said, pointing at my wife, who was over there. “And that’s our kid.”

She looked at them. She looked back at me. She looked at them. She considered the information.

It didn’t seem like she believed me. This was just the sort of thing a wily kidnapper might say when pressed. She may have even seen a ruse like this on Dateline NBC. A predator with a fake family! The perfect cover.

My wife saw me talking to the woman and yelled “Everything OK over there?”

“Everything’s good,” I yelled back.

The woman looked hard at me. Then she turned and walked back to a gaggle of mothers standing near the swings. When I saw the mothers I realized she was not acting alone; rather, she was an emissary sent to challenge the interloper. They had spotted me, decided I was trouble, and taken swift action.

There was no apology. There was no explanation. There was no lighthearted “Well, you never can be too careful! Sorry to have bothered you!” There was nothing. She just walked away.

“So we’re cool?” I called after her.

The woman did not reply.

“Glad you’re patrolling the area,” I called, making sure my voice was loud enough for everyone in the park to hear.

I don’t know whether she detected the sarcasm in my tone. She might have taken it as a compliment.

(the end)