3 min read

What would you do if an angry young man wearing a hoodie came right up to you?

Somehow this became the question of the month.

Here's the thing, I live in one of those in between zones. You know what I mean. I live in a neighborhood between here and there.

If Rose and I go out midday or midnight, we're bound to see black, brown, white, and the blue haired of every class in various stages of dress wandering around. When school is in session, we run into black, brown, white, and blue-haired young people wearing hoodies stomping their way down the street. Homeless people sleep in the park and beg on the big street. There's a large employment office up the street, a rock venue which spews drunk punk rockers at 2 am. And the stoned. We see them all moving back and forth along our sidewalks.

My usual answer to the question is: "Which time?"

"But what would you do if an angry young man wearing a hoodie came right up to you?"

Early this morning, in the dim light of predawn, Rose and I were stalking bunnies in the local park. Chasing after a runaway bunny, we turned the corner near the bathroom and a young black man wearing a hood came right up to us. Inches away from him, I could smell his rage. He seemed drunk on that adolescent mixture of indignation and testosterone. He was fit, athletic, and a bit taller than I am. His hood was pulled around his face and he was wearing headphones.

In that brief instance, I felt the natural, normal spike of fear that I feel when I'm startled.

What did I do?

I pulled out the one thing that has worked for me in every situation like this.

I smiled.

He sneered.

I spoke these magical words: "Good morning!" and smiled again. Following my cue, Rose wiggled at him.

As if he was waking from a dream, he blinked.  I look at his face and caught his eyes.

"What's going on?" I asked.

He sized me up. I nodded to encourage him to answer the question.

"Cleaning this bathroom," he said. "Sucks sometimes."

I nodded. He grinned in the way of teenage boys who know they're making a big deal out of nothing.

"Need the job," he said.

"Every job sucks sometimes," I said. "Sorry your's does today."

He nodded, stepped around me, and went to his park services golf cart to get more towels.

He works for the park cleaning toilets. That's his job. And sometimes it sucks. That's why he was angry. It didn't have anything to do with me.

He didn't scare me because of me. He scared me because of him. He scared me by startling me and getting close to me.

But it was MY fear. And as an adult, I know how to manage my fear.

My first response is to my own fear is to use my technique - smile, speak, see the person clearly.

Why? My technique works.

It worked for me when a guy brought a shotgun into A-16, where I worked as a cashier. I knew he had the weapon. He knew he had the weapon. I smiled, said "Hello", and we chatted for a bit. He left the store. The police told us that they had been looking for this group of young people. They had been robbing stores up and down the street. A few minutes later, the police raced out of there.  A store down the road had been robbed with the same shotgun I'd seen just moments ago.

It worked for me in the middle of the gang war in Venice Beach. I needed to ride my bike to Gold's Gym in by 5 am and they were having their freakin' war in the middle of my workout time. (Priorities people! Priorities!) I was stopped by a group of young angry, this time brown, men. Smile, laugh, explanation: "I have a spinal cord injury. I need to get to workout before I go to work", and I was on my way. Next time I saw them, they waved.

There's a caveat to this: I don't take unnecessary risks. My life, home, and work are prudently set up. I won't put myself in a dangerous situations. If something doesn't feel right, I don't leave the car, I call the police, I go the other direction, I walk around or away. I don't confront or seek out person-to-person danger.

But if danger comes upon me (which is the question, right?), the first thing I'm going to pull out is my smile - my humanity and my compassion.

I've asked upset and screaming young men if they are all right and can I call someone for them. I've listened to young men while they cry about their mothers, their girlfriends, their lives, and their dashed hopes. I've sat beside young people whose dog's have died suddenly, who got in a fight with their sibling, who want to run away from home, or who are simply heartbroken.

I ask: "What's going on?" "Can I help?" These two questions turn situations on their heads.

That's my job as a human being.

And it's my best defense at defusing a scary, potentially violent situation.