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Strange Men at Work

There are two strange men in my apartment ...

Illustration for article titled Strange Men at Work

... to clean our upholstery.

It's easy to forget how completely vulnerable a lone woman (or person?) can feel in the company of strangers, particularly when those strangers are in their home. These young men seem like babies but also ... decent, or adjacent to it. One of them is trying to do as little work as possible and the other is very into his job.

Neither of them is putting off an alarming vibe, but it's easy to be wrong. It's also unsettling to walk into your own apartment, sizing up the two gentlemen walking with you. There are more of them than me. I was only told to expect one technician. Have I heard any news stories about uniformed rapists lately? My mind searches through back-catalogs of Law & Order episodes. Does my husband remember they were coming today? Is my cell phone in my pocket?

They seem a little affronted when I ask for ID. It's a relatively small town in a very friendly area of the country and their van and uniforms match, but a woman alone can't be too careful. How many times has that been said in a PSA or the end of a news segment?

I pepper them with questions about the weather, their schedule and their day. I ask if they're ok with dogs; in theory, it's to keep her from catching them off guard. In actuality, it's to let them know there will be one on site. She looks a little stupid in her E-collar, but canine teeth are still canine teeth and hers are not small.

One of them seems a little shifty. He's not answering my questions with an energy level that matches the one I'm putting out. In my experience, this means the person is either exhausted or untrustworthy. Since he is a stranger, I've got an eye out for the latter.

Realistically? He's probably tired; it's ridiculously hot and they arrived early, so they've been waiting in the van. He could be sizing me up. I mention my husband in inane conversation. It's been a lie so many other times, I half expect one of them to bust me on it, but then I remember: I do live with a man. He will be home (eventually).

Does he remember that the upholstery guys are coming today? Maybe I should shoot him a text, just to be sure.

The chatty guy is alright, and anxious to please. He's eager, like a young dog, bounding up the stairs and into the area that needs cleaning. He's excited to tell me about the process and the chemicals, and answers all of my upholstery cleaning questions with enthusiasm.

But he isn't talking over me. That's important. The ones who talk over you or don't listen are just as bad - they don't think of you as a person at all. This guy makes me feel heard, though. He's responding with information I want and not being condescending as he does so. Nor is he pumping me for information about myself, or the project he's about to tackle.

I can't decide if I'm actually interested in the minutiae of upholstery cleaning, or if I'm conveying that yes, I am a human being. In case anybody gets any ideas. Both are within the realm of possibility.

Seeing it all out in print, I know I sound crazy. But that's what predators look for. Uncertainty. Your fear of sounding crazy.

Giving myself permission to sound crazy saved my life. A stranger knocked on my door in the middle of the night, asking for a phone. I'm not sure why, but I didn't trust him. I told him that I wouldn't let him in, but I'd call whoever he wanted on his behalf. He implied I was being paranoid and unkind; I asked him to see it from my perspective, but he couldn't. We went back and forth a few times before ultimately, he decided he didn't need my help.

On the same evening, two sets of neighbors were robbed at gunpoint. At one house, the criminals were violent and the victims had to be hospitalized. As the investigation proceeded, it was discovered that this particular man was part of a group of criminals who tended to hit three neighborhood homes at a time. On their previous adventure, someone had been killed.

I'm fairly certain that if I had gone with a natural reaction, I would have been attacked. Those of you who know me know that I tend to be sassy; I might have been killed. Did I wonder if I was doing the wrong thing? Sure. Did I feel guilty doing it? Yes, definitely.

But he wasn't able to conceive why a woman alone at night might not want to let him in. He was giving me permission to shut that conversation down - I just needed to hear it.

I learned those listening skills from a book: Gavin de Becker's Gift of Fear.

I first heard about the book in an article on MSN.com, covering the Virginia Tech shootings. It was listed as a reference to hep determine whether you knew any unbalanced, potential psycho-killers. It promised to help you develop your own gut instinct.

A little bit of background: as a mousy, former Southerner, I had been in San Francisco for a short time, at this point. Despite my enthusiasm for it, I was not adapting well to city life. In the six month period leading up to reading GoF, there had been three separate occasions of attempted sexual assault, two separate muggings, and a man who followed me from the train to my apartment with the intention of following me in. If my neighbor hadn't been in the doorway, he probably would have come into the apartment and I don't know what would have happened after. My gut says that it would have been unpleasant.

The then-boyfriend said, in disgust, "It's like you do this on purpose. You always expect the best out of people and it's going to get you killed." My own boyfriend predicted my death. It should be noted that I had shared the muggings and the train man, but not the sexual assaults. He didn't know the half of it, and he thought I was going to die.

He was an ass, but he was right. I was too nice. My internal alarms went off on each of those occasions, and each time, my internal alarm was disregarded. I didn't want them to think I was rude, after all.

On the inside, I was petrified of being a bitch. On the outside, it was like I had a death wish.

Reading through the book, it was alarming how many of the predatory techniques I recognized. I've seen that! And that! And that! I thought back to some of my recent brushes with danger , and each and every. single. one. went right down de Becker's list of warning signals. Every. Single. One.

Many years have passed. I am now older, wiser, and more confident. Some of that is natural aging, but a large part of it ties back to wisdom gleaned from those pages. I feel relatively confident in my ability to rate the danger level of day to day situations. Sometimes, they feel risky, or I just don't like a vibe - and I get out.

I work with a lot of younger, or potentially impressionable female students. If I had the funds, I would give them all a copy of the book. If I had even a flimsy excuse, I would make it mandatory reading for them all in their freshman year. It won't save the ones who are impervious to harm, but it might imprint, somewhere in the backs of their minds. It might make a bell go off when dudebro offering his couch as a crashpad says, unprompted, "I won't try anything. Promise!"

Do I misjudge things? Sometimes, yes, I'm sure I do. Do I feel safer? You bet.

I've been working hard behind the keyboard while the upholstery guys do their thing. That sketchy one? He just swiped the change off of the Husband's catch-all dish.

You never think about how vulnerable you are until there are strangers in your apartment. I'm glad there are also instincts at my disposal.

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