Well, maybe scary is too strong of a word. I'll let you be the judge.
Anyway, the Zimmerman trial is in full swing. You know the one --
where George Zimmerman is on trial for shooting unarmed
teenager Traevon Martin.
George Zimmerman claims self defense
The trial and the issues it involves brings to mind an unexpected encounter Chris and I had last week with some potentially troublesome young men when we found ourselves suddenly on the wrong side of the tracks.
We were driving on the freeway through the Inland Empire on the way back to our home in the San Bernardino Mountains. We pulled off in San Bernardino to top off the tank before heading up into the mountains (Gas is cheaper down there. Since we're on the "economy plan," we always buy cheap gas down the hill before beginning the climb).
Now, San Bernardino does have its share of poverty and unemployment, which means some dicey neighborhoods, gangs, drugs and crime. We knew this, and we exited the freeway into a more middle class neighborhood in search of a gas station.
You know how it goes. You've been there. We looked, and we looked, and we drove around, and before we knew it we were in a not-so-nice neighborhood. Still looking for gas. It was the middle of the day, though, so we felt safe. And our gently used (ha!) dark green 2002 Explorer didn't exactly stand out in this working class neighborhood.
OK. There it is. An off-label gas station. In we go.
Chris began filling the tank while I did my first mate duties (1: clean the windshields, front and back; 2) empty the trash). A car pulls up next to us and a few guys who looked kinda like this got out:
They began filling the tank of their own car and immediately began peppering Chris with questions. "Where are you from? Where are you going? Where do you live?" You know: sizing us up.
Chris gave them a friendly smile and answered all of the questions in a neighborly but very general way (I love that husband of mine). No details.
As I walked past them to empty the trash, I gave them an easy-going smile and a "How's it going, guys?" This brought me a couple of whistles and cat calls as I finished emptying the trash. I smiled nicely again as I passed back to my side of the car, as if to say: "Thanks for the compliment!"
It's important at this juncture to not act scared. Even more importantly, don't appear angry or superior. Just laugh right along with them as if you're old friends.
Now, lil' old "Anglo-Saxon middle class blonde girl from the OC" me is not going to claim to be an expert on the mind of a gang member.
But I do believe that what they were doing is officially called: "F&$#-ing with us."
This is not necessarily aggressive. It's like a game. They're stuck filling up, we're stuck filling up. So they 'F' with you. For fun. They're bored. There's nothing much else going on. We're clearly not from around here. "Let's have some fun, and maybe size these guys up," is the thought.
And yes, of course part of the "sizing up" thing is determining if we might be an easy victim.
And yes, part of the "fun" for guys like this, I'm sure, is scaring people like us. It's a power thing. I get it.
"We don't see many white people around here," they said. Perhaps they were wondering if we were there to buy drugs?
Now, here is where George Zimmerman comes in. George, if you're reading this (ha!), let me teach you a little something I learned during my months in Central America. It's called "Killing them with kindness."
This was my tactic whenever we found ourselves in a poverty stricken village in Panama in the middle of nowhere with one too many bored, unemployed young men sitting around with nothing to do.
I took full advantage of my Spanish skills and immediately upon finding ourselves in such a situation I put a friendly smile on and started in with the "Hola! Me llamo Liz. (sticks hand out to shake) Como te llamas? Mucho gusto! Buenos dias! Aqui es muy bonita! Muchas gracias para su hospitalidad! Hasta luego!"
And we would walk off into the village, leaving them with stunned expressions on their faces, or hopefully shaking their heads and smiling, thinking "crazy gringos." LOL...
Our friend Howard called me the "Walmart Greeter." Yep. Kill 'em with kindness. It can't hurt.
Anyway, back to the story.
A funny thing happened when they saw Chris and I not freak out and with a smile genially talk with them, look them in the eye, maybe even play back a bit with them in the game.
They loosened up. They began joking around with us (while still 'F'-ing with us and sizing us up, but now not as much). "You two married?", one of them asked.
Chris laughed and said: "We sure are. (pointing to two of the guys) Are you two married? You know, you can do that now in California!" Loud laughter all around.
You know, on TV and in the movies you always hear gang members say they carry a gun because it garners immediate "respect." I can't help but wonder if our simple act of just talking with them -- without fear, without judgement, without righteous indignation -- was our way of showing them "respect."
We treated them as human beings. So they felt no need to "earn" our respect by pulling out their guns.
Anyway, now both of us had filled up and it was time to go.
"I like your Ray-Bans," one of the more serious, scary looking guys said to me ominously. One last threat. One last sizing up.
Without skipping a beat, I replied with a big smile:
"Thanks. They're fake. I bought 'em in Mexico for 5 dollars."
We all laughed. Chris and I waved, smiled and with a sincere "Take it easy!" we jumped into the car and turned on the ignition. They replied in turn, and we each drove off in opposite directions down the trash-strewn street.
I wish George Zimmerman had just left Traevon alone. If he absolutely needed to speak to him, I wish he would have said with a smile: "Hey there. My name's George and I'm on neighborhood watch. We've had some break-ins recently so I thought I'd ask if you've seen anything out of the ordinary?"
And the conversation, which would have been short once he found out he was just returning to his dad's house after buying some Skittles, could have continued from there.
In America, it seems that guns are the answer to every fear, every concern, every case of righteous indignation.
I, for one, wish we would just talk to each other. You might be surprised at the nice people you'll meet.