Just a few days ago I told you about my strategy for safely exploring Houston with kids. Staying safe in new parks and neighborhoods is something I've literally gone over a hundred times with my kids (each time we arrive at a new park, before we slide open the van doors).
But what if instead of avoiding trouble out on the street, a stranger has you completely trapped inside a restaurant and no one is paying attention? This is what happened to us this week.
I've told my kids that a bad guy does not always look like a bad guy. And he might not talk like a bad guy. And he might even be a she. Well, we just met a charming older man, who spoke well, seemed well educated and probably had some very bad intentions.
I was at a restaurant with my 3 kids and we had ordered and were waiting for our food to arrive. I saw someone standing by the bar looking over at us, but thought very little of it in the busy restaurant. A few minutes later he asked if he could sit at the table next to us... and since it did not belong to us, I said sure. But when he sat, he turned his chair to us and joined our conversation.
He was outgoing and friendly and determined to chat. And the problem with this is that he probably knew I was going to be kind.
So he asked questions and spoke about Houston and came over to see what the kids were drawing. At first I figured he was lonely. Then I was irritated that he had taken over the lunch with my kids. And then I started to worry.
None of staff was paying attention to what was happening, the hour long meal was coming to an end and this 60-year-old man casually asked how much longer we would be staying. I was pretty certain now that he had made friends with us, he would be asking for help, for a ride, for money, for my keys or worse.
In my head I was making plans for deliberately NOT being nice to this man who had been so "friendly" at lunch. Having just seen the news story about the guy that took $200 out someone's bank account at the Costco parking lot, after making friends, building trust and then threatening him, I knew I had to stop being kind. My plan was to NOT leave that table until he as gone and to be very very loud if he did not leave.
But even with my plan, I found it unbelievable that in the middle of the day, in a busy restaurant and friendly, well dressed, well educated man had us cornered.
I am pretty sure that as I went from kind to confused to annoyed to scared to determined, my body language changed. Two men walked by my table, caught my eye and made a signal to me. I should have yelled out, "Hey John! Come say hello!", but I just managed a look that said there could be trouble.
Fortunately these two guys circled the building, came back in and sat right down next to me. And as soon as they did, they friendly man fled. He was gone in seconds.
These two men said that they worked next door, that they were fathers and they were pretty certain something was wrong. And I am so thankful for them.
I honestly do not know if the friendly stranger had something bad planned, but given that he started asking when we would leave and then fled as soon as the dads sat down, I am pretty certain his plan was not to just chat during our lunch.
And it makes me mad that he was targeting me because I was kind. I try hard to be nice to other people. I even have a goal to be more kind and do something nice for a stranger each week. But he took this good thing and made it bad.
But then again, it was the kind act of two dads that probably saved me from a dangerous situation. They could have easily just gone back to work and not bothered to get my attention, come back around and sit down.
So I've decided to continue being kind, but make a better plan for taking action as soon as a situation goes from friendly to awkward... and to not hesitate to ask for help or cause a scene as soon as I am uncomfortable.
Since I have replayed this event 5,000 times in my head, here are my ideas. If you have more, I would love to have them.
1. This man was friendly and annoying, but was not physically threatening us. His strategy was to build friendship and to be a member at our table. Had my husband been there, he would have told the guy he had overstayed his welcome. Since it was me, I did not want to hurt his feelings.
But I do know now that he left as soon as the dads arrived.
If this happened again, when the man did not let us eat on our own, I would call someone (or no one) and say, "We'll see you at the restaurant in a couple minutes!". Or I would call someone from another table and pretend like I knew them.
2. The staff was not aware that there was a problem. The waiter was young and probably just thought this guy was my dad. I did not have any paper or pen, but I could have asked for the bill, wrote a note and said, "Move us somewhere safe or call the cops". Or I could have written a message on my phone and handed it to the manager.
Having replayed this over and over, I think it would have been best to write a note on my phone saying, "I do not know this man. Please help.". And then calling over the manager, asking her to look at the email from her marketing team... and asking if we could take the kitchen tour now.
3. Like I said before, when the dads walked by and clearly knew I was in a bad situation, I should have yelled out "Hey, some-boy-name, great to see you!".
4. My kids and I have a code word for when we need to leave places immediately and for adults that pick them up from school (read about those HERE), but now I have one for my husband, best friend and mom. Now if I call them and say code word plus "I'll see you soon at my location", they will know I need help.
In this case, I do not think they could have gotten to me fast enough, but the phone call alone may have scared off the guy. Plus people would have known to check in with me.
5. I could have called the police. They might have been annoyed since the guy had not really done anything, but I am not sure I would care.
6. I should have taken his picture. He was so freaking friendly, I should have just snapped a photo. I'm kicking myself for not doing this.
7. I would not have left the building. No way were we going to the car or leaving the public space.
8. I would have yelled. I am usually very quiet and try to be polite and not cause a scene. And this guy had not really done anything to us.... but I was mentally preparing myself to be as loud as I had ever been... and do it inside a crowded restaurant. At least someone would have paid attention.
So what would you do if someone was friendly and outgoing, had not threatened you, had not hurt you but was way too close and you began to worry about your safety? Really, tell me. I never want to move from the point of being kind to being annoyed to being scared again. I want to be kind... but when I get irritated, I want a way to gracefully and quickly escape from a bad situation.