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Fight or Flight

My wife and I were on our way to the 99 Cents Store on Colorado Boulevard.  A lanky, twenty-something, homeless guy in a soiled hoodie, skinny jeans, and sockless high-top sneakers sat on the sidewalk near the automatic front doors.  

I gave him a buck.  My wife gave him two and a new pair of black socks she carried for the needy from one of her reusable shopping bags. (Black socks didn’t show dirt readily.)

I’d forgotten my reusable, canvas shopping bag in the car, which was only a few parking spaces behind us.

“Meet you inside,” I said to her and went back to retrieve it. 

When I returned to the 99 Cents Store, the homeless guy was gone from the sidewalk and inside the store.  Standing upright, he was a tall-drink-of-water, as my late Mother used to say.  The gifted socks hung from his back pocket, as he faced down the aisle in the direction where my wife perused the shelves. 

She always bought extra supplies for the Pasadena City College Food Bank, cooked for and fed the homeless in downtown Los Angeles one night a week with other volunteers.

But as I passed alongside the homeless guy in the aisle, he barked:

“Woof!”

I stopped abruptly.

“Are you talking to me?”

“Huh?”

He gazed down at me, half-hidden under his hood like an unkempt monk, whose contemplative state I had interrupted.

He looked somewhat familiar.  Perhaps I’d seen him previously on the streets or elsewhere.  I’d lived most of my life in Pasadena—the Rose City—and had run the gamut of its pathways, until forced to retire from running with chronic knee and back issues.

So I’d seen—and sometimes befriended—some homeless folks and other strangers along the way.

“No.  Woof,” he repeated.  “Ya’ know.  Ah-ooo!”

He stared down the aisle again.

It was then that I realized his howl wasn’t meant for me—but for my wife.

My wife was nearly ten years younger than I.  She worked-out religiously—mostly cardio with dumbbells in front of the TV every morning before work—and walked miles weekly with her mother, who had provided her with excellent genes.  

Apparently, he had followed her into the store.

When she turned at the end of the aisle and disappeared, he leaned forward and appeared as if he were about to continue on his quest. 

Until I stepped a few feet in front of him—blocking the aisle—hoping to deter his progress without appearing to do so purposely.

“Oops.  Excuse me,” I offered.

He stared down at me again.  His brow furrowed below his hood.

“Hey, wait a minute,” he suddenly surmised.  “You’re that guy who punched me in the face the other day!”

His beard-stubbled expression had no marks from a recent fight but both his fists suddenly clenched.

“What?  No,” I defended.  “I just gave you a dollar outside.  Remember?”

But he appeared to remember otherwise.

I suddenly feared this conversation was about to turn physical.  He was a head taller than I and less than half my age.     

“Dude, you have me mixed-up with someone else.”

 “No, no.” He shook his head, as if sure of it now.  “It was you, all right!”

In my college years, I’d worked as a bartender in a local dive, where in combative situations I’d learned: plan swiftly and stay focused on-target. 

I had two choices if he came at me—duck and tackle him into the cereal boxes or stand and throw a straight-right punch wherever I could land it—and hope store employees intervened before he killed me!

But to my surprise (and good health), he took a step backwards instead of forward—appearing to fear me now—as if I were the offending boogeyman in his delusion. 

He pointed his finger at me, continued to back towards the automatic front doors, and bayed like a wolf:

“It was you-u-u!

The doors opened behind him. 

He turned and ran out—the black socks flapping like a tail in his hind pocket— until disappearing transversely across the sidewalk windows.

I let out a relieving sigh and unclenched my fists.

From behind me, a guy in a store apron with a 99 Cents badge—notifying customers his name was Peter—stepped up alongside of me. 

I suggested to Peter:

“I’d keep an eye on that guy if he comes back inside your store.”

I found my wife in the candy aisle; we both had a sweet tooth.

I gave her a brief rundown.

“There are a lot of reasons people are homeless,” she said.  “It’s not always about economics.  You have to stop talking to everybody.”

She had long ago assessed of me: “You never met anyone you didn’t know.”

She fed the homeless; I talked to them.

“Yes, that could’ve gotten ugly quickly,” I admitted.  “I can still throw a pretty good punch.  But I doubt I can take one.  And I can’t run anymore.”

The ACL in my left knee was shot, and two vertebras in my lower back had been fused—a biproduct of bone cancer.  Another one of my battles.

“So fight-or-flight—Option One or Option Two—I’m pretty much screwed, Babe.”

She nodded and—despite my chivalry—gave me one of her it’s-always-something-with-you looks, before turning away to continue her shopping.

“Take your time,” I called after her.  “I’ll meet you at the back counters.”

I figured it might be better—safer—for us to go out the back way.  I didn’t want another encounter with that guy. 

And I really didn’t like him following my wife!

The cops had an old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished,” which they cited at the scene of applicable crimes.

I got the few things that I needed and a few extras for my wife’s donations.  She was still shopping.  I bought a few extra cans of dog food, too, and put them in the bottom of my reusable, canvas shopping bag—like weights—then swung it by the handle a few times to test its defensive effectiveness.

“That’ll work.”

Figured I’d upgrade Option One.  You know—just in case. 

Because regardless of my advancing age, I was still in charge of security for our unit!

I got in line at one of the back counters, paid the cashier for my purchases, and with my multifunctional, canvas shopping bag at my side, waited guardedly for my wife inside the glass back doors of the 99 Cents Store.

You know—just in case.