Last night, I was sitting at home on my own, right where I am now as I tell you this story: In the front window of my house, at the breakfast room table. Around 9pm, Delia starts barking, and I hear someone coming up the front steps.
I wasn't expecting anyone.
It was raining and dark outside. The shades were still up after letting the day's light in, and I would have been visible from the street, illuminated, as I was working away on my laptop. The porch light was on. Someone was home.
Up the stairs comes a man I don't know. This immediately rings alarm bells. He sees me through the window and waves. I look at him, confused, and walk over to the front door. We have a speakeasy peephole, so I'm able to see him and also talk to him.
"Hi there. Can I help you?" I ask.
"Yes, ma'am," he mumbles. "Sorry to bother you, but could I have a glass of water?"
In a downpour. He's asking for something so basic. All that water, and he's thirsty.
"I could give you a bottle of water," I say. How could I deny someone water?
"Thank you," he says. I close the peephole and turn to the kitchen.
I'd seen a stray bottle of water, unopened, but couldn't spot it right away. I quickly weigh my options. I don't want to hover over him as he drinks, nor do I know what else to give him. He can see me standing there.
Finally, I spot the bottle of water, hiding behind a dish towel. I go back to the front door, and realize there's no way I can hand this out to him while keeping the safety chain engaged.
Here's the thing about humans. They can smell fear. I doubt most could describe the scent, but we're social animals, wired to detect all kinds of subtle hints about another person's inner workings.
We're also reciprocal, though that's not always as rosy as it sounds. In an interaction, a person will populate the role offered to them by another's behavior. Treat someone fairly, and they often respond in kind. Treat someone like a criminal, and they are likelier to fulfill that suspicion.
The best way to keep someone from smelling your fear is not to feel any. I looked at the door, thought about my odds of getting it closed again quickly if I saw any sudden moves. I took a deep breath, unhooked the chain, and opened the door.
I should say here, in the most literal way possible: Do not try this at home. I would tell any child not to open a door for a stranger, no matter how nicely they asked. I decided not to adhere to that advice.
I handed him the bottle of water. He said thank you, cracked it open and had a big swig. Then, he started to tell me about how he had wandered up the busy road, going for ages without finding a gas station or anything. That he wasn't from around here, didn't know where he was going, and couldn't find a bus stop. I told him that if he headed the opposite way, he'd soon encounter civilization once more, with bus stops aplenty to get him around town.
He wasn't sober, but he more seemed tired. He offered me a hand, and I shook it. So dry.
I wished him luck on his way. He thanked me again and walked off. I sat back down to my computer.
Within five minutes, he was back. He knocked on the window. He held out a flower. Delia was not amused. I felt my blood pressure go up.
I gestured through the window: Thank you, that's too kind, you didn't have to. He insisted. I smiled awkwardly, held out a hand to say, "No, no, really."
He held it up again and said, "A peace offering." He arranged it on the windowsill, with a little difficulty. I waved and said thank you. He left again.
At this point, sitting in full view of the street near the window felt a bit too vulnerable for my liking. I moved out of view, phone in hand, and called a friend in the neighborhood. As soon as I explained to her the first part--his request for help--she responded, "That's annoying," because she could immediately see the dilemma: help another person, or risk escalating a situation with a potentially dangerous stranger by refusing.
I think most--if not all--women reading this can understand the fears and complexities driving this story. You simply do not open a door for a strange man who appears unexpectedly on your doorstep. It is extremely dangerous. And you do not let someone know you are home alone.
A series of skills may be employed at this juncture. This may be a DEFCON 1 situation, or attempts may be made to defuse the encounter or evade it entirely. In general, I try to approach moments like these with calm, directness and a very level sense of zero bullshit tolerance. It mostly works, but it doesn't always.
At this point in the story, I didn't know if my visitor would be back. I didn't really know if he had left. I didn't know where he was going, as it sounded like he didn't know himself. I knew he wasn't from around here, and I also knew he had probably clocked that I was on my lonesome, with the exception of my muppety dog.
I asked my friend to come over, and she did. When she arrived, I went out to retrieve the flower.
I'm going to add another wrinkle: The man who showed up on my doorstep was black. I was vulnerable because I was a woman home alone; he was vulnerable for a whole host of other reasons knit up in the mess of structural racism in this country.
The lights were on, and I was home. He could see me. If he needed help, it was much safer to come directly to a house that had someone in it, rather than walk door to door hoping someone would trust him enough to answer before an onlooker decided he was casing houses on our street.
I know my neighborhood pretty well; on my street, we have a mix of mostly older couples and medical students, and everyone seems to be Asian, white, Mediterranean or Latino. A lone black man stands out a mile on a road like this.
I thought of Renisha McBride. I thought of all of the encounters wherein black men have the police called on them simply for walking through predominantly white neighborhoods--sometimes the ones in which they live. I thought of every bad thing that could happen to someone who needed help as they traversed unfamiliar streets in the rain under a cloud of curtain-twitching suspicion. I was not the only one at risk.
It is always scary when a strange man shows up in the darkness of night, unannounced and unexpected, when a woman is home alone--no matter what color he may be. It was an odd encounter, and it rattled me. His request for help could have been a contrivance to persuade me to open the door for other reasons. I had to hope for the best.
Before I went to bed, I put the flower in water. I decided to trust that it was a peace offering, and that sometimes it's scary and awkward to ask for help.