December 4, 2001
is a man standing in the middle of the Dirt Company ladies room.
3 p.m., and I've just popped into the bathroom to pee and to powder
my nose. (Or as we professional Executive Asses refer to it, the
"Squat-and-Blot.") When I walk through the door, there he is, standing
next to the Tampax machine, looking at me in
surprise, instead of the other way around.
I say to him calmly. "I think you've got the wrong bathroom."
young: no more than 19 or 20, tops. Dressed in the uniform of the day
-- baggy pants, baggy sweatshirts, baggy cap on his head -- he looks
exactly like any other West Oakland gansta wannabe hanging out in the
women's bathroom. (In other words: he looks exactly like my son. Except that my son wouldn't be
caught dead in the ladies room, let alone hanging around in front of
the tampon machine. And except that if my son attempted to walk out of
the house with the crotch of his pants dangling down around his knees,
his father would have him enrolled in military school by evening.) But
this kid doesn't project the bluster and menace necessary to pull off
the look. Mostly he just seems sort of startled and uncomfortable and
gotta getta godda," he mumbles.
willing to give him the benefit of the doubt -- if not the territorial
advantage -- I open the door a little wider. "The men's room is across
the hall," I say pleasantly but firmly.
doesn't even occur to me to be frightened. We are the only two people
in the bathroom -- indeed, we are probably the only two people in this
mostly-deserted section of the building -- but I don't think
about being scared until later. (Much, much later, as a matter of fact
... like right now, as I'm telling you about it, several hours after
the fact, when I start to consider all of the *what-ifs* of the
situation. What if he'd been armed? What if I'd been carrying my purse
with me, with all my credit cards and family photos and Tropicana
coupons in it? What if no one had been able to hear me scream?) Mostly, at that
moment, I just want him to get the hell out of the bathroom so I can
take care of business. Still, I find myself involuntarily squeezing
flat against the doorway as he shuffles past me, not wanting to risk
smells like old liquor and new tobacco.
'bout that," he mumbles. "Ain't nodda bin summa walkin' ... y'know?"
And he slouches off down the hallway, all loose-limbed attitude and
soon as he disappears around the corner and down the farthest end of the
long, dark hallway, I shut the bathroom door. I attend to my bathroom
business, quickly and without fuss, and when I'm finished I scurry back
to The Dirt Company, keys in hand. Everybody keeps their doors locked
in this building. Keys are required to get through the main door, to
get into the library, to get into the lunch room, even to get into the
elevator during off-hours. (Everywhere, ironically, except to get into
the bathrooms.) At first I thought this was all sort of paranoid and
weird -- and inconvenient -- but now I'm beginning to understand the
wisdom of it.
mention the ladies room encounter to JoAnne. "He's probably looking for
the job services office," she says grimly. "They get off on the third
floor by mistake, and then they wander around until somebody shows them
where to go." And she picks up the phone and dials the number for
in the afternoon I see the kid again, being escorted out of the
building by two uniformed police officers. Although he isn't
handcuffed, it is clear that being removed from the premises is not his
idea. There is some speculation around the office that this might be
the person who broke into the basement laboratory, earlier in the week.
Or perhaps he's the person responsible for the rash of parking lot
vandalism recently. (Privately, I wonder if I singlehandedly foiled a
Tampax machine theft in progress.)
doesn't matter, anyway. He's gone. The Dirt Company is a
microscopically safer place to work, at least for this afternoon. We
may still need to maintain a state of high alert -- here as much as
anywhere else in the world, these days -- but for the rest of the
afternoon, at least, I know I can probably walk into the ladies room
and not worry about *what-ifs.*
And -- according to JoAnne -- they'll be installing locks on the bathroom
doors on Friday.