December 4, 2001
High Alert


There is a man standing in the middle of the Dirt Company ladies room.

It's 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 mid-afternoon "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.

"Howdy," I say to him calmly. "I think you've got the wrong bathroom."

He's 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 incoherent.

"Ifsh gotta getta godda," he mumbles.

Still 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.

It 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 physical contact.

He smells like old liquor and new tobacco.

"Sorry 'bout that," he mumbles. "Ain't nodda bin summa walkin' ... y'know?" And he slouches off down the hallway, all loose-limbed attitude and practiced insouciance.

As 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.

I 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 building security.

Later 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.)

It 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.



tell 'em secra sent you

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you really DON'T read *footnotes,* do you, david?
but that's ok.
really!
it's ok!
it just means that i can TALK about you behind your back!
i can tell them what i'm getting you for CHRISTMAS, for instance!
or i could tell them that you gave the tv remote control a pet name!
[he calls it "BINKY."]
in fact ... i don't WANT you reading *footnotes* anymore!
seriously!
go away right now!!