A Cautionary Tale at Christmastime

This column started out to be a cautionary tale for anyone doing last minute Christmas shopping. KEEP YOUR WITS ABOUT YOU!!!

The story I’m about to tell happened to my friend Ann on a sweltering afternoon back in August. Ann describes herself as “a gray-haired lady in my 70s who’s not as spry as I used to be.” She made a quick stop at the Cookeville Walmart and carried her purchases—a package of cotton skivvies (her term, not mine) and a jar of pimentos—out to the parking lot in a single shopping bag.

Ann unlocked her compact SUV and opened the driver door. “I tossed my purse and my purchases onto the passenger seat and then began the somewhat comical process of bending my stiff knees and swiveling my stiff hips so I could slide in behind the steering wheel,” she told me. That’s when she heard a man’s voice near her ear, speaking so softly she couldn’t make out the words. “I looked over my shoulder and there he was, standing close enough that he could have stabbed me.” She described the man as older and scruffy-looking, with a scraggly salt-and-pepper beard. His jeans and button-front shirt were dirty and a faded pink-and-white quilt was draped around his shoulders. Ann saw no sign of a weapon, but she did note that the man was holding a cardboard sign that read NEED WORK.

Heart pounding, Ann managed to get in the car and lock the doors. Without looking back, the man walked away.

So is that the end of the story? Not quite. With trembling hands, Ann cranked the motor and headed for home, a million “what ifs?” racing through her mind. What if the man had managed to grab her purse and run away with it? What if he had pushed her down, snatched her keys and stolen the car? What if he’d forced her into the car and driven off with her in it? What if he was trying to do the same thing right now with some other unwitting victim?

When she arrived home, Ann called the police but was told it was too late for them to do anything about it. Loitering and approaching customers isn’t allowed in store parking lots, she was told. They were glad she was unharmed. Next time, they said, call as soon as it happens.

That’s not the end of the story, either.  Looking back on that day, Ann says she learned a couple of important lessons: Always, always, always pay attention to what’s going on around you. And position your car seat so that getting in will be quick and easy.

But beyond those lessons is the flip side of the coin. Ann regrets being so focused on herself that August afternoon that she failed to consider how she might have helped this man who was clearly down-and-out. “Since the pandemic began, we have more street people in Cookeville than I could ever have imagined,” she says. “It breaks my heart. I’m often tempted to keep a bunch of five dollar bills in my purse and hand them out to anyone who asks.”

Authorities caution that giving out cash isn’t a good way to address the issue. What about offering food? “Even though all I had was a jar of pimentos, I wish I had asked the man if he wanted them,” Ann says. “Maybe I should keep peanut butter crackers on hand in case such a thing happens again.” At the very least, she wishes she had looked the man in the eye and offered him a smile. “I could at least have acknowledged his humanity,” she says, “even if I had nothing to give him.”

Perhaps that’s the real lesson from this cautionary tale, at Christmas and always.

(December 18, 2021)