This article originally appeared on aaron-jannetti.com. No changes have been made to the text.
It was cold. I was tired. Frustrated. All I wanted to do was go home, but I couldn’t. I had to stand next to that damnable gas pump while it stalled and sputtered, trying to process my credit card. Each step in the verification process seemed to take minutes, though the machine was probably done in about three minutes. Still, as I stood there on the edge of full blown shiver, dressed in a leather jacket that wasn’t quite warm enough to deal with the foreshadows of winter, I paced and spat and cursed as my legendary impatience took firm hold of my amygdala.
I glanced into the backseat of the car, checking to see if my year-old son was sleeping or still raging against the edge of slumber. My wife smiled at me and I waved, two sets of blue eyes bringing me some warmth. But that flash of contentment withered as I turned back to the insolent gas pump. It had told me to start fueling, but that string of zeroes across the gauge and the tensionless handle. And the mounting rage.
“I hate Youngstown,” I muttered to myself, the words coming out in fogged breath. The truck stop was actually in Austintown, just a few minutes outside the old, rusted steel town, but my enmity was tolerant enough to extend to the surrounding suburbs. If you can call them suburbs.
The damn thing finally beeped and I clicked the handle, letting the gas run until the overfill device stopped the flow. I rattled the nozzle and replace it, spun my gas cap back into place and cracked the rear door.
“I’m gonna hit the head. Grab a Gatorade,” I told my wife. “Need anything?”
She shook her head, I tousled the boy’s hair and closed the door. I heard the locks engage when I pressed the button on my key, did a quit pat to make sure I hadn’t left my wallet behind—an idiosyncratic habit that allows me to check multiple things while only looking like a quick pat of my hip pocket. Wallet and knife were in my pocket, and the lack of a bump on my forearm reminded me that my pistol was secured in my vehicle where it had been for the better part of four hours.
You see, we had come back north to attend a celebration for my wife’s grandmother. It was one of those milestone birthdays, and her children had planned a surprise party. Since it was a special occasion, I decided that I’d have a drink. And having a drink meant stowing my weapon. It’s funny how three hours after I’d finished my single Old Fashioned, I had no compunction about driving, but I wasn’t willing to put my gun back on my belt. I was imagining the hypothetical conversation with the officer.
“Good evening, sir. License and registration, please. Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“Sir, I am required to inform you that I have a concealed carry license and that I am currently armed. My pistol is currently [redacted, cause you already know too much and you don’t need to know more].”
“Have you been drinking tonight?”
“Yes, sir. I had one whiskey about three—”
Conversation stops because the officer tazes me, rips me from my vehicle while shouting, “Don’t you know it’s illegal for you to be carrying while under the influence of alcohol?”
Not realistic, to be sure, but that’s how seriously I take my responsibilities when I carry. I would rather remove any and all doubt that I am handling my weapon inappropriately.
Anyhow, mirth enjoyed, we were finally making our way back home. It was already past nine and we had a nearly three hour drive ahead of us. I estimated I’d get to bed sometime around one in the morning, enjoying four whole hours of sleep before I had to get up for work the next morning. But first, I had to pee.
The truck stop was one of those all night joints with separate fueling areas for passenger vehicles and the tractor trailers. There were about twenty gas pumps in total with maybe half of them occupied. There was enough room that I didn’t bother pulling my car into a parking place. I was only going to be a few minutes, and moving my car would actually mean walking farther in that increasingly chilly wind. Not gonna happen. The place wasn’t busy enough for me to worry about propriety.
As I approached the entrance, I side-stepped a couple coming out of the attached fast food restaurant, nodded to the guy smoking a cigarette, and caught the door as it closed behind a middle-aged woman who was already turning to her right to make her way to the ladies’ restroom. I’d been here enough—this was our usual stop to top off the tank before jumping on the highway—so I made my way toward the back where the men’s room and showers were tucked away.
I was quietly singing a Refreshments song to myself as I passed by the aisles of junk food, plotting the grossly unhealthy road food I was going to buy to go along with my Gatorade. I excused myself as I walked by a guy who was looking at DVDs, and I thought isn’t it a little cold to be wearing loose, baggy basketball shorts? Walking down the hall, I turned right to enter the bathroom, but the bathroom was gone. It was only a tiny alcove that was used to store a floor buffer. I shook my head and glanced around to see if anyone had noticed my moment of idiocy; the bathroom had been moved to the other side of the hall when the place had been remodeled a few years back, so I had to mosey back up the hall, feeling like a moron.
I shook my head as I stepped through the little windy hallway, and I have a gut check moment. There’s a guy, maybe early to mid twenties, standing at the far side of the sinks. He’s a black man with a dirty gray hoodie, loose pants, and he has a backpack at his feet. He’s standing at the sink but looking at the entryway.
Something tells me to leave. Right now, turn around and walk away. I don’t know what it is, but it’s there and it’s telling me in no uncertain terms that I should find another place to empty my bladder. And then this horrible thought passes through my head, “Is it because he’s black?” Which is a stupid question. A really stupid question. But the question is in my head, and now I start thinking about how others might see the situation. If I walk out, would people think I’m being racist? Am I racist for even thinking there might be something off about this guy? Maybe, I think, there is some part of me that is amplifying my trepidation because of the color of his skin. I mean, that’s what I’m told every single day by the news and social media and opinion sites.
And I say to myself, “Whatever,” and make my way past him.
While I was going through my little insecure introspection, he had turned to the sink and was looking at himself in the mirror. The area beyond him held five urinals and three stalls. I chose the second urinal and unzipped. As I was taking aim, so to speak, I heard someone else walk into the restroom. I glanced over to see the stocky dude with the basketball shorts make eye contact with the guy at the sink and exchange a nod and a grunt. Again, there was a voice that told me to zip up and get out. Did the white guy with the three days’ growth of beard and the unseasonal sports attire know the unkempt guy at the sink? That voice insisted, but still I hesitated.
As Shorts walks past me, he is way too close. Like, he brushes the back of my jacket too close. I flash to one of hundreds of diatribes I’ve gone on when I complain to my wife about people’s complete lack of understanding of personal space. They stand too close in lines or fail to adhere to unwritten laws of elevator etiquette, and I go off on a rant about common decency. So, when this guy brushes by me AND chooses the urinal directly next to me, I nearly ignore the voice crying “danger,” and listen to the one claiming, “asshole.” As though those are mutually exclusive.
Something, though, got through. I’m alert, now, because I’m still having trouble reconciling the strange interaction between the two guys, and then the brush and the flagrant violation of Man Rules. I’m trying to act nonplussed, but my peripherals are in overdrive. I’m silently willing my bladder to hurry the process along when a third guy comes in.
I’m not willing to turn my head to look at him directly, wanting to keep an eye on Shorts to my right, but I swear that I see this new guy give the dude at the sink a glance and nod. Maybe it’s nothing but simple courtesy, but maybe—
Maybe, nothing, that voice inside says. These three guys know each other. Get out now. Right now. Turn and leave. Piss on the floor, who cares. Just get out. But I’m not willing to pee on my shoes and walk through a truck stop with my junk exposed.
This new guy—tall, black, light gray hoodie—was the same guy I saw outside on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette. And as he walks past the guy at the sink, I’m suddenly worried that this guy is gonna spike my head into the tiled wall in front of me. I briefly wonder why I would think such a thing when he stops directly behind me. Directly behind me.
He probably only stood there for a split second, but one of my common reactions to adrenal dump is the telescoping of time. Things seem to take forever to happen. My thoughts start moving incredibly quickly, and when I look back at these moments in time, I am always surprised to discover the number of things that go through my mind in between the ticks of the second hand. It only took one to prompt me, though.
“I’m adrenalized,” the thought came.
“I’m going to be attacked,” I thought.
“My body is acting and my brain is being left behind,” I thought.
“This is a freeze,” I thought.
“What a blessing to deal with a freeze before being attacked. Holy crap. Okay. I’m frozen. What do I do? He’s gonna spike your head into the wall, so deal with that. You’re gonna need to fight hard against three guys. Not good. Kill the guy behind you. Neck or gut. Poke and rip. Get in and shred him with your knife. Then run like hell. You’re gonna have to fight with your dick out.”
And that’s in quotes for a reason. The shift from first to second person. The plan of attack without details. I’ve been training krav maga and self-defense since 2009 and the tactic I intended to use was “Neck or gut. Poke and rip.” Gross motor. Nothing fancy. It was either kill the guy or disembowel him. I figured it would be hard to chase me tripping over 20 feet of intestines. And I hoped the other two wouldn’t be so keen on pushing the attack if they saw that I straight up didn’t give a fuck.
My urine flow stopped. My left hand went to the wall in front of me. My right hand found purchase on my knife, but didn’t draw. My feet shifted to a balanced stance. I tucked my chin behind my left shoulder, putting the tall guy into my sight, but sacrificing my view of Shorts on my right.
I saw that the tall guy was squared up to me, and when I moved, something changed. I didn’t see him flinch, and I don’t know if he read my sudden change in posture or saw me prepare to draw my weapon. I don’t know if I had any impact on his decision making process at all. Hell, I don’t even know for certain that I was ever in any danger, but I can tell you that the tall guy behind me took an awkward, deliberate sidestep to his left and then forward to the urinal on my left.
Again, broken Man Rules.
My blood is up, though, and I see the opportunity to leave and take it. Hand still on knife, I put myself away and walk out doing that one-handed zip that only barely works. I beeline for the sales floor and those aisles of junk food and the customers and the employees and the security cameras. And once I get there, I have a sense of safe. And now I want to know if I’m right. Will they come out of the bathroom as a group or will they leave one at a time?
Between the curiosity and the knowledge that ten minutes from now I’m gonna be crashing out of an adrenaline high I make the brilliant decision that I still need my road snacks. I grab my Gatorade, snag a box of Milk Duds, and take them to the counter, all the while keeping my eye on the hallway that leads to the restroom. The lady rings my purchase through and I have a helluva time getting my card into the little chip reader slot. I take my stuff and leave, watching the reflection in the storefront glass when I have to turn my back to that hallway.
From the time I left the restroom until the time I started my car was about 2 minutes. In that time, no one came out of that hallway. Not the guy who was at the sink. Not Shorts who had stepped to the urinal seconds after me. Not the tall guy who, likewise, had stepped to a urinal. I appreciate the fact that some people spend longer in the bathroom than others, but there’s a reason you don’t typically see long lines for the men’s room at bars and sporting events: Guys don’t typically spend two minutes urinating, and most of them either don’t wash their hands or merely get them wet and dry them off on their jeans. Three guys and not one of them comes out in that time frame?
Once we hit the highway, I told my wife what had happened, complete with my doubts that anything HAD, in fact, happened. I watched the clock, timing the drop off in adrenaline and the onset of exhaustion. The nausea, the hot, wet eyes, the creep of muscle fatigue; I’d felt it all before, so none of it surprised me. What surprised me was the onslaught of questions that kept bouncing around my skull for the next three hours.
As I pulled into my driveway a few minutes before midnight I thought that maybe I wouldn’t be getting to sleep by one after all. Lying in bed, my wife and son safely sleeping, I had the frustrating thought that I would never know if I had somehow miraculously avoided getting jumped in a truck stop bathroom, or if I had gone into fight/flight mode based on an odd chain of events and people’s lousy understanding of proxemics. I’ll never know.
And regardless of which conclusion you come to, we can all learn a bit from this tale.
Like I said, there’s two ways to approach this in order to dig out lessons, and no matter which way you come down on it, there’s things to learn. The first approach is to assume that my gut was correct, that I walked into the lion’s den and somehow managed to walk out unscathed. The other is that I completely misread the situation and worked myself up to the point where I nearly stabbed a guy to death. Frankly, I don’t care what you think, and if you really want to learn something, you’ll be able to hold both ideas as being simultaneously true.
Let’s work through the first possibility—I nearly got robbed and beaten in a truck stop bathroom. What can we learn.
Initially, we need to accept that our mental state is dynamic. There is no such thing as being situationally aware 100% of the time. That said, we can recognize those times and places where we need to engage our senses. Gavin de Becker said in his book The Gift of Fear, that there is no reason to be afraid when walking through an empty parking lot—it’s empty!—but the gas station where I was fueling my vehicle was not empty, and my thoughts were swirling and unfocused. I was standing in a transitional space and I had allowed myself to become distracted by the inefficient gas pump. I was frustrated to the point of cursing out an inanimate object. Yes, I have anger issues. No, I don’t want your advice. Yes, this was my first mistake.
After the incident had resolved, I wondered if I could have picked up on the guy smoking on the sidewalk. Was he watching for easy marks? Was he looking for distracted and unaware prey? I certainly exhibited those traits, didn’t I? But because I wasn’t fully present, there’s no way I could have picked up on his predatory watchfulness.
Walking through the sales floor, I did a little better. I noticed Shorts and thought about the foolishness of his attire. Instead of mentally marking him as an anomaly, though, I scooted right past, singing my little diddy to myself. Oblivious. And if HE were looking for inattentive fools to shake down, there must have been a giant neon arrow floating over my head as I breezed by the bathroom, only to stop, glance around and chuckle to myself like a dimwit. I had walked past a clearly marked entrance and nearly walked into a storage alcove. Pfft. Dimwit. Mistakes two and three.
The biggest mistake I made was when I finally walked into the bathroom, though, and saw the guy standing by the sinks. My instincts told me something was wrong. My immediate thought was to turn around and find another place to urinate, but I ignored it. And why? Because I allowed the social implications of my thoughts and potential actions to dictate what I actually did. I stayed in that bathroom because I didn’t want that guy to label me a racist. Heck, even writing this I wonder how many people are going to hit me with that dreaded judgment. But the fact of the matter is, again, your thoughts and opinions shouldn’t matter. If your gut tells you to get the hell out, you go right ahead and get the hell out. We’re so worried in our culture about being rude and playing by all the new social rules that we have forgotten that it’s entirely appropriate to offend someone if it means staying safe. And I let my social conscience tell me what I could and couldn’t do.
I walked past a guy, placing him between me and my exit, because I am a white man who is constantly told that I am a white man and I have all this privilege and every privileged white man is inherently racist, and “boy, I’ll show them!” But show who? Here’s the deal: Your instincts don’t care about skin color.
At that point, I was in it. Maybe I should have put up a verbal barrier when Shorts encroached my personal space on his way to the urinal. When he took the urinal next to me, breaking a social norm, I should have engaged him in conversation. At the very least, I could have acknowledged the weirdness. Maybe it would have triggered a physical confrontation, but if it did, that was likely the intention anyhow.
After the third guy came in, and I passed through those next moments without gutting him, I made my final mistake. Okay, in my mind it’s a mistake, but I’ll let you judge. If I had it to do all over again, I’d beeline for the car without hanging around to see if they were going to follow. Instead of buying goodies to pass the time in order to satisfy my curiosity, I should have bailed. I didn’t learn anything useful.
Under the assumption that my life was in danger, did I do anything right? Maybe a few, but they were way too late.
When it came to the edge of violence, I broke my freeze efficiently and put myself in the best position I could given my circumstances. Balanced stance to pivot and rotate quickly, hand on the wall to prevent myself from being slammed into the tile wall, and my other hand ready to draw my weapon to even my odds a bit. If these guys were going to jump me, this has to be the moment that saved me.
Did they guy behind me see that I was ready to draw a knife? Did he recognize that I had altered my posture to counter-attack? Did he recognize my adrenaline dump? Did he figure that a man willing to fight with his penis hanging out of his fly is a man you don’t really want to fight?
It’s these questions, this moment that makes me question whether I was being targeted at all. If they let me get that deep into the trap, why didn’t it snap closed? If they had gone this far in their choreographed dance, why didn’t they act? Why did they let me go?
The Occam’s Razor answer is that they didn’t. They never intended on jumping me. They weren’t, in fact, working together. But if that’s the case, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from my overactive imagination. So let’s work through that option.
Assuming I made the whole damned thing up in my head, what did I do wrong?
Well, being distracted in a transition space is still a really bad idea. Had I been paying attention, I would have noticed that the guy smoking was just a guy smoking and his later appearance in the bathroom was simply coincidental. But, I was cursing at a machine, so, you know, there’s that. Maybe don’t curse at machines and pay attention to my surroundings, huh?
I was distracted by my haste to get on the road, and instead of giving the sales floor a quick scan, I allowed my inefficient memory to guide me to my destination. I should have taken a moment just inside the door to look for exits, people, fire suppression systems, etc. (Not that everyone should scan for sprinkler types and gaps in suspended ceilings, but you should be looking for fire extinguishers.) Again, had I taken the time to find the restroom prior to striding down the hall, I wouldn’t have had that awkward moment at the alcove and done the whole “did anyone see me being stupid” thing.
Really, if these guys weren’t going to jump me, I could have avoided my adrenaline dump simply by letting myself be present. Being aware. Living in the moment. If I was only hyper-reactionary, it’s because my subconscious mind was doing the best it could with the scraps of information I had stumbled across. If I had tuned my awareness, it wouldn’t have triggered and I wouldn’t be writing this too-long article.
I trust my instincts. I trust my gut. When I got robbed and nearly shot in the face, I had seen the robbers about an hour before they entered my store and my thought was “If I had to describe those two guys to the police, what would I say?” And then I had to describe them to the police, so I am a firm believer that your subconscious mind picks up on and reacts to things that your conscious mind misses.
I’m going to live my life as if I narrowly avoided being beaten and robbed in a truck stop bathroom because my subconscious flagged multiple irregularities, and I simply ignored them. You can read this and come to the conclusion that I was never in danger, and that’s fine, but I don’t want you to put yourself in a similar situation. If there’s even a passing shadow of an echo of a thought that you’re in danger, trust it. If your subconscious mind sends you information that just doesn’t sit right, listen to that warning. It doesn’t need to make sense.
Don’t let social convention get you killed. Don’t let politeness be the way bad guys get to you. Give yourself permission to be rude. And I’m struggling to even write this next sentence, but give yourself permission to be racist. I’d rather you be a racist asshole who’s alive, than a too-trusting fool who ends up dead. Odds are, if you’re worried about being racist, you probably aren’t.
Back when I was teaching self-defense, I told my students all the time that it’s better to be slightly inconvenienced than to place yourself in danger. If the guy in the bathroom makes you uneasy, walk out. If the guy asking to help you with your groceries seems like a skeeze, tell him “no,” and tell him “no” boldly. If the douche at the bar is invading your space or hitting on your girl or telling you to get lost, find another bar. Better yet, quit hanging out in bars. Go home.