Thursday, October 11, 2012

Strangers with crooked intentions

I really shouldn't go out anymore. Call it paranoia, but exploring even the most populated parts of London in the evening means dealing with some world-class strangers. I say that with an emphasis on strange.

I like that I've had colorful experiences walking around the city at night and being approached by random people, as disturbing as the stories may be at times. With some innocently asking for directions, others being flirty or silly, still others being furtive and creepy beyond belief, there's no one type of person you'll encounter in this city. And in the space of a few hours I encountered way too many different ones.

Basically, I told myself I was going to do something tonight. I found out that a band I like was going to be doing an autograph signing in the city around 5:30, but because it seemed like a wasted effort and because I have a class during that time slot (dang my moral compass), I didn't go. I sat through a discussion section and forgot that there was anything across town worth seeing.

But I determined that I'd be going that direction sooner or later. And after class I made my way to Piccadilly Circus.

The first incident occurred as I was walking down Upper Woburn Place toward Russell Square Station. It was raining pretty hard and I was trying to weave around the crowds in the street so I could get on the Underground as quickly as possible. But with every effort I made to cross a street on a red light, every step I skipped to get around some dumbo who refused to alter their walking path so as to not hit other pedestrians, I realized it was a lost effort.

This man came up to me, friendly enough, but a little flustered and clearly running around London on his own. "Excuse me, can you tell me where Russell Square Station is?" I answered him, "It's just up this road and on the left."

I knew this answer. I've done this walk before. I was even headed to Russell Square Station myself. I think it was my accent which didn't quite appeal to him, though, despite my confidence. A few seconds later, as we stood at the same pedestrian light waiting to cross the street, he asked some other girl...

"Excuse me, can you tell me where Russell Square Station is?"

Originally, I'd planned to keep an eye on the guy to make sure he made it to our mutual destination. But assuming he no longer cared for my help, I returned to my quickened pace to the station through the downpour of rain. I never saw him again, but I hope he did find Russell Square Station.

When I got to Piccadilly Circus, I was out of my mind with confusion. I must have metaphorically had the word "tourist" imprinted across my face, what with the troubled expression, the quick glances at my junky Android phone and the hoodie I was wearing which had the name of my American university clearly printed across the front.

Luckily, everyone in the square looked comparably crazed. At least I was not alone. Perhaps because it's made with so many tentacles of streets coming out of it, that when you come out of a random tube station exit in Piccadilly Circus, it's almost impossible to get your bearings without GPS on hand.

But when I did find part of my destination - the Waterstones where the band I had thought about meeting would be signing - I was no longer treated with the disinterest that all of Piccadilly Circus had thoughtfully granted me moments before.

I walked into Waterstones again to get my bearings. Then I walked out. Then I talked to an employee to see whether or not it was worth it to wait in line to meet the band. Then I figured it wasn't. Then I walked away.

Then a police officer started following me.


Yeah, a police officer started following me. As I walked past him, I felt that strange clairvoyant feeling of being followed. I kept moving, but sensed he was behind me and whipped my head around to see he was doing just that. He asked me if I needed help with something. I asked him where Air Street was. He had no idea what I was talking about. I decided to brush off the incident and find some non-creepers to talk to instead.

This second incident did not go unnoticed by others. A Waterstones employee came up to me asking if everything was all right. "I've never seen anyone being tailed by an officer like that. He was being very strange." I thanked her for her concern, but walked away from the mob around Waterstones so I could find Anthropologie and retreat into the haven of fitting rooms where I could try on dress after dress for all eternity.

After a stint of finding clothing, trying on clothing, requesting clothing in a different size and buying clothing, I walked back to Piccadilly Circus. Surely after a night of weird encounters, I wasn't going to be faced with yet another weirdo.

But when you go to tourist-heavy London, you're bound to meet someone random.

Again, I looked confused. Maybe that's the culprit. If I look confused, I draw attention. If I draw attention, then disturbed police officers with no sense of direction come up to me and ask if I need help. But first they stalk me.

Anyway, the point is that I looked flustered again when a man came up to me.

"I saw you walking the other direction and I thought 'she is cute.' Do you have a nice personality to match?"

Listening to his speech - which was spoken with a tinge of some ethnic tongue (I couldn't tell you which) - my expression of concern (the look I give to anyone who startles me by calling my attention on the street) turned to one of sarcastic disdain.

"Sure," I said, answering the question about having a nice personality. Not to be conceited of course, but I wasn't about to say I have a bad personality.

He looked eager and in the split second before he could speak again, I added "but I'm really in a rush, so I have to go. I'm sorry."

And I ran away.

From there I went to a store that sells Japanese goods and bought some instant noodles so I can be a typical college student. Then I went back home as quickly as possible, anxious to get away from anyone else with the gall to call me "cute" or ask if I "need help."

It reminds me of this one time I was walking through London with my dad and a man was walking the opposite direction on the pavement. As my dad and I crossed the street, the man grabbed my arm (I was only about 17 years old at the time) and said "hey baby." Before I could even think to react, he'd let go of my arm and continued walking and so had we. The moment was history.

I returned to the scene of that several year old incident yesterday. And it reminded me of just how unpredictable this city is. In the wake of these moments of weirdness, confusion and downright awkwardness, I could say that I don't want to go out anymore. That I'm better off confining myself to my flat where no men can bother me.

But when I was back on that street corner, there weren't any losers around. There was no one trying to grab my arm. I felt safe in a place where years ago I felt my privacy had been compromised. If I lock myself up from experience because I worry that these sorts of things could happen, then I'll never see anything.

And what's more, I'll never have anecdotes to tell you.

So I guess it's all worth it? Maybe. At least I got to go shopping.

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