We rely on our instincts for survival.
Birds don't fly near crouching cats. Small dogs jumped by big dogs surrender belly up.
But what happens when our instincts drive us into life-threatening situations?
A few months ago, I was robbed and survived largely because my instinct led me to do the right thing. But just weeks later, my instinct would misdirect me, putting my life and another person's life at risk during a similar robbery. The two experiences have left me a changed person.
The first robbery was rife with ironies and misperceptions. I was working on a story about residents on the Venice boardwalk. Stephanie Fields, who lived there in an apartment, wanted to prove to me her Venice was a safe one. I was willing to be convinced, having lived just blocks away myself without even a car radio getting swiped.
By 9 p.m. that Friday we had walked the boardwalk, passing the usual menagerie of colorful transients, locals and dogs. Ready to leave, I was bolstered by the thought that indeed the gritty, pseudo-Bohemian, free-spirited Venice I loved was not a perilous place.
We walked to my car at Main Street and Westminster Avenue. As I stepped off the curb, I noticed two boys. They mumbled something unintelligible. I thought they were asking us for directions. They spoke again. I bent toward them, straining to understand what they were saying.
"Do you have a wallet?" said one of them.
They looked about 13, with pimply faces, shaved heads and tiny frames swimming in clothes many sizes too large.
"I don't have a wallet," Stephanie responded, her face blanching.
The boys' heads whipped nervously from right to left and they jumped off the curb toward me. I found myself staring down at the face of a scared boy, who had pulled a gun from his waistband and was pointing it halfheartedly at my stomach.
"I need your wallet," he insisted, holding the gun with his palm turned up as if he were offering me an injured bird.
"You need my wallet?" I asked.
"Yeah," chimed the boys, so small I could have sat on them as a form of defense.
We heard the click of the gun being cocked.
I am a mother, I thought. I can't get killed. These little punks are so scared, I told myself, they're going to accidentally blow me away.
Sanely opting for self-preservation, I handed my wallet over. The boys grabbed it, spun on their heels, sprinted around the corner and yelled: "We're sorry we had to do this, but we really needed the money."
Stunned, Stephanie and I parted. The police took my report. They said the boys' apology indicated they had some semblance of a conscience--probably derived from the influencing forces of a mother, teacher or priest. That provided little solace. I was irritated that their success at robbing me would be the encouragement they needed to do it again. I had played a part in their criminal beginnings.
Only weeks later, another robbery took place, but this time I was a witness, not a victim.
It happened at 6:45 p.m. on a Sunday night as I pulled up in front of my house in Santa Monica. I noticed two boys running in a crouched position past our lawn. Garbed in clownishly large clothes, like the boys who had robbed me, they picked up their pace, taking off toward a man who was walking on the sidewalk several houses up the street.
Call it crime radar, or call it instinct, but I sensed they were predators. I switched on my brights and drove after them.
As I caught up to them half a block away, I pulled my car horizontally across the street and pointed my headlights in their direction. By that time, the boys had their prey, a local bartender I recognized. He was pinned between them--one had a gun in his chest, the other had yanked his arm up to his shoulder blades behind his back.
Outraged, I thought I could embarrass, shame or threaten these boy robbers into abandoning this crime.
I banged my horn, rolled down my window and screamed like a foulmouthed harridan.
"I am calling the police, you little . . . I see you. I see what you are doing."
I felt exhilarated, but kind of insane. The robbers seemed unmoved. They glanced at me, then rifled through their victim's fanny-pack and took his watch, a necklace and a ring.
Then they were gone. The bartender told me he had just concentrated on not getting himself killed. I had felt the same way when I was robbed. Then I put his life in some danger by doing what I thought was the right thing. Why did I act so erratically and how could I have forgotten so quickly what it felt like to be the victim?
I was embarrassed and apologized. The bartender was gracious, saying, "Hey darlin', maybe you saved my life. If they had wanted to kill me, they wouldn't have done it with a witness around."
The problem is, no one can read the mind of a robber. After I recounted the second incident to the Santa Monica police, an officer said he had never heard of young criminals persisting in robbing someone with a loud, obnoxious attention-drawing idiot like myself nearby.
Neither set of robbers was ever caught. Not that I expect them to be. I lost a little cash and a fair share of peace of mind. I have altered the way I live. I no longer feel safe in my neighborhood or my old stomping grounds in Venice.
I don't feel safe anywhere. I Leave my purse at home when I go out. I drive places instead of walking. I never linger at night by my parked car. I won't take my 2-year-old outside to look at the moon from our front yard.
My instinct now tells me to cross the street or walk into a restaurant when I see 13-year-old boys coming toward me. And if they are wearing oversized clothes, I just assume, no matter how irrational the generalization, that they're hiding guns or knives.
And I no longer view adolescent boys as innocent children. I know that someday my son might look like a threat to someone who has been victimized by marauding teen-agers.
But perhaps worst of all, is the feeling that I can't always follow my instinct to act as a good Samaritan. Or at least I shouldn't do it without serious consideration of the possible outcomes and dangers. This promises to be an ongoing struggle.
Last week I noticed three adolescent boys walking down the street. Two of them, in baggy clothes, looked like they were hassling the third who was walking near them. Instinctively, I pulled to the curb, rolled down my window and yelled: "Are you all right? Are those guys hassling you?"
"No," the boy yelled back, startled at the intrusion. "Not at all."
"Just checking," I said. "Things aren't always what they seem."