A couple days ago I was riding my bike around my neighborhood, soaking in the last few rays of golden hour before my corner of the earth turned its back on the sun for the night. I love looking to the east at sunset on these long summer days and seeing the sunlight turn deep orange before sliding off the top of the mountains.

I rode my normal route around my block. I passed the grocery store, as usual. As I turned the corner I saw 3 wide-eyed kids hastily fleeing the parking lot. Something seemed off, so I asked them, “Is everything ok?”

“That guy keeps saying we stole his money. He’s got a knife,” a little boy of about 10 said.

He was riding his bike and two older girls, probably 13 or 14, were on foot with him. I lifted my head to look beyond them, and in the parking lot I saw one of my neighbors pacing back and forth in front of his car, looking distraught and glancing up at us periodically.

“You guys are ok though?” I asked.

“Yeah, we’re ok.”

I’ve never been in a seriously dangerous confrontation before. Thoughts empty, body full of adrenaline, and hyper aware of the knife in his possession, I felt the urge to place myself in between the man and the kids, so I walked towards him as they crossed the street and made their escape.

I don’t know this guy. I’ve interacted with him briefly once or twice in passing, but beyond recognizing his face and his car, I don’t know who he is. He looks about my age, mid-20s, or a little younger. He’s been friendly every time we’ve interacted. But now, he was fuming. Thoughts empty, body full of adrenaline, I felt the need to place myself in between the man and the kids as they made their escape.

I don’t know for sure what happened. I didn’t think to ask the kids to confirm, but it seemed unlikely that they stole money from him.

I gently approached him and asked if he was ok and if I could help him. Still pacing and visibly frustrated, he spit out vulgarities accompanied by actual spit as he told me his story. A thick vein protruded from his forehead. What he said was mostly incoherent, but what I gathered was that he believed one of the kids had stolen money out of his unlocked truck while he was in the store. He said $100 at first but changed to $500. He also mentioned that he can’t pay rent.

During his tirade I noticed his hand reach into his right pocket and pull out that little orange switchblade. He looked at me, mouth trembling and inner conflict on full display, he fiddled with his knife, never opening it fully but toying with the possibility.

“Hey man, you know me. I’m your neighbor, the guy with the red truck,” I said. His eyes flickered as he ran through memories, and for a moment his tension broke into a slight smile, reminiscent of something friendly and familiar, as he said, “Camper,” confirming he knew who I was.

That didn’t last too long, and he went back to his car and continued talking to himself while I stepped back. We were in the corner of the grocery store parking lot right by a little shaved ice stand (you can see this towards the bottom left of the photo, across the street from the McDonald’s sign). Five older teenaged girls, maybe 16, came up to get some shaved ice. I stayed close by and observed from the sidewalk as he probed them from afar, shouting “Are you with them?! Did you steal the money?!” They didn’t seem too bothered and he never got that close to them.

I ended up talking with him a little bit more, just trying to be empathizing and not reactive at all. I hung around until the teenagers left the scene, then I rode my bike home. I saw him come back to the apartment complex less than 5 minutes later.

Outside the context of self-defense, pulling a knife on anyone, especially kids, is never ok. I was appalled and startled by the situation, and I’ll admit I was curious too. I don’t know this guy’s story, but I don’t believe he really wanted to hurt anyone. I think he’s having a really hard time and doesn’t know how to handle it properly. He probably was affected financially by the pandemic, and there are probably numerous other things in his life not going his way, some of which is his fault, some not. I’m sure he feels powerless based on his comment about not being able to pay rent. Things aren’t going his way, and he’s looking for answers, looking for someone to blame. So in a moment of panic, he lashes out on some kids who are much younger than him because it gives him a sense of power and control, albeit fleeting, amongst an ocean of uncertainty weighing him down.

That’s my guess. I can totally empathize with the feeling of powerlessness, and I can even imagine a scenario in which I could be pushed farther than I normally would go. We’re all human, and we’re emotional creatures, and it’s good to be aware of that. Pulling a knife on innocent kids is an absolutely inexcusable action, but there’s more to his story than this one situation and a healthy amount of empathy can only make things better. I try to look at the situation from that lens, assuming he’s a normal person who did something not worth being proud of – a reality I’m sure we’ve all faced. Luckily it didn’t go any farther than it did.

I saw him from my window today walking his dog through the neighborhood with a smile on his face, enjoying the day. I haven’t interacted with him since that incident a few days ago.

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