Third Rail

Being an 11-year-old was sort of an unsung milestone. Caught between single digits and teen years, eleven is usually regarded as a bothersome transition period. But in school, 11-year-olds were in the 6th grade. Sixth graders had earned a degree of trust and responsibility: perhaps carrying housekeys or getting to and from school alone. And at some point, being put on notice that it was time to pay closer attention to the rest of the world. You'd gotten this message during a 6th grade class period devoted to the dangers of train tracks. The school chose a day for everyone to hear and read about a collection of young people close to your own age, who'd each found themselves in harm's way after making some extremely poor decisions around train tracks. But you already knew that subway tracks were not toys, and you had become an expert in not looking for trouble. Your walk home from school was usually peaceful, which is why the loud, insistent honking of a car horn caught you off-guard on this particular day. When you turned around to look, you saw a man sitting in a boxy little navy-blue car. He was on your side of the road, a little ways behind. The honking horn belonged to the car behind him. You had no idea why he was being honked at, but he was looking at you as if he knew you'd understood the situation completely. This guy, close to your parents' age, with pale skin, black curly hair stuffed under a newsboy cap, and pudgy face clean-shaven except for a bushy mustache, held your gaze for a moment. Then he raised his hands and shoulders together in an exaggerated shrug and quickly drove off. The sight of him with that mustache, shrugging off the honking motorist behind him, looked like some comedy you might have seen on tv, so you were certain it was supposed to be funny. Reflexively, you laughed out loud. It had been a joke and you were in on it, for once. It felt great, even though you weren't exactly sure what the joke was. A cluster of tiny bubbles was forming inside your chest – a feeling you couldn't describe. Was it the fact that the guy wasn't behaving like any other adult you'd known? He had looked you in the eye, hard. He shared his joke, as if you were equals. He wasn't being mean – that manner you could easily identify. But this was harder to figure out. You didn't know what to make of this strange behavior. But you were just a few minutes from home, at the foot of the very steep road you climbed each day; your house waited at the other end. After about 12 steps up the hill, you heard another horn honking. The boxy blue car was stopped several feet back, with the pudgy guy sitting inside. He motioned you toward the car. This was even farther outside the norm for you, but you complied. It's at this point when you're usually called upon to explain what you'd been thinking when you made the choice to move towards your own third rail. An 11-year-old girl walking to the car of a total stranger. You'd had lessons and warnings that bad things could happen. But like the kids on the tracks, you simply believed that they wouldn't. The guy invited you to get in his car; he was going to take you for an ice cream. When you asked him why he wanted to do this, he responded with another shrug. “I like you,” he offered with a smirk. That answer had been enough for you. In disgust, you turned away from the car and resumed your march up the hill, toward home. Once again, you'd misunderstood everything. He was not a hapless driver looking to you for understanding. He was just a creep. Finally at the top of the hill, you were surrounded by the 3-story homes that made up your neighborhood. Your hand had located the house-keys in your pocket before you'd even reached the front door of your home. Safely inside, you dropped your heavy bookbag on the dining room table and went to the living room to switch on the tv for company. Your older brother had not gotten home yet, and your parents were not due from work for another 4 hours. You returned to the living room with snacks and settled in front of the tv. Remote in hand, you began to flip through the channels for anything to erase the thought of the pudgy guy, and the uneasy feelings he'd left you with. You felt exposed, confused. It hadn't yet occurred to you to feel angry. That would come years later when you'd left childhood completely and understood that sometimes trouble didn't wait to be found. Sometimes it showed up uninvited and tied up traffic just to get your attention. You finally found something funny to watch and felt the tension in your shoulders begin to ease. On the screen was a program your brother liked to watch: an older show with three guys, friends or brothers, who always found reasons to hit each other. It wasn't your kind of humor, but you left it on anyway. It couldn't hurt to stare at these guys for a while. At least they did not stare back.

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