I never call the police. Never ever. You may think I’m paranoid, but my own experience, my cultural memory, and a recent study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says otherwise. According to the study, police are the sixth leading cause of death among young men. And if you’re black, which I am, you are 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police. So, you know, I don’t call them… except for this one time at the mall.
It was the middle of the day, and as I parked I noticed a person walking along the side of the mall toward the entrance to the food court. He was a little, skinny white guy with baggy clothes, floppy hair. He was moving very deliberately. I started walking toward the entrance and, even though he was far away, I could hear him saying something to himself. He wasn’t talking, exactly. It was more like tsking and grunting and various other guttural sounds of anger and disappointment.
I don’t like the mall either, so I get it. Then I noticed he was wearing a lanyard and his clothes looked like they could be work clothes. I figured he probably got bad news on his lunch break or was walking off a shitty customer. I’ve been there. Again, I totally get it.
He walked past the entrance and then, right as I got to the door, he turned around sharply and stalked in just ahead of me. His sounds were getting louder, his grunts becoming growls and yells like he was turning Super Saiyan. He was about fifteen feet in front of me when he turned and addressed the food court: “I hate every fucking one of you! I fucking hate Maine!”
I laughed at first, but then looked at him closely to see if he had any weapons. I couldn’t see any, so I turned around to look for that mini police station that used to be at the front of the food court. It wasn’t there anymore, but I did meet eyes with the guy behind me. He looked like a recent Army recruit. I could tell we were on the same page because he asked me what I wanted to do.
I took out my phone and said, “Shit. Didn’t there used to be a little cop stand right there?”
He said, “There’s only two officers on duty right now in South Portland.” I wanted to know how he knew that, but it wasn’t really the time to ask.
My new partner and I followed the angry Super Saiyan. We stayed close enough that we could rush him if we needed to, but not so close as to spook him. I typed 911 into my phone, but then, thinking about that study, waited to hit the call button. Our angry friend took a right out of the food court, walked past a group of five black teens and called them all the n-word.
They were stunned — so stunned, in fact, that he made it 50 feet before they yelled back, “Hey! Fuck you!” The angry guy’s response was to yell back indignantly, “I meant it in the good way!”
I waved back the teens, hit call and put the phone to my ear. No choice. Someone was definitely going to call the cops now, so it wasn’t a matter of if they’d show up, but rather what story they’d hear before they arrived. Was it going to be the one about a bunch of wild black teenagers beating the shit out of a skinny white guy, or the one about some wild skinny white guy yelling at everyone in the mall and calling black children the n-word? I called the police to make sure they got the story straight.
My partner said, “You call the cops, I’ll talk to him,” no part of which seemed like a good idea, but it was already happening. The angry guy was making his way toward the back exit as I described him to the dispatcher. My partner called out, “Hey buddy, come here a minute!”
The angry guy stopped just short of the door, whipped around, and we both looked at my new partner, confused. Then the angry guy heard what I was saying into my phone, and started screaming, “Is that for me? I don’t want that! I don’t want that!” He darted out the back door.
We followed him, but by the time we got outside he was already halfway across the parking lot. I explained that to the dispatcher. She asked if I wanted to wait for the officer to arrive. I thought about my own experience, my cultural memory and that recent study.
“No, thanks,” I said, hung up and went back inside.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.