On Monday, I had one of the weirdest experiences of my life (or at least, in the top 10). I had a bag of clothes I was going to donate to charity at the convenience center where I take my trash, but the donation bin was overflowing. The employee there told me to donate it to the help center downtown, giving me directions to where I could find it. I found the help center with no problem and dropped off the clothes. As I was leaving, before I crossed the street to get back to where my car was parked, an older gentleman sitting outside stopped me to talk. This isn’t uncommon in my community as people around here are very friendly — good ol’ southern hospitality.
Not wanting to be rude (I was taught from an early age to respect my elders), I sat on the bench next to the chair where he was sitting as he explained the help center’s services, ranging from bags of clothes for $2 to surplus produce and other food given away periodically throughout the month. At first, I thought he worked at the help center. During the course of our conversation, he asked me, “What do you do?” When I confessed that I hadn’t worked in many years, he replied that he needed someone in his store to help him organize and do light dusting. He offered to show me his shop. Not wanting to seem ungrateful for the job offer, I followed him inside the store right next door to the help center.
This is where it gets really weird.
The first thing that hit me was the odor — a mix of mildew, stale cigarette smoke, and old book smell. The store was cramped with barely enough space for one person to walk through the narrow aisles. The majority of the space was taken up by display cases holding knickknacks. I didn’t really see what was in them because there was so much to take in. Magazine racks lined at least two of the walls, displaying old comic books, other reading material, and vinyl albums (later I noticed porn on those racks, too). The back wall had shelves of toys, more knickknacks, and other odds-and-ins. The only new thing I saw in there was a huge display for Magic: The Gathering.
This is where it gets weirder.
After we were inside, he began talking about peculiar things — like conspiracy theories and how religion, government, the education system, science, and healthcare are all forms of mind control. He made some seriously outlandish claims, making it a point to stress these “facts” were “truth” and his role as a “prophet” was to help others see his truth by opening their minds to it. He pointed to a collage of words and phrases cut from magazines, taped together on the wall and told me to go over and read it. I did. It didn’t make much sense. He explained, but by this point I was a bit leery, making it difficult to pay attention.
I didn’t know how to excuse myself from this situation.
He kept talking about his theories on everything — the pyramids, heaven and hell, God and Satan, the moon landing being a hoax, 9-11 conspiracies, the Bible (specifically the Book of Revelation), his ability to read minds through mental telepathy — you name it, he probably covered it! He kept saying how his “truth” blew the minds of so many because they weren’t open-minded enough to accept it. Despite the growing anxiety I felt, this man was fascinating to listen to. The conviction of his beliefs showed through his fervor in talking about them. I actually understood where he was coming from — a fearful place in his own mind. I honestly tried to understand this reality he was presenting me with. Some of it, I’ve even thought myself; but a lot of what he was saying was completely out there, like another galaxy, out there. He spoke at lengths about so many topics that I became completely overwhelmed.
He offered me a cigarette, a Pall Mall, because I left mine in my car. I smoked it without even thinking. At the same time, he offered me a drink. I accepted a bottle of water, again, without even thinking. I tend to smoke more when I’m nervous; yet by the second offer of another cigarette a short time later, fear had already reprimanded me for accepting the first one and the bottle of water. I was so thrown by the odd conversation that I was a bit “beside myself.”
The occasional perverted statement infused with sexual innuendo reminded me of what I often had to put up with from patrons of the bar where I worked so many years ago. This type of talk disgusts me and crosses a boundary that leaves me feeling more than uncomfortable. His “prophecies” became more blatantly about sex as he explained another “sign” taped to the wall, comparing monuments to phallic symbols. Even his interpretation of an Easter yard sign had sexual connotations in his mind. (It was a sign that said, “Welcome Easter,” with a smiling bunny holding a carrot. He said the “L” separated “we come” and the bunny represented — only pointing to my crotch — and followed that up saying the carrot represented, you guessed it, a phallic symbol. He joked, “No wonder the bunny is so happy.”)
It was at this point that I knew I had to get out of there. I changed the subject, asking if he knew when the local newspaper closed as I needed to stop by there. He said he could give me a stack of papers, and he did. So, I made the excuse that I needed to head out and get to the store. He kept me there another few minutes trying to get me to pinpoint a time when I would be back to help him in his store. When I wouldn’t give him a direct time to come back, he told me to put his phone number in my phone and text him so he had my number. Yes, I know I could have simply refused; yet by this point, I honestly couldn’t gauge how this man would take rejection. I obliged and did as he asked, thinking to myself, “I can just block his phone number after I leave.”
After texts were sent, I quickly made my way to the door which I realized he had locked! I didn’t wait. I turned the dead-bolt myself and quickly made my way outside with a sigh of relief. It wasn’t until I got back to my car that reality sunk in. I could have seriously been in danger. I was in there talking with him for an entire hour! What began as curiosity and fascination with this man’s alternate reality, ended with my intuition telling me to get the hell out of there. Thankfully, he never touched me; but that fear was there.
How do I so often end up in crazy scenarios like this?!?! No, this isn’t the first time I’ve found myself in a bizarre situation that creeped me out. I was so creeped out by the time I got to Wal-Mart that I walked around in a daze, completely nauseated, and panicked. I fought the urge to go to the ER to be drug tested, in the end choosing to believe I was overreacting and simply being paranoid, triggered into hyper-vigilance. I can easily terrify myself thinking about what could have happened. Again, I put myself in a position that could have been incredibly dangerous. WHY have I done that so often throughout my life?! Am I truly that gullible and naïve? Still?!
However, this man lured me in with a job offer. I had no reason to believe prior to walking into that store that he was anything but a kind elderly gentleman offering me a job. It wasn’t until we got inside the store that he began telling me his “prophecies.” Those in and of themselves weren’t enough to frighten me. I’ve heard it all before. I simply concluded that he lives in an extremely fearful reality, something I can relate to. It was his sexual references that put me on edge, caused my own voices to sound the alarm, telling me to proceed with extreme caution. It’s a strange, scary world in which we live. It doesn’t surprise me that so many of us are exhibiting signs of mental illness. Finding inner peace is difficult.
At what point does “belief” turn into “delusion,” requiring intervention without becoming a witch-hunt?
When I left his shop, I told him, “It’s been a pleasure talking with you.” He said, “I’ll know it’s been a pleasure if you return.” I can’t ever go back there. I won’t. My own fear of jeopardizing my safety and sanity would prevent me from interacting with him again. That’s sad because I don’t think he meant to frighten me or meant me any harm; but the fact is, I could be wrong.