Wednesday, January 15, 2014

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Alone At The Play Area (The Time I Was Mistaken For a Mall Predator)



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It must have been 2010. At the time, I was the father of a three-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter. I was attending Minnesota State University. Mel (my wife) and I agreed to meet at the River Hills Mall play area once I got out of class, around 1PM. It seemed like a logical place to meet. The plan was for me to watch our kids play, while she finished shopping.
I sat down on one of the many benches circling the play area, broke out my laptop, and waited. My cell was dead, I’d forgotten to charge it, so I didn’t know how close Mel was, but I had to assume she would be late. She had two small kids in tow. I felt it was best to just get comfortable and wait. 

The play area was made possible by a donation from the Mankato Clinic, so the whole thing had a medical theme. The miniature hospital, enlarged stethoscope, four-foot teddy bear dressed as a doctor, and model ambulance, were made from soft vinyl. Next to me was a shoe rack, and a few feet away was Teddy M.D. He smiled, paws open, palms up, ready to help.
The Play Area Children were fascinated by my laptop. They crept up with clammy hands, small fingers extended, and then ran away moments before contact like I was an enticing but dangerous animal.
One mother said, “Leave him alone.” And another said, “Don’t touch it. Do you know what a bubble is? … Good. He is in a bubble. Don’t enter his bubble.”
And then she made eye contact with me, a glare, that seemed to say, Why are you here, strange childless man watching children play?
It was then that I started to take notice of my peculiarity. I was, in fact, the only adult that obviously was without kids. And under further investigation, I noticed that I was also the only adult male. Mankato, the town we lived in, was large enough to have a mall, but still small enough that everyone seemed to know each other. However, life as a graduate student had been isolating. I hadn’t gotten out much. I suppose what this all boils down to is that I was an unfamiliar stranger, in a strange place, which obviously translated to a threat.
A chubby four-year-old boy, a slender five-year-old blond girl, and a two-year-old girl sporting an exposed diaper, now referred to me as “Bubble Guy.” They circled Teddy M.D. chanting, “Bubble Guy, Bubble Guy, Bubble Guy.” After a few laps, “Bubble Guy” changed to “Bubble Man.” The Blond and the Chubby Kid argued for a moment. Then they finally settled on, “Bubbly Bubble.”
As the kids went back and forth, talking about, and drawing closer to, the alone man, the mothers seemed to grow more agitated. More restless. More of them shot me suspicious looks. The mothers talked to each other. “Oh, I know. Susan is always doing that.” They talked to the children. “Isabel, you need to take your shoes off.” But they didn’t say much to me.
Mel was obviously running late, like I suspected she would, I’d been sitting there waiting for almost 30 minutes. Things really came to a head when an audacious and protective mother stood, walked towards me, and asked, “Which kids are yours?” 

She was a long and lean Midwest women, with brown spindly pulled back hair and weary eyes, a baby on her hip.
“Oh,” I said with a smile. “They’re not here.”
I was going to keep talking, but she cut me off with, “Umm-hmmm.”
I put up my right hand, “They are coming. I’m just meeting my wife here. I’m going to watch the kids while she picks up a few things.”
“Right” she said. She kept repeating the word, and nodding, her eyes narrow, hands gripping her baby a little tighter. Her face seemed to say, I’m on to you yah sick bastard.
The more I think back on this moment, the more I think about stereotypes. How do we decided who is a threat to our children and who isn’t. I don’t recall looking unusual that day. I was in a t-shirt and jeans. A pair of running shoes. I was working on an essay for one of my classes, but these moms didn’t know what was on my screen. Perhaps the moms assumed I was looking at dirty movies, or something.
Just before I moved from Utah to Minnesota, When Tristan was two, and Mel was still pregnant with Norah, I watched a story on the news of some man abducting a small girl at a Mormon thrift store. They showed the kidnapper on the news. He dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and running shoes. I remember thinking that he looked like a normal Joe. And I recall holding Tristan a little closer after that, keeping a little better watch of him, because for the first time I realized that anyone can be a predator. And the more I see similar stories, the more I become suspicious. Perhaps these ladies had seen similar stories on the news.

Slowly I started to notice a forced migration. Mothers started to steer their children away from me, corralling them on the opposite side of the play area. No children were playing on Teddy M.D. anymore. The Bubble Kids were told to play near the ambulance, some fifteen feet away. The two-year-old was removed harshly, beneath the arm of her mother.
Bubbly Bubble was alone.
Bubbly Bubble (the book)

I really didn’t know what to do. I was between a rock and a hard place. Things were getting strange in the play area, and yet I knew that if I left Mel wouldn’t be able to find me, or call me, and probably get pissed off. I was getting antsy, so I closed my computer and started tapping my palms on my thighs. I’m sure this made me seem creepier.
Eventually Mel and the children arrived, and the Play Area Mothers appeared relieved to know that Bubbly Bubble was not a sexual mall creep watching their children. He was just another dad.
I recall feeling a little offended by these ladies. I recall feeling like they misjudged me. But the sad thing is, when the roles are reversed, and I am the one at the mall with my kids, I have the same fears as these ladies. I often find myself looking at anyone out of the ordinary. And I always let my imagination run wild and assume these unusual strangers have a white panel van stashed somewhere, and that they are waiting for just the right moment to snatch my kids.
I don’t have data on this subject. I don’t know what the chances are that my kids can be taken. But what I do know is that I can’t live my life assuming that anyone who stands out at a playground or mall play area is a predator. But much like these mothers, I often do. I almost feel like I need to fight some default setting. Turn off some creeper alert to fully enjoy time out with my kids. I hate it.
 Eventually the Bubble Kids returned to my side, and the Play Area Mothers smiled and moved a little closer.

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Clint Edwards is a tutor coordinator at Oregon State University. He is also the former co-host of the Weekly Reader on KMSU and a graduate of the MFA program at Minnesota State University. His writing has been listed as notable by Best American Essays, and has been published in The Baltimore Review, and through The University of North Dakota, Boston College, Emerson College, The University of South Carolina, and Minnesota State University.