A faith in others vs. security

My running buddy and I were just finishing our cool-down stroll when the man caught my eye. He was dressed like part of a construction crew - faded denim jeans, thick, stained jacket - only it was a Sunday evening, so he had no reason to be at the building site next to the trail where we run.

Although the highway overpass that bridged the bike trail badly needed repair, work had been halted; neither construction nor demolition had been done for weeks. That, and the fact that the man was on the site at dusk, poking among piles of planks, told me something wasn't right.

We looped back around, and I saw him again. This time he was carrying five or six of the weather-beaten boards over his shoulder. I searched his face for clues, for some way of deciding who he was. He was clean-shaven; he looked tired and determined. He caught me looking, and our eyes met. He didn't look defiant or worried or threatening. He simply held my gaze as if to say that, yes, he saw me watching him. He walked past me into the reedy, wooded overgrowth and disappeared from view.

This man clearly stole from the job site; I saw where he had stepped through a hole ripped in the fence. Also, the area was a busy cross-through for late-night commuters, and there had been recent reports of muggings and assaults. My friend asked if I would call the police when I got home. I wasn't sure.

Although I saw him walk into that no man's land near my home, I didn't know where - or to whom - he was going. The economy was bad enough; perhaps he was down on his luck and simply was trying to survive short-term homelessness. What if he had children, a family? If I sent authorities his way, what would I be setting into motion? Of course, the encampment was wrong, but I could be affecting irrevocably more than just the life of some scavenger. I could be tearing apart a family.

On the other hand, I had discovered that there was someone hidden in our midst. What would I do if it turned out he was responsible for the growing crime in the area? If I didn't get authorities involved, what might I not be preventing?

And he did, in fact, steal someone else's building material. At what point was a stranger's business my business?

I thought about it late into the night and the next day. I didn't call anyone; I didn't report what I saw. I believe it was his straightforward look and my conscious choice to assume the best intentions of strangers, even in the face of questionable behavior, that kept me from saying anything.

I'd like to believe it was optimism and not apathy that kept me quiet, but I'm not wholly comfortable with my decision. I find myself firmly unsure, equally caught between an optimistic faith in others and my concern for a community's safety. I find myself regularly checking my local newspaper's police log, and I make sure to not walk near the bushes.

Barbara Card Atkinson is a writer and mother.

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