"Hey, can you spare a few bucks?" the homeless man asked my husband, politely. He was Caucasian, of that indeterminate age that people who've been exposed too long to the elements or suntanning reach, tall and rail thin, clad in shabby faded clothing. We had just pulled in to a fast-food place off the Strip near the University of Tennessee to get some smoothies.
"Sorry, no," Tony answered. "I don't carry cash." This is true. We almost never do.
The homeless man shrugged and didn't make an issue of it. He thanked Tony for our time.
Then, Tony went inside to buy our smoothies leaving me in the car with the windows rolled down. I leaned back in the seat and made myself comfortable. If Tony had been sitting in the car, the A/C would have been on, but I have the body temperature of a lizard, and I welcomed the 80-plus degrees outside and the fresh air. Least I thought I was going to.
I actually hadn't noticed the man sitting in the parked SUV next to us with his windows rolled down until the homeless man approached him.
"Hey, can you spare a few bucks?" I heard the homeless man ask right next to me. Again, he was still polite.
"No," the man barked angrily. "I've got a gun and if you don't get away from me now, I'll shoot you dead. I've got every right to do it, too."
What_the_fuck? I felt like someone had poured one of the aforementioned smoothies down my back. My heart sped up and I considered what to do. I didn't have my phone on me and there was no way I could get out of the car since the man in the SUV was parked right next to me and I didn't want to step out in front of the confrontation. Honking the horn would just bring Tony out in a hurry--potentially to be shot.
I had my cane folded up and that'd make a decent weapon, but I'd have to get in close-order with a man who was potentially armed. Didn't seem like a wise idea to me.
Stay ducked down? I couldn't bring myself to do that, either. The one thing I learned from dealing with bullies was you shouldn't give up ground or you'd end up in a corner getting pommeled.
I sat up, turned to the man in the SUV and looked him in the face. Nice car, might have been a handsome man save for his expression. I recognized the hard threat of a bully--I'd seen enough of that to last my life, but what I didn't see were his hands. He was leaning forward like he was reaching for something in the console.
Our eyes met--he must have felt someone else looking at him or I made a sound, I'm really not sure. His demeanor completely changed. He straightened up and pasted on a smile.
"Look, I have some friends who are with a church...maybe they can get you some help..."
What_the_fuck once more. I really wasn't sure what was going on. The homeless man moved in closer to the SUV and the two of them started talking affably. Now, if someone had made that threat to me, I'd have been out of there, but desperation makes strange companions and maybe the homeless man thought the SUV driver had a change of heart about shooting him.
I wasn't so sure, honestly. Either the driver was serious or he was working on the Knoxville equivalent of Best Actor.
About that time, Tony came out with our drinks and I told him to get the hell out of there. Once we were out of the parking lot, I explained.
Tony just shook his head. I didn't think anything more about the situation until I heard about "Stand Your Ground" and I did the research to discover Tennessee has a "Stand your Ground" law. So, that's what the SUV driver meant about having the right to shoot a homeless man asking politely for change?
What had I witnessed that summer day? I'm still not sure. The SUV driver was definitely threatening the homeless man and from my vantage point, he was reaching for something to make good on that threat. In my opinion, he hadn't had sufficient provocation, but if I hadn't been sitting there, it'd potentially have been his word against a dead homeless man's.
Would the homeless man have gotten shot if we hadn't been there? That's a question I can't answer. I don't consider myself any kind of a hero--I was just a person who was there and was going to look another bully in the face. In this instance, that tactic changed the man's demeanor.
Do I think the Stand your Ground law is right? Everyone has the right to defend themselves, but a person in a vehicle has a distinct advantage over a non-threatening person in a public place. The problem is, of course, the live person--particularly one with the means to own a nice car--is going to be the one listened to over the corpse of a street person.
As a co-worker once said: "It ain't right, but it's real."
I'm hoping the Trayvon Martin case will change state's minds about Stand Your Ground. I definitely think no one should be allowed to kill another person without a hearing in court.
Rebecca McFarland Kyle, June 2012