Self-Defense: On Balancing Compassion and Vigilance
Updated: Jan 22
It was the Saturday before Christmas and I was running errands in downtown Los Angeles. I had just finished my workout and needed to grab a bite before finishing up my day.
Though I was in Grand Central Market looking for holiday gifts from local artists, I wasn't interested in standing in one of those long food lines with the tourists and hipsters. So I went next door to the low-key Taco House #1 for a bite out of the way and for a bit of peace and quiet.
As I finished eating a young woman appeared in the doorway. She stood there for a moment dazed as she surveyed the room. A faint odor of sleeping on the streets came off of her. I’m bad at guessing ages and life on the street does things to a person’s face that make it even harder to tell – but I would put her at about 22. Her hair was black, thick and disheveled. She was scanning the tiny dining room for leftover food on the tables. I had on a baseball cap to protect my freshly showered post-workout hair from the chill. And in moments like these the cap serves a second purpose, the bill shielding my eyes allowing me to observe my surroundings discreetly.
Cautiously she wandered around the cramped and nearly vacant dining room. My heart went out to her and I was torn. I felt bad for her, but I was also wary. I didn’t know her state of mind and hungry people often become desperate.
I immediately thought of Rory Miller’s model of using Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to understand violence. At the end of the day, we are all meat bags that need food to survive. Everyone single one of us, when desperate enough, are capable of anything.
My thoughts weren’t purely academic, however. As I watched her, a series of memories flashed through my mind:
CUT TO: A family owned taco stand in Koreatown.
A large man stalked into the dining area and belligerently demanded food from the patrons. He had to be forcibly removed by the staff.
Within a few minutes he returned. At my table he quickly swiped the to-go container from in front of my friend and then spit on her. As he approached, I had armed myself with a thick coke bottle but he quickly disappeared by hopping onto a nearby bus.
CUT TO: A sunny afternoon on Hollywood Blvd
One of the homeless regulars in the midst of a loud and violent mental health crisis. In her 20's with short blonde hair, her face is often thickly covered in white pancake makeup. Sometimes she rants, other times she mutters quietly, and a few times she's propositioned me to come work for her pimp.
On this day she was swinging wildly at passersby and demanding that they stare at the sidewalk as they passed. Avoiding her initial swing, I stopped to ask if she was OK. She swatted me on the nose with her cardboard sign. It wasn't much of a strike, but it was a stark reminder that I foolishly got too close.
CUT TO: 4am, my apartment in Hollywood
Over the last few months a crew of meth-heads has set up camp in my neighborhood. Being consistently woken up by their screaming at 4 in the morning over time has seriously lowered my threshold of compassion for the down-and-out.
Back to the present:
While these memories played in my head, a couple got up from their table and left. From there the young woman moved skittishly toward their table. She sat down and began to eat their left-overs. Though she displayed none of the belligerence of those earlier encounters, I remained wary. I imagined her as fierce and scrappy in order to survive on the streets as a small, young woman. It takes a lot of trauma to end up on these streets – and who knows what horrors she appeared to have endured since then.
My heart could take no more.
Under the table and out of her sight I rummaged through my back pack to the secret spot where I keep a small amount of easy-access cash separate from my wallet. I found a few bucks and tossed them on my table as I stood up to leave.
As I started to exit I realized that despite my intentions of the money being for her, if she were caught taking it, it would appear that she was stealing. Not wanting to make her day any worse, I realized the only way to get her the cash was to hand it to her directly.
Her head was down in a bowl of menudo soup when I approached.
“This is for you," I told her.
She looked up.
“Thank you," she said in a small, lost voice straight out of Dickens.
I was taken aback at how soft her voice was - the sound of it broke my already fragile heart. Stunned and not knowing what else to do, I turned and left. I regret not doing more for her. She was just blocks away from the Skid Row shelter where I volunteer teaching self-defense. I haven’t stopped thinking about her and have been keeping an eye out for her since.
That soft, fragile voice. It was not what I was expecting after watching those memories play in my head. It was a sharp contrast to everything that I imagined could possibly go wrong if I approached her.
She simply seemed grateful to have been offered any kindness.
Pushing aside the memories of the loud and aggressive Spitter, White-Face-Girl and the neighborhood tweekers all I could see was that right in front of me was a young, hungry woman with the voice of the child.
It is such a tough balancing act that comes up frequently in Asphalt Anthropology. Many people take the class because of their fear of homeless people. And others fear their compassion will get them into trouble.
A primary goal of the class is to identify cues that could lead to violence. In class the compassionate side of me takes a back seat to the practical side that emphasizes:
If a stranger's mental state is questionable, avoid and create distance.
And here, in Taco House #1, not for the first time, I found myself ignoring my own advice. I guess you could say that her shy, tentative movements were cues I used to decide to take a chance on approaching her.
May we all carry into the New Year the mindfulness that allows us to stay present to what is and react accordingly – rather than live in our heads and be ruled by fear.