A pedestrian encounter leaves me "shook" after Raleigh shooting



An hour or so after hearing about the massacre of five innocent people in a Raleigh neighborhood on October 13, I left my hotel in Washington and went walking along the city’s famous Wharf to try to answer the question Marvin Gaye asked 51 years ago: What's goin' on?



At the time, little was known about the victims of the Hedingham massacre, the shooter or his motive.

About the latter two, little still is.


As I walked along, numb, a sharply dressed man in a suit and open collar sans tie marched right up to me. He seemed fidgety, high-strung.

“Excuse me. Do you have a cigarette?” he asked.



Now, under normal circumstances, this would have been no cause for alarm. I mean, similar interactions occur countless times a day anywhere people are hummin’ and bummin’ or claim to have mistakenly left their own pack of smokes in their other jacket pocket.


My normal response, taken from my late buddy Mark Bostic whenever someone tried to bum a cigarette from him, would have been “Do you smoke regular? Well, you need to @#$%& buy regular.”

What made this interaction different is that the dude invaded whatever space one thinks you’re entitled to on a public sidewalk. Homeslice was mere inches from me and the sidewalk wasn’t that crowded.

My heart was broken from the news from back home in Raleigh, and smart-mouthing him didn’t seem the right tack to take. Nor did telling him that I hadn’t bought cigarettes since they were 35 cents a pack and anyone of any age could buy them from the machine inside King’s Grocery in Rockingham.


Not gonna lie: I was, in the lexicon of the day, “shook” by what was probably just an innocent encounter.


“What?” I responded when I regained my balance, looking him in the eye while peripherally watching his hands. You know, just in case.

When he repeated his question, I stammered that I didn’t have a cigarette. He proceeded on his way, and so did I, although I kept glancing back to make sure he didn’t double back and launch a sneak attack.

Did I remind him of someone who’d somehow wronged him and he was trying to get a closer look before pouncing?

Was asking for a smoke merely an agreed upon signal to identify me as a fellow spy - and I’d failed to give the right response?


These mind machinations had me feeling foolish – until I relayed the story of my encounter to a friend. That’s when he told me that he is now incapable, in light of recent violent events, of going into a grocery story without scoping out emergency exits in case someone comes in blasting away.



If those two incidents had me wondering whether we are afflicted with a national paranoia, a third incident removed all doubt and confirmed it.


While sitting in the parking lot of a Durham home improvement store listening to the radio before going in to get some caulk a couple of days ago, I watched a man pull up in his truck, get out and clasp his leather-holstered gun onto his belt or waistband.


It looked for all the world like he was strapping up to storm into the Long Branch Saloon to confront the dastardly Dalton Gang or something.

What, I wondered, was he expecting to happen in a home improvement store that he needed to strap up before entering? Do I dare go in behind him?


I did, but I began to wonder “Is there a difference between a healthy fear and paranoia?

The Saunders Report's resident shrink, Dr. Anthony Smith, said yes, there is.

Paranoia, Dr. Smith said, “is when we let our fear disrupt things we’d normally do, like if it makes you lock yourself in your house and refuse to go to the grocery story or ride public transportation.

“Fear has become normalized for a lot of people. While the numbers still suggest that you’re not ever going to become a victim of random violence, the fact that it happens makes us fearful and hyper-vigilant,” he said.

Indeed, it does.


You know what I yearn for?

I yearn for the day when being hyper-vigilant and scared witless because a stranger asks for a cigarette – or scoping out the emergency exits of the local food-a-rama – really is a sign of unwarranted paranoia.


And not just a sign of being prudent.

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Meet Barry Saunders

For over 20 years, Barry was a columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC. He also wrote for other publications, such as the Atlanta Constitution and the Richmond County Daily Journal. Often described as powerfully honest and illustratively funny, Barry's writing is both loved and hated by readers- sometimes simultaneously.  

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Want more? Get your own copy of one of Barry's published books featuring reader favorites (and not so favorites) from his years writing columns for The News & Observer. Titled "Do Unto Others...And then Run" and "...And The Horse You Rode In On Saunders!", they're full of guaranteed entertainment. 

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