I am not a kidnapper, officer, honest!
Many people mark New Year’s Day, the end of the holiday season, with a quiet day at home, resting up before returning to work. The kids spend one last day with their friends, maybe playing with toys they received for Christmas.
What did I do, you ask? I took my youngest son, who is 11, with a friend to catch an afternoon movie downtown, at the International Village Cinemas.
I’m still recovering from it.
Not the movie, The Darkest Hour. That will probably take professional help and much patience.
No, I write this still somewhat shaken, late Sunday night. Earlier in the day, during the movie, three little bobbing points of light in the darkened theatre converged and moved in my direction, then zeroed in on my face, blinding me. They weren’t, as I was starting to think, merely more of the film’s pedestrian 3-D effects.
They were flashlights attached to Vancouver police officers.
“Would you please come with us now.” It wasn’t a question.
Two of them hustled me--politely but leaving no doubt about whose will would prevail--out of the back of the multiplex room while another sat with my son and his friend and spoke to them. I think I told the kids, “It’s okay,” as I left. I like to think I did. The people behind and in front of me gaped. One actually gasped.
Three more officers waited out in the hallway. Six cops. Hunting me.
And now my brain, until this point operating in kind of a fuzzy whiteout, started to register an inkling of what this was about.
Before we’d taken the escalator upstairs to the theatre complex, I’d steered the children into a store in the ground-level mall to get some treats before I grabbed a coffee.
While the kids were making up their minds, my son mentioned several times, somewhat insistently, that we were being followed by a man who had ridden the same bus downtown from Commercial Drive. He pointed him out, and he was correct, inasmuch as I recognized the guy—short, blondish hair, maybe in his late twenties--as having been on the bus with a female acquaintance, another blond, whom I could not see now.
But that didn’t mean that he was following us. I told my son that he was probably just going to one of the films at the multiplex. The man kept on eyeing us, though, and I started to do the same back, feeling both protective of the kids and vaguely irritated.
Finally, he came up to us and asked me what “the situation” was.
I asked what the heck he meant. “Are you all together?” he responded.
“Yes,” I said, ready to politely but firmly tell him to leave us alone. “Is everything okay?” he persisted. I had already interposed myself between him and the children, and now I was about to shoo the kids down the aisle toward the cashier. Then he asked, “Are these your kids?” and I figured it out.
Somehow, he had gotten the impression that I was a stranger to the two of them, that I had figured out that they were without supervision, and that I was in the process of either inveigling them into some depraved situation or actually preparing to abduct them.
Never mind that they were chatty and happy, too young to be out by themselves, and were obviously interacting with me as a trusted adult (my son had even grabbed my hand crossing the streets on the three-block walk from the bus, something I cherish because I know it will soon be a thing of the past).
I told him, with conviction but not menace, that, thank you, but this was my son and his friend. Then I started to turn away.
Impossibly, he blurted: “Are you sure?” Without getting into the absurdity of that question, I just said “Yes.” This time, there was no mistaking the finality of my statement. For good measure, my son added: “Look, he’s my dad, okay?” His friend just looked at the guy with the open look of a kid trying to figure things out but patently not in any danger.
Finally, some kind of realization seemed to dawn on the man’s face. He said, “Oh, okay.” And he left.
Obviously, though, he hadn’t been satisfied. And he wasn’t finished. As it turns out--I discovered later after speaking to the police--his parting shot was to tell mall security about his suspicions, but now he juiced them up.
This guy had seen me on the bus with the kids, had gotten off to tail us, probably with his unwilling friend tagging along, for blocks, then followed us through the mall and waited, with his head in the entrance, while we shopped. As I watched him, he was engaged in an animated discussion with an unseen person down the mall hallway out of my sight, undoubtedly his friend who was lagging back, by now probably too embarrassed by his preoccupation to even show her face.
But after being set straight by both myself and the kids, and perhaps facing the scorn of his companion--and with this exacerbated by both his own embarrassment and frustration and the memory of my, ultimately, no-nonsense tone—this shining knight told a security guard to call the police because he had seen me approach two children after they got off a bus and offer to “buy them some candy and take them to a movie”.
And he left, without giving a name.
I’ll spare you all (but not some) of the details of the half-hour I spent with the police, in plain view of the gawking moviegoers passing by a few feet away, leaving and entering the half-dozen or so screening rooms at the complex.
I was so flustered that it was 10 minutes before I realized I was still wearing the damned 3-D glasses. I was also pretty concerned about what effect all this was having on my son and his friend (the female officer in charge assured me that they were fine and enjoying the show; somehow, this didn’t improve my temper).
The fact that I hadn’t replaced all of my ID since my wallet was stolen a while back didn’t reinforce my protestations of innocence. They were going to question me thoroughly (“Please don’t move from that spot, sir!”), and they asked for both of my children’s birthdates, repeatedly, my wife’s name, my middle names, my address, and all our various phone numbers. I think they asked my shoe size.
When one of the interrogating officers inspected my business card and saw that I worked for the Georgia Straight, I thought I saw one eyebrow raise just a bit. Barely. I hadn't been about to volunteer that information myself. But that’s another story.
Then they called my wife to corroborate my explanation and personal information. No answer. (“She’s at home, sick,” I assured them. She wasn’t. She was out, feeling better for the first time in days, at a restaurant with my oldest son.) They called her cell; no answer. (The battery was dead.) Now two of the cops were starting to exchange looks with each other. Finally, they called my son’s cellphone. (“Make sure the first thing you say after the word police are the words Everything’s fine," I said. "She’ll freak." They did. She did.)
Finally, after three of the attending six cops broke off to answer a “woman with a knife” call, and they accepted my older son’s confirmation of some basic facts, and they ironed out the problem of some notorious criminal from the 1970s having the same name as me but with a different middle name and birthdate, and they wondered aloud how I could possibly exist without picture ID (“But what do you do when you…if you need to…I mean…”), and satisfied themselves that I was probably okay to mingle with the rest of humankind, they said I could go back to the kids and watch the rest of what remained of the film.
(The truth be known, even though the film was only about a half-hour old when this all went down, it was already so bad that I was hoping a
The cop in charge and another constable then apologized, telling me, correctly, that they had to follow up on all such reports. And of course they should. And we, and I, should be glad they respond with such numbers and thoroughness (they discovered my whereabouts by scouring closed-circuit video records until they spotted myself and the kids entering the theatres, then combed the rooms).
So my thanks to police constable “2734 Smith” (living with inadequate ID really isn’t all that bad, Smitty, except for, well, you know), acting sergeant Marie Brown (PC 1768, you’ll make a great permanent sarge, I’m sure), and all the rest of the team (including the other female cop who never took her eyes off me but always had a fixed, professional smile on her face as she helpfully pointed to exactly where I should stand every time that I forgot myself).
(And much thanks to Cineplex manager Tung Pham for extending us the courtesy of a couple of passes to any upcoming film. None of this was his fault, and you’d think he’d actually be glad to be rid of us rather than invite us back.)
But I also told the police that, if possible in this case, they should charge the complainant with mischief, perhaps something with the word “malice” in it. Because that guy knew that the problem he might have initially thought he discerned actually did not, in reality, exist. And he invented details he did not witness. As well, he took six cops off real, more important, work.
That said, might I propose to those who may, in future, be faced with such a perceived situation? If you are a security guard who has been told such a tale and asked to call the police, attempt to talk to the adult and children in person to see if it is justified to call authorities into the situation. I would have been more than happy to take a minute or two to put any suspicions to rest.
And if you are a concerned citizen who thinks you might be witnessing an improper approach by an adult to children seemingly unsupervised, such as on a bus, realize that sometimes parents let their kids and their friends sit by themselves (bus seats are mostly built for two). And also realize that when exiting buses, adults are in the habit of following their kids out, not going before them, in order to avoid having the doors close between them and their tardy offspring.
And definitely feel free to express your concerns openly while still on the bus (A “sorry, but I just wanted to make sure they were with someone; it was hard to tell for a bit there,” will usually be met with polite gratitude.)
Just don’t get sore when your amateur sleuthing doesn’t pan out. And never, ever embellish a story and commit what you might think is just some mean-spirited but relatively harmless payback to someone whose tone of voice you didn’t quite appreciate.
Or the next time we meet I might be having to talk to the cops again. And it won’t be while you are waltzing away to brunch.