Have you ever been screamed at by an angry man for a half an hour at a 7-11 with no possibility of escape?
It wasn’t on my bucket list, but I can add it and cross it off now.
A few weeks ago, my wife Sara and I went for a nice walk. We passed a young man, probably in his twenties, who looked kind of upset. To be fair, most people I pass on the street look kind of upset, so I didn’t think much of it.
Suddenly, the young man yelled, “Hey! You took my grandma’s keys!”
We assured him we didn’t.
He replied, “Yes, you did. You came in the house and took the keys to her Mercedes right off the table.”
He kept following us, yelling, and adding more details to the Case of Grandma’s Keys.
“You were caught on video camera! You’re going to be in trouble unless you hand over the keys!”
After another block, he added:
“And you didn’t have to take the $50,000 out of her purse. She was going to put you in the will. She liked you. And you did this to her. Right before she died.”
We tried to say—both calmly and firmly—that we thought he was confused and we couldn’t help him because we had never met his grandmother.
“Bullshit!” he yelled. “I saw you driving Grandma’s Mercedes! With the windows down and everything like you’re hot shit!”
It was, obviously, terrifying, but a few things became clear.
The man was clearly experiencing some sort of delusion and needed help.
It didn’t seem like he was going to escalate to physical violence.
He definitely wasn’t going to stop following us.
Sara and I had a quick hushed conversation and decided to head into a nearby 7-11. We thought being in a public place might dissuade him.
It did not.
He followed us in so I pulled out my phone and called 911. I tried to explain the situation as calmly as possible but the operator was a little confused so I tried again.
“We’re stuck in a 7-11 because a man thinks we stole his Grandma’s car keys. We can’t leave because he’s going to follow us and he clearly needs help.”
“Does he have a weapon?” the operator asked.
“Not that I can see,” I said.
The operator assured me the police would arrive approximately whenever the hell they got around to it and hung up.
The angry man heard me call the police and was elated.
“How stupid are you?” he asked. “Why would you call the police when you know they’re going to arrest you?”
At this point, Sara and I began our long, dark 7-11 time of the soul. Engaging with him only exacerbated the situation so we faced one another, stood still, and quietly endured as the angry man continued to berate us.
Other customers walked in and out of the store and stared at us like we were staging some really shitty mash-up of guerrilla theatre and performance art.
One guy squeezed past us to get a 12-pack of Budweiser. A stand-up comedian I know walked by and nodded at me as if to say, “Hey, at least you can use this in your set, right?” The cashiers looked over every once in a while to make sure we weren’t blocking the finely arranged endcap of Cheetos and Fruit Pies.
This went on for a half an hour. The man continued to yell about his Grandma’s keys. It was like the crappiest ska band you’ve ever heard jamming for eternity.
I tried to think about my own Grandma. She was a weird and difficult woman. One of my earliest memories is her popping my balloon with her cigarette because she was gesticulating wildly while yelling about immigrants.
The man yelled some more about the quality of her Mercedes and how I probably ruined it by sitting in it.
My real grandmother did have a Mercedes and a lot of money. In the last few months of her life she lost it all playing slots at a casino. The family only found out about it after she died.
The man screamed about how I took advantage of his grandma’s kindness at the end of her life.
My grandmother had died alone in her home. She had developed a routine of smoking Marlboro Slims against the doctor’s orders, then calming her lungs with her oxygen tank. It didn’t work this time. The Republican National Convention was still playing on the TV when the paramedics arrived.
The angry man begged me to just admit it and give him the keys so we could end this.
I am a naturally guilty person. I often feel as though I’ve done something wrong or stupid even when I know I haven’t. I came close to thinking, “Is this possible? Did I do this? Did I steal this man’s grandma’s keys? Do I secretly have a Mercedes and $50,000? Then why the hell can’t I afford to get the guacamole on Chipotle burritos?”
It is a strange and arduous thing to be yelled at for that long without denying or admitting your guilt.
I briefly considered trying the tactic of yelling about all the things I really did feel guilty about: Not calling my mother enough, making fun of that kid in sixth grade, not exercising enough, keeping every episode of Gotham on my DVR even though I know I’m never going to watch it, and on and on.
Finally, the cops showed up. The angry man rushed outside to meet them. The cops very gently asked him to put his hands up on the wall which was, given a lot of the behavior of cops lately, a huge relief.
The angry man complied. They put him in the back of the car and talked to us about what had happened. We assured the cops he hadn’t been violent. We made sure they were going to get him help. They assured us he wasn’t under arrest, just being taken to get help.
We gave them our contact info. The man was still screaming at me from inside the police car as we walked away.
No one wants to be yelled at by an angry person in 7-11 for a half an hour, but if we had to be, this resolved pretty well.
It was peaceful, non-violent and hopefully the man got the help he needed.
It also reminded me that this is just what a lot of human interactions are: Sometimes people who are hurt in some way scream at you. Not because you did anything, but just because they don’t know what else to do but scream.
The best you can do is try to handle it with patience and kindness.
Perhaps most importantly for your own mental health, you should try not to feel irrationally guilty about it.
That said, I did double-check my bag for his grandma’s stolen possessions.
For once in my life, I’m happy to report: I don’t have $50,000.