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Mind your Business

On my way to see Burning, the Korean movie adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story, playing at Zeitgeist Zinema in January, I heard a woman yell “Somebody help me!” from the bus stop. I couldn’t see her well; she had made herself small, the way a rabbit might make itself small for fear of a predator who has entered the garden, too.

A man was looming over her while she cowered against the wall of the Greysolon Plaza. From behind, I couldn’t see much of him, either. He wore a jacket that looked not-quite warm enough; his agitated movements were likely keeping him warm. I felt my city instincts kick in.

I’ve lived in a city all my life: Milwaukee until I was 22, St. Paul until I was 32. Duluth is the smallest community I have ever lived in, and most days, it barely feels like a city. In the quarters of a city where poor people live, anytime someone calls “help,” I think, we check it out. We need each other.

Someone called for help. I needed to check it out. I started to cross the street, putting on my most booming voice.

“What’s going on over there?”

The man turned toward me. I could see the receding hairline, the stubble, that, unfairly or not, hardened his facial features. His voice sharpened and hardened him further.

“Mind your business.”

I completed crossing the street, standing just below the bus stop, maybe six feet from the two of them, and looked over his shoulder to ask, “Are you okay, ma’am?” She didn’t look at me; she didn’t answer. I wasn’t really expecting her to answer, but I was hoping for a signal that would help me decide what to do next. She still wouldn’t make eye contact. As he moved closer to me, I could see more of her. Her coat was also too light for the cold winter night. The two of them were dressed like people wearing their only coats, the ones too warm for fall, too thin for winter.

“Mind your business.”

Folk etymologies tell us that “mind your business,” like the phrase “mind your beeswax,” is about paying attention to the things that are your responsibilities. “The beeswax melted in that pot, it is your responsibility. Pay attention to it.” It’s a common enough and meaningful enough phrase that Ben Franklin engraved it on the Fugio cent, the first official coin of United States, produced in 1787. The coin was minted with a seemingly self-contradictory set of words engraved on it. On one side, Franklin engraved “Mind your Business,” while on the other side, the words “We are One.”

In Franklin’s time, “mind your business” didn’t have the weight that my bus-stop interlocutor intended. My new friend meant that I should “Get out of his affairs.” But in standing there, asking questions, I was minding my business. After all, “we are one.”

The man added some flourish, some extra details, to convince me to move along.

“She’s my wife. She’s fine. Mind your business.”

Until I heard her voice, I would not mind my business. His decision to speak for her, to report that she’s fine, short-circuited her own answer, the answer I needed to hear before I would leave. Now, if she said that she was fine, would I believe her? I think I would have presumed that she was speaking under duress.

I asked, “If she’s your wife, why are you making her cry out?” My booming voice was quieter now, because we were closer, but it was still booming.

“Mind your business.”

He only had three words. I didn’t know what to say. I stood silently.

“Mind your business.”

With every “mind your business,” he closed the distance between us by a few inches.

“You ain’t the first person I’ve laid hands on. Mind your business.”

At the moment he said this, we were close enough to each other that he could have punched my nose. It would have hurt. I have never been in a real fight and wouldn’t know how to fight him. I wasn’t afraid, but I wondered whether I should be.

I stepped back an inch.

“That’s right,” he said, crowing. In that moment, he had pressed my “obstinate” button. I stepped forward two inches, up the sidewalk, toward him.

“You’re big but I’m not scared of you. Mind. Your. Business.”

I felt a wave of relief. Until he said that, I wasn’t sure whether I should be scared of him, whether he was ready to throw a punch or pull a weapon. But now I breathed a bit easier. Anyone who feels obligated to tell me that, despite my size, he’s not scared of me, is probably, because of my size, scared of me. So I had some confidence now.

That confidence allowed me to cease booming, cease trying to be intimidating, instead trying a gentler voice. “C’mon, man, what’s really going on here?” I was using my teacher voice; I was trying for a “let’s work through this together,” kind of vibe.

“Mind your business.”

That went nowhere.

When I teach, I never scold anyone for texting during class, or whispering to the person next to them. Instead, I just stand next to their desk. Just being present is enough to stop the distracting or negative behaviors in a college student, and it keeps the situation from escalating. My friends in elementary education tell me that it works for grade schoolers, too. Would it work here? Would just being present change what he would do next?

I stepped away from him, to lean against the pole that supported the sign for the bus stop. “I am minding my business — I’m waiting for the bus.” Whatever he was doing, maybe he wouldn’t do it again while I was there. The buses come every fifteen minutes or so at this stop; when the bus came, I could figure out what to do next. And it did, and so did a friend, leaving the Zeitgeist. One man with no idea what to do (me) became two men engaging the male while the woman boarded the bus and the bus drove off.

It’s been seven months since that encounter, and I’m still thinking about the decisions I made.

A friend asked me why I never called the police — “Isn’t that what someone does when they hear someone calling for help?”

Did I forget that the two-hundred dollar Apple device in my pocket was a phone, not just a machine for checking Facebook? Did I slip into some foolish hero mode, imagining that my intervention was enough — maybe even more foolishly, imagining that I knew the best way to intervene? I live in a city of experts in domestic violence intervention, and I am not one of those experts.

Was I just caught up in the moment, too busy wondering whether he was going to “lay hands on me?” Flashing through a flight or fight response, did I forget that our city has police trained in handling these situations?

I pretend that I was a lightning-fast critical thinker in this moment, retelling this story today like there was a narrator floating above me, calm, cool, and collected. I take hours to write and rewrite what happened, probably moving further and further away from the truth of the moment. I hadn’t thought about what I would do in this kind of situation ever before.

Would I handle it any better, any differently, next time?

3 Comments

Melissa A Frank

about 3 weeks ago

I believe you responded in the best way imaginable! Thank you for sharing this truth with us.

David Beard

about 3 weeks ago

You are kind, but seven months makes me think I should have called the police for help.

exfuseme

about 3 weeks ago

Thank you for intervening. I would hope that someone like yourself were around if I called out for help. I think if the opportunity had arose you should have called the police but you handled as you were meant to in the moment!

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