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Orange County | Dana Parsons

Watch Out for Regular Guys -- Like Him

January 15, 2003|Dana Parsons

May I ramble? And confess? And lament?

When it comes to stereotypes and fears in our daily lives, maybe all of the above is the best some of us can muster.

It'd be nice to proceed merrily along life's path, but so much conspires against us.

Where to start?

Probably a week or so ago when I stopped in a Santa Ana sandwich shop for lunch. My eye was drawn to a man seated alone in a corner booth.

He appeared to be of Middle Eastern heritage and, according to my quick assessment, quite sullen.

It was nothing he did or said; he just looked very unhappy and, if I may say, downright surly. Plus, he seemed to be wearing a bit too much clothing for the warmth of the day.

That I knew nothing about the man didn't stop my mental wheels from spinning. I'm not pleased to say that I played with a scenario of him fitting the image of terrorists who have walked into Israeli shops and detonated themselves in suicide bombings.

It's not a good way to think, especially at lunchtime, but the thought lingered until the man finished eating and left.

Already chastising myself for the stereotype, I had an urge to follow him out and apologize. Figuring that wouldn't have gone well, I settled for telling myself to shape up.

End of that story, and we move ahead a few days when I'm watching the news and, there on the screen, they're airing previously unreleased tapes of child-killer David Westerfield talking to police.

Westerfield, recently sentenced to death for killing 7-year-old Danielle van Dam, is a 50-ish design engineer described by co-workers as a "regular" guy, generous, bright and amiable.

He lived alone, kept to himself, three doors down from the Van Dams. He fits a profile of millions of other guys out there, me included.

Which brings me to the young boy a few doors down in my townhouse complex. He's probably 8 or 9 and somehow picked up on the fact I like to toss around the old horsehide or pigskin. A couple weekends ago, he saw me in my garage and asked if I wanted to play catch. I didn't need to ask if he meant at a nearby park.

"We can play in front of my house," he said.

His mother came out to watch and chat for a while -- as a good mother should.

That's the world we live in. Middle-aged guys living a few doors down and playing with boys they don't know puts them in a target group.

Do I like it? No, but that's beside the point.

Do people in the complex think it's weird that this aging, childless fellow likes to play with 8-year-olds?

Probably so, but how can I be offended by that when there are David Westerfields posing as "regular" guys? Like it or not, Westerfield has made a suspect out of me as surely as I made one out of the glum guy in the sandwich shop probably just having a bad day.

The young boy and I have fun, with occasional throws going into flower bushes or lamp fixtures or people's porches. Through the whole thing, I'm telling myself we need to be in a park so the kid can run some patterns and stretch his legs. It's hard to throw a long pass because, if I do, he'll run into a bank of metal mailboxes.

Think I'm going to suggest we adjourn to a park?

Surely you jest.

It occurred to me later I should have acted on my instinct and tracked down the guy in the sandwich shop. I could have bent his ear on what it's like to feel watched.

And how, in a way that's hard to describe, it takes some of the fun out of simple pleasures.

I have a feeling he'd know what I meant.

*

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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