When I was thirteen, I was approached by a pedophile. I’ve never talked about it before.
I don’t know why I’ve never told anyone this. It’s not particularly unusual, wasn’t traumatic, in a lot of ways it wasn’t that big a deal. But I’ve never told anyone it happened. Not friends, girlfriends, therapists, not even my mother. This is the first time I’ve ever told this story in any form.
So, yes, when I was thirteen I was approached, in public, by a pedophile, and the encounter went on long enough that we were in a secluded place and he was openly propositioning me before I took off.
It was two decades and change ago, a Saturday afternoon if I recall correctly. I’d just come from the comic book store and I was in a fast-food joint, stuffing my face with cheap, godawful hamburgers. I was a gangly kid, all freckles and elbows, and I was, in most ways, hilariously naive.
Out of nowhere, this guy came up to me and asked what I was reading. I don’t remember what it was; probably one of the mediocre 1970s horror comics I was always digging out of the 25-cent bin. I remember the guy, though, vividly.
He looked like an illustration of the abstract concept of “skeezy”. If you called an exceptionally uncreative casting agency and asked for an actor to play a creepy-looking pedophile, they’d send over this guy. He had on a dirty brown coat and a ratty baseball cap. His face was pinched and prematurely aged, accented on the sides by a pair of long, stringy sideburns that dangled past his chin. I didn’t even know people could grow sideburns like that. He even, I swear to god, had those thick, eye-warping glasses that they always put on stereotypical pedophiles in movies and TV shows.
Now, this in and of itself did not alarm me. I had a safe and well-traveled upbringing, so I was used to talking with unusual strangers. To this day, some of the most interesting conversations of my life have been with weirdos I didn’t know. This guy, though, was persistent. He took expert advantage of the social pressures on kids with safe upbringings, all the ways we expect people to pick up on cues and take “I’m still reading” for an answer, all the ways we can’t quite tell people to just go away in so many words.
Somehow he steered this increasingly weird conversation toward whether I wanted to get a job when I was old enough. Well, that was a sensible enough topic, and one I was interested in. The prospect of a part-time gig, earning one’s own money, is of great interest to a kid who dreams of moving up from the 25-cent bin. From there he talked about what kind of jobs might be available, and he said that there was a posted list of jobs at the university that were hiring, only half a block away, and looking at it might give me an idea of what the job market was looking like. He suggested we go check it out together.
The posted list was in a glass-fronted case at the end of… I’m not sure what to call it. Not quite an alleyway, more like an entrance pathway, a driveway for pedestrians? Whatever, the entrance it fed was closed for the weekend, so it was just a dead end, completely screened on all sides by tall hedges, invisible from the sidewalk. The glass-fronted case had a list of job openings, because this was before the web, and you’ll be shocked to learn that one of the foremost research universities in the country didn’t have a lot of jobs going that were appropriate for an eighth-grader.
So the job list was a bust, and now I was just standing in this secluded cul-de-sac with the world’s least wholesome person. With the same artless forcefulness, he now steered the conversation toward extrasensory perception. He said something about how when a person is putting energy out in the world, other people can perceive it, and how “for example”, he’d been sending a message, trying to convey a psychic impression, about “something two males could do that could be quite pleasurable.” I remember that phrase distinctly.
I shit you not, it was only then that the penny dropped for me. And yes, I know how thickheaded that makes me sound. What do you want, I was thirteen.
To this day, I wonder about his use of the term “males”. That’s a weird turn of phrase. At a guess, it was the same awkward compromise guys stumble over when they’re not sure whether to say “girl” or “woman” so they stagger into “female”. Presumably he wanted to think of me as a boy; thinking of me as a man would ruin the entire scenario for him. But he couldn’t say that because thirteen-year-olds get really touchy if you call them children, right? So he settled on characterizing us as “two males”, like that’s somehow less awkward and weird.
That’s all later analysis, mind you. At the time, the main thing that struck me was how smooth and rehearsed the line sounded. Instantly, even as dumb as I was back then, I realized the math he was running. I wasn’t the first kid he’d talked to, not by a long shot. And he didn’t have high hopes for seducing me, because there was a sort of rote, worth-a-shot quality to his rehearsed line. I guess my signals weren’t encouraging. But after all, if you try it enough times, sooner or later some kid’s got to go for it, right? Hell, these days guys charge plenty of money for seminars to teach would-be pickup artists that same math.
I don’t recall what I said to hastily, awkwardly extract myself from the situation. I remember I was between him and the exit of the little not-alleyway, so I just had to back up for the first ten feet and then turn to leave, walking as fast as I dared without looking uncasual, looking back over my shoulder for the first quarter-mile to see if he was following. He wasn’t. I went home, finished reading my comics in peace, and filed it away as Something That Happened.
I saw the guy once more, a year or so later, walking down the street a block away from where he’d taken me. All I could think to do was glare balefully at him and hope that somehow conveyed my immense disapproval.
It didn’t occur to me to call the police or notify any other kind of authorities. It occurred to me that maybe I should tell someone about it, but somehow for over two decades, the right conversational opportunity never presented itself.
In hindsight, I realize that if this guy was getting as much practice as I thought he was, he might have really hurt some kid someplace. I don’t know. I suspect the reason it didn’t occur to me to tell anyone in authority was because I’d so firmly filed it as Something That Happened, and involving the police would move it out of that category and into Something That Is Still Happening. That just wasn’t something I wanted to do.
I don’t tell this story now because I think it’s unique or that it makes me special. Indeed, I think that’s why it needs to be told: because it’s really not uncommon. One out of six men is molested before they’re 18; that day I didn’t quite become part of that statistic, is all. Girls often have it even worse; I’ve heard stories from female friends that put my untold tale to shame.
I wasn’t brave, I wasn’t clever, I was lucky. The guy who approached me wasn’t a trusted friend, a coach, a teacher, a relative. That’s usually how it happens, after all. My guy looked like what he was: a deeply messed-up person who couldn’t fake being a functional member of society very well. That, and going from “Hi” to his weird telepathy line within twenty minutes, were enough that I understood what was going on and was able to fit it into a framework I understood, and I was able to leave safely. I knew about “stranger danger” and I’d absorbed the popular image of the scary lurking pervert approaching young boys. I just happened to be in the very small minority where the reality actually resembled the popular image, so I could recognize it.
Like I say, it wasn’t a big deal, not even compared to other things that happened that year. Other boys, less lucky, it was a big deal. It was a huge deal. It was a kind of deal I’m not equipped to understand, because I was lucky.
But somehow, in twenty-three years I’ve never found an occasion to tell this story. And I think that’s kind of too long to be a coincidence.