Opponents of the Walgreen's in Oakland Mills suggested that it would attract a bad element to the neighborhood. I've always wondered what they imagined that would be. Drug deals? Prostitution? Teen gangs hanging out on the corner, up to no good? Of course, people who like to spread fear don't need to spell it out. They just invoke anxiety in people's brains and allow their imaginations to do the rest.
Thursday evening I came face to face with the bad element at the Oakland Mills Walgreen's. It didn't look like what you might think. A well-dressed woman, maybe in her forties, with well-styled and colored hair, stopped me. She had run out of gas. She didn't have any money. Could I drive her to a gas station and pay for a gas can? Or could I give her ten dollars for gas?
Despite how nice she seemed, she was still a stranger, and I was not going to let her in my car. And I actually didn't have any cash. I told her that.
"I'm so sorry, I just have my bank card and I need to pick up medicine for my husband, who's sick at home."
"Oh, I understand. My son just had his tonsils out..." She gestured to a blue car in the distance.
I hurried on my way. I wondered if I missed an opportunity to help someone genuinely in need. Are we so afraid of one another that we can't reach out anymore?
The next day I returned to the Walgreen's with my daughter to pick up a prescription. The same woman was there. I passed her on the way in. She was talking on a cell phone. I caught a snatch up the conversation.
"But it's cold," I heard her say. "I know that, but it's cold."
If she has a phone, I thought, couldn't she call someone for help?
On my way back to the car, she stopped me. Just as on the night before, she was pleasant, looked well-put-together.
"I've run out of gas. Can you help me with some money?" She gestured around but I didn't see the car she had gestured to the night before.
I still didn't have any cash. I still didn't feel right about what was going on.
As I walked away she was headed in to the store.
What is the bad element? Is it a nice looking, well mannered woman who looks like me who is scamming people for money in the parking lot? Or is it me, too suspicious to reach out a hand to help, too willing to believe that it's a scam?
I don't know the answer.