Excerpt from “Secrets to Sustainable Solutions: Tips From Business, Science & Non-Profit Expert” by Lisa Blackburn Ullven

12.1 The Stranger Who Saved My Life

Things happened so fast; I went to travel school and got offered a job to work for an airline in Tampa at the exact job I wanted, close to the exact college I wanted to go to. My best friend said, “Come stay with me at the dorm for a couple weeks while you find a place.” When I arrived, Penelope, with her vibrant megaphone-like voice, yelled, “Hey, Lisa!” from the second-floor window. Yes, she took out the screen to stick her head out the window to get my attention. Afterward, even the people who lived on the downtown streets knew my name and said hi to me each day.

Since my new job at the airline had training in the evening, I often returned late to the dorm. Being just 18 years old—naïve and excited—I felt safe because there always seemed to be a lot of people and activity on the streets when I returned each evening. I started noticing that the same people walked the same exact routes each night. I even wrote to my mom about how nice the homeless people were and how I thought it was interesting that they seemed to have schedules. Seriously, if there was one perk to being homeless, I thought it would be sleeping in and not having a schedule—so I found it intriguing that they walked the same route each night, down to predictable details.

In particular, I was fascinated by one homeless man. With my training, I had to carry three large binders plus heavy official airline guide books that were like those thick, heavy, old phone books so I was especially grateful to him as he opened the door for me each night. I would say, “Thank you very much,” and he’d respond saying things like “You are quite welcome.” When I asked how he was, he would answer, “Very well, thank you” or “Quite well, and you?” Despite his ragged exterior, I could tell he was very intelligent and kind. He seemed more like a butler in an exclusive hotel than a homeless person.

Perplexed that he seemed more like a PhD college professor than a homeless man living on the street, I curiously asked, “You are very well educated, aren’t you?” He looked me in the eyes, smiled, and in a hearty, jolly, Santa-like tone, he replied, “Yes. I am very, VERY well educated.” I felt like he must have been a captain of a ship, a chief officer, or some big position before landing in his current situation, sleeping in front of a door with his main purpose in life seeming to be opening the door for college students. As I looked back at him, I thought there must be a very sad story of how he’d gotten here. I was not ready to hear that story and not sure he was up to sharing, so we just paused for a moment and went on our way.

One night, I had to stay at work much later because we had to do a special training after the office closed that required full access to the computer systems. By the time I headed back to the dorm, the streets were totally deserted. Even though it was a short walk, I didn’t feel good about walking alone. I considered going to a hotel, but I had a very bad experience when I was a kid when a gang tried to break into my family’s hotel room. Plus, I’d seen way too many movies where the single lady walks alone through a parking garage and something bad happens. Plan B was sleeping in the car, but I pictured myself waking up to an angry police officer or worse yet—a mad stranger. As many times as I said I was going to stay up all night, I was always the first to fall asleep, so not sleeping was not really an option. No option really seemed good, and I had to be back to training in a few hours, so I decided the best of the bad options was to go to Penelope’s dorm.

My crime watcher, “be-aware” mindset kicked in. One of the things I’d learned was to have your actions planned out so that if something does happen, you jump into action versus wasting valuable seconds trying to figure out what to do. Having a big pile of heavy books, my action plan was to immediately throw the books at the sign of any trouble. The only other option would be to run to my car, and I had seen way too many suspenseful horror films with the person jingling their keys and the predator right behind them. Throwing my books would pretty much be throwing away my perfect job, but that was my emergency plan. I figured it would distract them and slow them down as they would have to avoid tripping on the binders or slipping on the papers.

As I walked in my business suit with my pile of books in hand, my pump-shoe heels made a tap-dance type sound on the cement sidewalk with each step. It seemed like the sound echoed through each intensely quiet crevice of the downtown block, announcing my presence. As a precaution, I scanned the neighborhood just in case I needed to run. I looked across the street and closely examined alleys and inlets between the downtown buildings.

No cars, no people—I could almost hear my heart beating. Then I took a step forward and looked to the right. In between two buildings, I saw five men dressed in all dark clothing. As one of them uttered, “Get her,” I saw five shiny silver objects flash as they flicked their knives open. At that moment, I threw my books to the right and ran as fast as I could. Most people run well in sneakers, but for whatever reason, I could book it in high heels.

I got to the first-floor dorm entrance, pulled open the door, and ran up the stairs. While I never looked back, I heard the door open and slam and then immediately open and slam again. I imagined at least one of the five men had gotten into the corridor, but I could not imagine why the door slammed hard two times close together. I kept running, got to the second-floor door, and went inside. I heard a rugged voice yell, “Leave her alone. Stay away from her!” The sounds of the door opening and shutting quickly and then quickly again made sense now. Whoever that man was, he must have stopped the gang of men from opening the bottom door—causing it to slam and then slam again. I stayed up most of the night wondering what had happened and who that man was, where he had come from, and whether he had literally taken on a gang of five men.

The next day, the homeless man seemed upset and said, “Why didn’t you tell me you changed your schedule?” He acted like a protective father, upset at his daughter for staying out too late. I’d never had that experience because my father passed when I was very young, but at that moment, I suddenly felt like he was the caring, upset father—up all night, worried sick about his daughter. Confused as to why a homeless person would ask me such a question, I paused in silence. He then said, “We arranged our entire schedule to protect you—reserving a parking spot, having someone at various points. Why didn’t you tell me you were going to get home so late?”

At that moment, he handed me the school and airline books I had thrown into the street. He must have stayed up for hours putting the papers back into the binders, in perfect order. When I went to work, I noticed that there would be one page that still had mud or a stain from a puddle and then the next page would be in perfect condition, showing that he’d taken the papers that had flown out and had put them back into the binders where each page belonged. You could even tell how he’d tried to clean off the dirt and mud stains as there were brush marks on the papers. It was then that I knew for sure that he was the mystery man who’d stopped the gang members from getting to me.

Later, I learned that the college had flyers sent out saying not to go out at night. My friend was fearless and super busy, so she ignored the flyers and didn’t share the flyer until I mentioned the gang that chased after me. The flyer basically said that the campus police were escorting students, but then the escorts started getting beaten up, so the new instruction was not to go out at night. 

The good news is this expedited my new apartment search. I moved into a new apartment that week. Weeks later, I came back to say hello to my friends and stopped by to talk with the wonderful homeless man who had saved my life. I asked someone if the homeless man by the door was around. The person responded, “It’s safe now. They got rid of those homeless people.” The irony is that, had it not been for that gang, I would have never known that the homeless people arranged their schedule to protect me. I hope that kind, well-educated gentleman realized how grateful I am to him. Many times in corporate life I have been advised to stop caring so much for the “little people.” Those little people may just save your life someday.

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