In 1986, I went to college in Nebraska. Hair hung past my shoulders, and I dressed like a member of Bon Jovi. Torn denim and black parachute pants. White Reeboks and bandanas tied around my right leg.
I wasn’t too street-smart, with only a vague sense that those bandanas—especially the wrong colors—might get me shot in certain Omaha neighborhoods.
But, I was more than a half-hour away from those places, living on campus at a rural liberal arts school.
I had no worries. I knew my neighborhood.
It’s here that situational awareness comes in.
My friends Marc MacYoung and Stephen Browne have written a lot about what that phrase means—and doesn’t mean.
How far does your awareness spread? How much do you know about—not just the situation—but the environment overall? The comings and goings of people? Who is routinely present, and who shouldn’t be there. How people talk, act, and dress.
One night after midnight I took a stroll through the campus center and startled the portly old custodian working there.
Most of us students had seen him around, short, grim, and meticulous in his cleaning. He didn’t speak much English. Some people said he came from Eastern Europe.
Paul jumped a foot in the air when he saw me come up behind him in the dark.
I smiled reassuringly. “Hey, man. It’s okay.”
He shook his head angrily. “Not okay,” he mumbled, backing away from me.
I smiled again. “My name’s Rich,” I said.
He turned his back on me and resumed mopping.
I tried one more time to be friendly. “I’m sorry I scared you.”
“Not scared of you, criminal,” he said, under his breath.
“Hey, no. I’m a student here.”
Then Paul turned and looked straight into my eyes. A hard look. A look that wasn’t about to take any shit.
He pointed at the red and white bandanas tied around my leg.
“You are a criminal. You wear rags each day. Different color. Different number.”
I was slow to catch on.
“You let your friends know about the drugs that way,” he said. “What you got for them?”
“You mean like some sort of signal?”
He shrugged. “Criminal,” he said, and turned back to his mop.
So maybe I didn’t know my neighbors as well as I thought I did.
It never dawned on me that anybody on our campus wouldn’t know the bandanas around my leg were just a goofy affectation.
I was just a kid, trying to find my way.
And my friend Paul was a recent immigrant.
Also trying to find his way.
What for me was glam-rock fashion, was for him a literal red flag.
I sat down on a bench and watched him work. When he was done, I bought him a soda from the machine, and we shared a drink and talked.
That night, I got to know my neighborhood a little better.
That night, the world started to expand.