The Cornered Cat

It has long been my belief that everyone has a superpower. One friend of mine has a “parking” superpower. She thinks it’s normal to pull into a crowded parking lot and drive right up to the front of the building just as someone else pulls out of the best spot right in front of the door. The thing is, for her it is normal. It happens all the time. She has the parking superpower.

Another friend has a “hair” superpower. No matter what the weather is like, no matter what she’s done or hasn’t done, her hair always looks astonishingly perfect. She gripes about her hair like everyone else, but her heart isn’t really in it – because she’s literally never in her life had a bad hair day. Now there’s a superpower for you!

Me? My superpower is invisibility. My hands are especially invisible. I know this because the automatic faucets in public restrooms tell me so. I’ll be standing at the sink trying to get a little soap when invisibility strikes. I picture her as a crabby old lady: “No soap for you!” Or she’ll let me have soap, then cackle with glee when I can’t get any water to rinse it off. As for paper towels? No go there either. I’ve become an expert at fluffing my hair with freshly-washed, wet hands. Hey, it works better than swiping them dry on my jeans.

My cloak of invisibility extends beyond my hands, though. A few times a year, I’ll be standing in a checkout line with a full cart of groceries when my cloak suddenly activates. The clerk turns to the person behind me and starts chatting with him while ringing up the groceries, completely oblivious to my presence. She usually comes back to reality with a visible jump – and an embarrassed apology – when the person behind me declines to purchase the groceries the clerk has just rung up. All while I am standing there, right in front of her. Invisible.

As a child, I would have understood being chosen last for the team. I wouldn’t have liked it, but I would have understood it. But … have you ever watched the other kids all pick teammates, stood there with everyone else waiting to be chosen, and then while you’re still standing there, they start to play the game, and nobody ever realized you wanted to play, too? Happened to me all the time. That’s what it means to be invisible.

When chatting with a group of friends a long while back, I got some laughs by riffing on the invisibility cloak. Later, one of my buddies pulled me aside. “Kathy,” he said seriously, “I know what it is. It’s something in your body language…”  We talked about it a little, and I started paying attention. Yep, it’s something in my body language. With a little work, I’ve become able to pull the cloak on or take it back off again, when the conditions are right. It’s not infallible, but it’s pretty cool. Being able to turn it on at will means that in public, if I keep my eyes open, I can see people do the most outrageous things when they think nobody’s watching. Well, nobody is, except me. And I’m invisible.

You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with my usual topics of self defense and firearms use. It does apply, in a couple of ways.

First, I’m not the only invisible person in the world. It’s just a body-language trick. Or a collection of tricks. I’ve made a vow only to use my superpower for good, but – anyone can learn these tricks. You ever hear the story about the criminal who “came out of nowhere”? He didn’t. He came from somewhere. He was there the whole time, but you never saw him until he decided to act.

Second, invisibility is just a body-language trick, and it does not always work. It isn’t real. Someone looking for me – or looking for people like me – can spot me every time, even when my cloak is on. I rely on people never seeing what they don’t expect to see. If you get in the habit of looking around for the invisible people in public, you’ll spot more of us than you would believe. It’s not an uncommon skill.

Finally, knowing how a magic trick works does not make you immune to its illusion. I’ve been startled by “invisible” people before. And so have you, if you think about it. Many criminals are experts at exploiting the normal gaps in human attention, creeping through the spaces where we don’t expect anyone to be. I’m not talking about the bad guy lurking in some theoretical patch of bushes. I’m talking about hiding in plain sight in everyday life. Just as the magician relies on his audience to see only what he directs them to see even though he’s lit up by a spotlight in the center of the stage, the people who make a living at crime know how to direct your attention so you will not see them until they decide it’s time for you to do so. Knowing that some people have this body-language skill does not mean you can never be fooled by it.

Because not every invisible person is the hapless victim of poor body language, it’s a good idea to look twice at anyone who appears to be wearing that cloak. And since criminals can learn to be functionally invisible even in a crowd, it’s helpful for good people to learn how to spot invisible people. How? Look for them! Looking for them will solve a big part of the criminal-invisibility problem. An invisible criminal who’s been spotted, and who knows he’s been spotted, will find other prey.

Because invisibility is a type of magic trick, an illusion, it’s best to set other safeguards in place – and not rely only on your ability to see through the trick 100% of the time. Awareness is important, yes, and it solves a lot of problems. But total awareness is impossible. It fails sometimes, and criminals are often experts at prompting those failures and exploiting them. That’s why we must pay special attention in fringe areas, why we train ourselves to find a safe place before we change our focus to do a detail task, why we lock our doors at home and in the car. Alertness is an important layer of safety, but it’s only one layer. We must be prepared to cope with danger when awareness fails… because some people are invisible.