'Now You See Them...' by Harry Warner, Jr.; title illo 
  by Steve Stiles
A coin laundry started my suspicions that we are not the only ones around, that they, the People, are among us for vaguely known reasons.

This coin laundry is situated about halfway between my home and the center square of Hagerstown. It's on my direct path when I walk to most downtown locations, and I always passed it when I walked back and forth between my home and the newspaper plant. It is a small one, sitting a bit back from the sidewalk, and between the sidewalk and the building is a small parking lot marked off into perhaps a dozen stalls. For many years, I usually walked on the coin laundry side of the street because it simplified crossing several street intersections. And I found increasing annoyance as the years passed over the manner in which I seemed always to arrive at the coin laundry just as an auto was pulling into or out of its parking lot. (There is little or no curb the entire length of the lot, leaving pedestrians in peril for 75 feet or so.) One day, after several narrow escapes and a few bawlings out by motorists who objected to my presence on the sidewalk, I decided I might as well change my habit, and walk henceforth on the other side of the street..

From force of habit, I found myself glancing around for vehicles entering or leaving that little parking lot as I approached it, even though I was now on the opposite sidewalk, out of their reach. Time after time when I walked on the other side of the street, I saw vehicles entering or leaving just as I passed the lot. For the first time, something I should have realized years earlier occurred to me. It seemed mathematically improbable that a motorist should be driving across the sidewalk so frequently, when the parking lot was so small and the nature of a coin laundry causes most people to spend quite a bit of time in it. If this were a 7-11 shop, I could comprehend the heavy traffic into and out of the lot. It seemed inexplicable for such a small coin laundry, until I expanded my observations in a significant way. For the first time, I began to watch that parking lot from the moment it became visible, when I was a block away, until it vanished from sight, a block away in the opposite direction. I was astonished at what I saw. Almost never was there a vehicle pulling into or out of that parking lot while I was at a considerable distance from it. The driving activity across the sidewalk was concentrated only when I was near. I developed a tentative explanation for why a vehicle entered or left the lot before or after I had reached the sidewalk directly opposite it: something unforseen had delayed me or caused me to walk past the spot a moment earlier than would have occurred under normal circumstances, throwing the vehicles out of synchronization with me.

So I concluded that these mysterious drivers are either programmed in advance or controlled from some out-of-sight headquarters, making them unable to adjust for last-minute deviations in my progress. And to be fair about it, I must admit that on rare occasions I can walk past that parking lot without a vehicle crossing its adjacent sidewalk. So this organization, whatever it is, is not perfect: either it has failed to keep me under sufficiently close observation to account for my every move, or its agents sometimes get sick at the last minute or lose their way or otherwise foul up.

The next link in my chain of evidence involving they, the People, began from a chance remark by a bus driver. "It's the same people," he said to me in disgust as he braked abruptly. "They step right into your path in the mall and then they pull out in front of you when they drive away from the mall." He got me to thinking. I don't spend enough time in other malls to be certain, but I suspect that the mall near Hagerstown has an unusually large accumulation of those individuals the bus driver was grumbling about. I've kept mental statistics on the matter. When the mall has a normal complement of people wandering around, there will be an average of four occasions when it happens while I walk from one end of the mall to the other: someone walking in the opposite direction will suddenly swerve when about ten feet away from me in order to approach me on a collision course, or someone who has been standing in the doorway of a store will watch me coming and stride out in front of me while I am just two or three feet away, leaving me to choose between a cowardly change of course, or a sudden halt, or a torpedoes-be-damned continuation of my course. To keep variety in my life, I rotate around those three tactics, so I don't suffer a jostle or jolt every time it happens.

While I was pondering this phenomenon, I happened to be visiting a small shopping center at the edge of town. It is within walking distance, so sometimes I use shank's mare to go to it. On this particular day, the last store I passed on my homeward course was the A&P. Some years earlier, this store had undergone remodeling and slight expansion, causing its front wall to extend further than the remainder of the stores at this shopping center. As a result, the sidewalk in front of the A&P suffered, with only a very narrow strip surviving, not wide enough for two people to pass. I had just reached this narrow section of the sidewalk when I saw out of the corner of my eye a woman striding rapidly catercornered toward me across the parking lot. She miscalculated and by the time she was at the sidewalk's edge, I was just past her, foiling her intention to step into my path. She broke into a trot for a few steps to pull slightly ahead of me and began to step onto that narrow strip of sidewalk at an angle that would force me to stop or slow down radically to avoid a collision. I felt peeved. I didn't slow an iota. There was a soul-satisfying jolt as my right side and shoulder impacted against her. I didn't think the collision was severe enough to knock her down but after two or three strides, I looked back. She wasn't there. There was no place where she could have gone in that brief period of time when she was out of my vision. The A&P has no doors at the end of the building where the collision had occurred. There were no parked vehicles along the curb behind which she might be concealed and the nearest stationary vehicles in the parking lot were too distant for her to have reached one and climbed inside. She would have crossed my field of vision if she'd sprinted forward after the collision and run around the approaching corner of the store, but I looked around it to make sure and she wasn't in sight. She wasn't on the sidewalk behind me. There wasn't even a small pool of loathesome ichor such as is normally left behind when an evil supernatural creature is destroyed.

During the remainder of my walk home, I pondered over the fact that they, the People, are vulnerable in certain ways. They didn't adjust properly to my change in sidewalk habit outside the coin laundry and now one who had failed to get in my path had been transported, or disintegrated, or somehow rendered invisible because of that blunder. But it wasn't until the following days and weeks that the full import of my boldness became manifest. When I went to the mall, people no longer stepped out of stores directly in front of me, no longer veered into my path when walking toward me, and I could walk from one end of the mall as often as I wished without evasive action or jostling. Here was another crumb of evidence of a conspiracy. I naively thought I was forevermore free from the nuisance, but this blissful situation lasted only a couple of months. Then the walkers reverted to their old bothersome habits. They, the People, had either forgotten my potentiality or had been juiced up enough to give them the courage to pester me regularly again.

illo by Steve Stiles I've talked to others about these matters and I find that I'm not alone as a sufferer. Others have different problems: telephones that ring at the worst possible moments, dogs that destroy laborious achievements in their gardens, or a pattern of failure to operate as intended by anything purchased, for instance. So they, the People, aren't after only me.

It beggars the imagination, to try to guess at their purpose. In Goethe's Faust, Mephistopheles describes himself as the spirit that negates, so it's tempting to think that the devil is behind all this, hoping to drive victims into loss of faith in the justness of the universe and its Creator. So far, I've managed to withstand the temptation to use the bad words I don't like to hear others utter when I suffer from such problems, and it's hard to believe I'm tough enough to withstand the temptations of Satan. Or it could all be part of an elaborate plot by BEMs to take over the planet, softening up its human population by sowing large quantities of they, the People, among us. They, the People, will make life so miserable that eventually, when the BEMs unmask themselves and offer to end all these nuisances, we'll be happy to grant them the right to do anything they wish in return for the end of their infiltration.

I'm not expert enough in philosophy to be able to guess at the third possibility's validity: that concept in the Platonic sense (like the ideal circle, which all other circles emulate) includes the concept of ideal manners, and somehow these Platonic manners have in recent years become disconnected from the real world, resulting in increasing inability of the general population to remember their manners. When was the last time you saw someone put a handkerchief to mouth before coughing or sneezing? Or say, "Excuse me," when bumping into you in a shopping mall? The local museum is offering this summer a two-day course in good manners, but its fee is $50. I can remember when manners came free.

All illustrations by Steve Stiles

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