The announcement came over the school PA system that a man driving a white van was targeting students near schools, trying to get us into his vehicle.
The pervs always drive vans, I thought back then. It was the early 1980s; the sexual revolution of the '60s had passed and social conservatism was making a comeback.
That day the sun was shining bright, and as I walked home alone in the peaceful well-to-do suburb in North Jersey, I was not thinking about the announcement. When the blue sedan stopped near me on the street where I lived, I thought the driver needed directions. Instead, he asked if I wanted a ride.
"No, thank you," I said, glancing past his black peppered hair, and his white starched collar to see he was wearing no pants. I could see his bare thigh, but I could not tell whether he was wearing white boxers or whether it was his shirttail. He may have been wearing a tie, but he was not wearing pants … for sure.
I studied his license plate as he pulled away and scratched the number in dirt with a stick. Shaken, I went to the nearest house and the neighbor called police. Soon afterward, I would learn, police found the man near an elementary school. He was wearing pants.
Police called my mom and asked that she bring me to the station so I could view a lineup. I would recognize the guy. That hair, the mustache, his clothing. When we got there, there were two detectives who fired questions at me.
What was I doing? Why did I approach the car? What did I see? Was I sure?
"What model car was he driving?" I did not know. "Was it a Cadillac?" No. "Are you sure." Yes.
It seemed like one detective believed me, and the other did not. My mom asked, "Did the car look like our neighbor's Cadillac?" No. She told the cops I would not recognize a newer Caddy. The blue sedan was, in fact, a Cadillac.
The man, they explained, thought I was lost (I was a block from home) and that I needed help. He apologized for scaring me, they said. The one detective concluded that I was too short to see inside the car. There was no need for a lineup. They let him go.
That was the first and the last time I ever reported such an incident.
A few years later, I was walking to school at dawn when a stranger leaning against a telephone pole jump-started my heart. He was looking in all directions before he began walking my way. I kept my pace until he opened his pants and masturbated.
"Get away from me!" I ordered. In an instant, he was gone, and a man dressed in a business suit came out of a nearby house. I thought he was going to ask if I was OK, but he just stared at me. Fear turned to anger as I decided to chase after the morning stalker. Where did he go? The businessman got into his car and followed me.
I darted through a backyard and came out a block over just as I could see the car pass. When the driver spotted me, he reversed and came in my direction. I shot through another backyard and did it again until I was in the safety of a friend's home and the driver was gone.
"We have to call the police, Barbie. This guy's a sicko," my friend's dad, Big D, told me. The guy in the car, I suspected, was conspiring with the stalker. I did not want to call police. They will not do anything, I thought.
When the creep at the beach was riding the waves near me and his hands touched my body under the water several times, I did not tell my parents. I just got out of the ocean. When a guy was watching me as I waited for a friend on a darkened street on St. Thomas, I had a bad feeling and walked away. He yelled for me to stop, and I ran. He chased me, but I had too much of a head start weaving through side streets and alleys.
There would be other close calls. My experiences always ended the same. I got away.
Looking back, I was lucky. I easily could have become part of an unfortunate group of those who did not get away.
Only 23 percent of those raped or sexually assaulted report the attacks to police, according to a 2016 victimization survey by the U.S. Department of Justice. As a result, the vast majority of assailants — 994 out of 1,000 — walk free, according to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network.
I wonder what happened to those men. Were there other children and women who were victimized far worse than me by the same predators?
What if police believed me the first time? Did the police even write a report?
When I was a young reporter in rural Florida, I checked reports each week at the local sheriff's office. There were several reports by women who reported they were sexually assaulted. Investigators concluded they lied.
One Monday morning I saw that a 14-old-old alleged her stepfather raped her. She lied, I was told. She had reported he raped her once before and recanted. Who is investigating, I asked. It had not been assigned to a detective yet. Then how do you know she lied, I persisted. I questioned why the girl remained in the home over the weekend with no contact with child protective services.
It's not the first time that I had pissed off the spokesman, but that morning the vein in his forehead was bulging as he squinted and told me, "If you were a guy I would take you outside and punch you in the face." I asked the same questions every week. Was the stepdad given a lie-detector test and why not? After several weeks, the answer was yes. Only then did the assailant admit he had sex with the girl. Only then was he charged.
I could probably empty a barrel of ink documenting the injustices I have witnessed over the years.
I have two daughters who I teach to be safe, keep your guard up, stay aware of your surroundings, walk in groups, avoid secluded areas, lock the door behind you so no one can hurt you. When they were younger I told them never help someone looking for a puppy and run inside when a stranger approaches. There are people who will hurt you.