Only the Paranoid Shall Survive

Here I go, strutting down the street with my earphones pounding some good rock and roll. It's a beautiful day, and I'm feeling fantastic. I might just break into some air guitar and not care if anyone is watching.

Suddenly, I hear shouting. A wild-looking old man is screaming out his kitchen window at me. He looks kind of like a cross between Albert Einstein, Christopher Lloyd and Studs Terkel.

I pull out my earphones to hear what he's yelling. "Come in here and plug in my phone!" he says. "It came out of the wall and I have to make an emergency call! Please help me!"

Of course, it would be my pleasure to help an old man who needs my assistance, but I do live in a world that requires caution in these situations. This guy looks totally insane, and even though any number of neighbors might watch me go into his house, they might not be concerned enough to make sure I come out.

I approach the window seeking repetition of the facts, hoping it will provide me some clarity. "Your phone came unplugged?" I ask.

"Yes, will you plug it in?!?" he shouts. "Please help me. I can't plug it in because I shake too much."

The man lifts up his hand, which trembles wildly, as if he has Parkinson's Disease or some other motor-skill impairment. I'm pretty convinced I should help him, but I ask one more question just to prolong things, hoping someone will come along and give me the confidence of knowing there's a witness to this.

"What is the emergency?" I ask.

"My phone is unplugged!" he yells back.

"You said you have to make an emergency call," I explain. "Who do you need to call?"

"I need to call my son! I want him to come over!" the man says, as if that's a legitimate emergency by itself.

Although I'm not satisfied with his answer, I decide to give in at this point and help. As directed, I enter the fence in the backyard and go in the house through the porch. A dog at the end of a chain barks at me the whole way.

The old man is sitting at the kitchen table with his back to the entry. I seem to startle him when I walk up, asking where the phone connection is. He points to the wall on the other side of the table, where the cord is indeed unplugged.

I move very cautiously through the kitchen, expecting someone to emerge at any moment to attack me with a rag of ether. In a few hours I'll wake up in the basement to find out I'm starring in the new Saw movie.

Plugging in the phone, I notice the plastic tip that locks the plug into place is broken, which means the plug will easily slide out again soon.

"The little tab jobby is broken on the plug," I say.

"What?!?" he shouts.

"It's plugged in now, check for a dial tone," I say, deciding not to complicate things.

"Yep, it's working now! Thank you very much!"

"You're welcome."

So there was nothing to it. I just helped an old man plug in his phone. It was a simple good deed that I had feared might be a foolish risk to my life.

Part of me feels bad about not trusting this helpless old man, but part of me realizes that paranoia -- perhaps in some situation in the past that I never fully understood -- could be the reason I'm alive today. Perhaps it pays to err on the side of caution.

The thing is, it's generally not screaming lunatics that try to lure you into a trap. They just run up to you on the street and start biting your face apart into chunks. It's the people who go out of their way to be friendly and normal looking who utilize deception. When dealing with crazies, it's probably better to beware of the obvious.

Paul Lundgren is a newspaper columnist and a very nice man. His e-mail address is mail @ paullundgren.com