Not too long ago my social media feed was filled with people making fun of a young woman who anonymously wrote about her realization that she, had she been alive in the 1970s, could have been a victim of the serial killer Ted Bundy. This was based on her watching the Netflix documentary about him and realizing she looked like most of his victims. Most people were offended at the self-centered tone of her writing, which glossed over the very real deaths of dozens of young women by his hands to worry about something she was long out of danger in experiencing for herself. But it also reminded me of my very own “Ted Bundy” experience as a kid, so I can’t be completely offended.
To set this up: My grandfather gave my mom a subscription to the Reader’s Digest every year as a Christmas gift, and I would inhale every issue that arrived before my mom could get her hands on it. One issue, probably published in 1980 or ’81, had a condensed version of either the book, The Stranger Beside Me, by Ann Rule or an article based on the book, which details Bundy’s murderous life. I was transfixed by the story, particularly how his victims tended to be young women with dark hair parted in the center (mine was also parted in the center, though auburn and in pigtails at the time). There were pictures of his victims and also pictures of Bundy himself, who was presented as a master of changing his looks by growing his hair long, cutting it short, changing up his facial hair, and losing/gaining weight to throw law enforcement off his trail.
One of Bundy’s photos jumped out at me. It was one of his more bedraggled iterations, skinny with scruffy facial hair. And I could swear I saw that man on my street a few years before, when I was about seven or eight.
I was headed to my bus stop, which was across the street and a few houses down from my own. I had just stepped from the side of my garage onto the street level, when I saw the man: a tall, scruffy, thin white guy with dark hair. I don’t remember the time of year but I think he was wearing a knit hat. He was close to my bus stop and dragging garbage cans across the street to make it easier for the garbage truck to take everyone’s garbage away.
I was surprised to see him, because the guy who usually did this job had Down’s Syndrome and even though I didn’t know him, he just went about his job and didn’t pay attention to the local kids.
But this new guy–who must have been his replacement for the day–saw me step out from the garage. And then he did something that I wasn’t expecting an adult I didn’t know to do: He started to walk toward me, his one hand gesturing as if he wanted me to come over to him.
I froze, my body buzzing with fear. Every stranger danger warning that had been pumped into my kid head flashed crimson.
I don’t know what he was thinking, but he suddenly changed his mind and started to shake his head “no”–I vividly remember the changeover as he talked himself out of approaching me. As an adult, I know he probably just realized it was a bad idea to approach a kid, even if all he was going to do was ask me if I could get him a drink of water or if he could borrow our phone.
His head shake broke me out of my freeze, though, and I turned and ran back up the steps that I’d just come down. I made a quick left behind the garage and hid, my heart pounding. I peeked around the corner to watch the man continue past my house, on his way to dragging more garbage cans across the road. Once I figured he was gone, I crept back down the stairs and headed across the street to my bus stop, super vigilant for his return until the bus arrived to bring me safely to school. I don’t remember if I told my mom what happened.
The next time garbage pickup happened, the usual guy was back. I never saw the scruffy guy again–until I thought I saw him in the Reader’s Digest, as one of the many faces of Ted Bundy. And I believed for years after that I may have avoided being his youngest victim, though I never told anyone about my encounter, which was creepy enough regardless of who that guy was.
Thanks to the internet, I would eventually confirm that Bundy was nowhere in the Northwestern NJ region in 1977/78 taking day labor jobs as a garbage can dragger to earn cash while on the lam. It’s suspected that he might have been behind the murders of two young women in South Jersey in 1969 – which could have been his start as a serial killer. But that’s his only known potential New Jersey connection.
I realize today that I was dealing with a scruffy lookalike who may have just had a question for me, or maybe was up to no good in his own way. I’m just glad I was able to unfreeze myself and hide–and to later recognize my own inflation of an encounter to involve a legendary creep.