“All I got was this lousy T-shirt story” (Windshield urban legend)


Traditionally, urban legends came from an unknown source and were passed from one credulous listener to the next. Whether it was the $50 Porsche sold by a spurned spouse or a little girl embedded in the grill of a drunk driver who was unaware of his deceased passenger, there was never a name, place, or time associated with the stories, nor were such details requested.  

But today a legend may have a known starting point and might be followed with requests for proof. Conversely, it can be heard by millions of listeners within hours instead of years.

All this came together last week when a teenage Facebook poster wrote about finding a wadded-up shirt wrapped around her wiper and pinned to her car’s windshield. Ashley Hardacre found this out of place fashion piece after finishing work at Genesee Valley Mall in Flint, Mich. She promptly drove away, then warned others.

“There were two cars near me and one was running so I immediately felt uneasy and knew I couldn’t get out to get it off,” she wrote. “I knew better than to remove the shirt with cars around me so I drove over to a place where I was safe and got the shirt off.”

It would be hard to imagine a more mundane occurrence than a nearby running car in a mall parking lot. Yet, combined with the anomalous shirt, stories she had heard, and a heightened sense of either awareness or paranoia, the vehicle became part of a criminal plot with her at the center. 

Hence, the city most known for its wretched water supply was thrust back into the spotlight, with Hardacre’s post being shared nearly 100,000 times. She told CBS News her mother had warned her about criminal ploys to lure women out of their cars. “A lot of people think it is fake or it won’t happen to them,” she said. “But you can never be too safe.”

Never being too safe is a mindset that has resulted in products that protect cell phone users from brain cancer even though cell phone emissions are easily in the safe part of the EMF spectrum. It has also resulted in criminal charges for parents who let their children play in the park.

Several commenters joined Hardacre in her overreaction. A typical response was by John F, who posted, “This is a common practice for criminals who are either looking to carjack someone and unfortunately there are plenty of these type stories in bigger cities and young woman HAVE been abducted, raped and/or murdered using this type of situation.”

More often than not, police contribute to the panic, but in this case, Flint Township detective Brad Wangler downplayed the danger. “Nothing like this has ever happened before,” he said. “There have been no other incidences like this. It’s unknown as to what or why or who did this.”

Still, from now on, when Hardacre goes to her car after working until close, she will do so accompanied by mall security or police. There’s nothing wrong with added protection, but a shirt on a windshield is not a sound impetus for this beefed-up security. The overwhelming majority of assaults, rapes, and abductions are managed without enlisting the aid of a flannel fashion piece that is competing with a flyer for windshield space.

Some media sources conflated Hardacre’s story with a report from a verified sex trafficking victim. Snopes wrote that these reports made no effort to differentiate the gang rape victim’s account from the unrelated windshield caper. Some of the more irresponsible even quoted law enforcement officers who described the wrapped shirt as standard part of human trafficking.

Far from being normal procedure for conspiratorial kidnappers, the shirt turned out to be a prank, though clearly a very lame one. Not exactly on par with getting opposing fans to use placards to unknowingly announce, “WE SUCK.” Police interviewed the two men who placed the shirt and the derelict duo said they were shocked some persons found human trafficking overtones in it. Also, surveillance video shows they left an hour before Hardacre found the shirt, meaning they were not in the running car that had increased her panic.

Another difference between urban legends or yore and today is that sometimes, such as in this case, they can come to a neat, tidy close. I just wish the running automobile had been a clown car.

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