The truth about strangers

March 1, 2007

Unfortunately, it appears that our mothers’ favorite adage about taking candy from strangers is true. Give your amiable bus driver an inch and he’ll take a mile. Chat with the girl beside you in the Safeway line once and she’ll be lying in wait for you by the shopping carts next time you go to buy cereal. Strike up a conversation with the security guard at your office and next thing you know he’ll stop seeing your 30-year age difference as an obstacle to asking you to dinner.

My friend has ridden the same bus to her internship downtown every weekday since last August. As polite girls with nice smiles are wont to do, she earned the friendship of her middle-aged male bus driver, who liked to have her sit up front so they could chat and sometimes gave her free rides when he passed her on the street.

Stephen Fry

Their relationship deteriorated rapidly after his personal questions about her life started to make her uncomfortable, and she thought about switching to a different bus. The final blow came when he claimed to have been hanging out in her neighborhood on a Saturday evening in hopes of running into her.

As she recounted the story to us around the dinner table a few nights ago, the fact emerged that many of our friends had been victims of similar con artists, those friendly strangers who ingratiate themselves into your life only to morph into creeps, stalkers or hypochondriacs without warning, leaving you stunned and saddened at the untrustworthiness of your fellow human beings.

A lifetime of being a bit of a loner and a semester of being an American girl in Egypt have turned me into a terrible cynic when it comes to people I don’t already know. My cynicism has at times impeded my ability to make friends, and may have cost me my chance at being swept off my feet by the dashing mystery man of every woman’s dreams, but I stand by it.

I’ve given strangers plenty of opportunities to prove me wrong. I’ve had my fair share of conversations with dubiously sane homeless guys and chatty seatmates on airplanes. I met an elderly rabbi on an overnight flight across the country who spent six hours detailing his plans to rescue and marry a 20-year-old Filipina housecleaner he’d fallen madly in love with on his last trip to Israel. He also ate all of my grandmother’s leftover Independence Air snacks, including those she’d already opened.

Then there was the Egyptian guy who followed me back to my dorm in Cairo one afternoon, then showed up the following day in front of my university several miles away, carrying flowers and asking me to be his wife. Egypt may have different cultural norms than the United States, but chasing someone around Cairo with unwanted marriage proposals is hardly socially acceptable.

Not to mention the man I met in Harlem last summer while I was working as a reporter for a New York newspaper. He detained me for over an hour to share his belief that modern America is an authoritarian state ruled by racists, and only those of us who are wise enough to see the truth can save it. His solution that we move to a house in the country and procreate like crazy to engender a new race of better, happier, bi-racial Americans did not strike me as particularly rational.

I think I’ve given the love-thy-neighbor business a fair shot. Maybe Jesus’ original followers were sane, God-fearing people, but in this day and age some of our neighbors are just too shifty to be trusted. Fear of strangers is hammered into our psyches from the moment we’re born. Every small child knows better than to take a shiny apple from a funny old woman or open the door for the snuffling creature with suspiciously bushy whiskers waiting outside.

I am often tempted to confront the rest of the world with a glower on my face and a chip on my shoulder. I can’t seem to avoid these people, but at least they see me as someone whom they can entrust with their stories or open their lives to in some way. It’s ironic, because to them—after all—I’m just a stranger.

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