Strangers Real and Imagined

I saw them from a block away. They had likely been up all night, walking slowly beside their long shadows in the empty Sunday streets of downtown San Diego. After I had followed them for a few blocks they stopped for no obvious reason, one leaning against the building and the other holding onto a “no parking” sign. I had to walk between them, conspicuous in my corduroy blazer and purple nylon conference bag. The one against the building didn’t move but the one on the curb caught my eye and pointed to his wrist.

“Got the time?”

“I don’t have a watch, sorry.”

“Got a phone?”

“I lost it,” I said, which was completely true. It’s somewhere in Vancouver. Maybe even my house. But no battery power to ring when I called. What I didn’t say was that I had an old iPod touch in my pocket so I could email people while at the conference. I figured, though, that they would have no problem finding the time, I was late for a meeting, and, frankly, I saw little need at the time to be too friendly to two rough-looking men who positioned themselves well on the sidewalk if they wanted to jump me. I reminded myself that my important documents were in the safe of my hotel room and tried to think of all the credit cards I had in my wallet to cancel if need be.

I didn’t think much about the encounter again until I was a few blocks from my home on a bus from the airport last night. A woman my age got on the bus with her young son at Abbott with a half-full bag of popcorn from the movie theatre concession stand. They sat just behind me and she started asking her son what he liked about the movie. A man in the seat behind them said, “Your mom is so cool.”

“How about you don’t talk to my kid, okay?” she said with nary a beat between their voices.

“Alright, alright, I get it.”

“Why?” her son asked. And I thought the same thing.

“Because you’re not supposed to talk to strangers… and all that…” she said.

We try to teach our kids that it is okay to talk to strangers. Especially when they are with us or an adult friend. They’re safe with us. The world is dangerous, but what if it’s dangerous because we don’t treat people well? We’re all strangers at some point, even to those we know well.

But then, I understand her anxiety, too. The world does have dangerous elements and we as parents are supposed to teach our kids to be safe. It’s easy to give them the rule not to talk to strangers.

I got up at Dunleavy, as did the man sitting behind the woman and her kid. I walked to the exit behind them and the man walked to the front entrance, saying “your mom is so cool” again as he passed them. I passed the man again when I went east and he headed west on the sidewalk. I smiled a compulsory hello in the dark as we passed and saw the bus drive off.

Because of the zoning quirks of the city, the woman would probably be on the bus at least another twenty blocks, not really any more connected to this neighbourhood than I am to downtown San Diego.

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About azlewis

I'm an academic living in the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. I also teach at a local seminary.
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