It was a smallish train station, toward the end of the line. The station ticket booth was locked, a handwritten “closed” sign hung askew on the coffee shop adjacent, and all the lights, save for the one on the platform, were off. I was waiting on the end of a bench, as close to the overhead illumination as possible, fiddling with my phone. Moments later a woman in her mid-twenties, dressed in a chic wool skirt suit, struggled toward the bench I had claimed, dragging a suitcase and several large handbags. She plopped the associated purses onto the bench, one unzipped with a laptop peeking out. I smiled the awkward smile with averted eyes of two strangers all alone in a public place, in the dark. She had now marked the other end of my bench as her territory, but didn’t sit, and was nervously stepping foot to foot on her compressed kitten heels. She began looking around at the surrounding dark parking lot, with the exaggerated searching eyes that were supposed to alert me to the fact that she was looking for something, before she approached to ask assistance. It is a little dance that people do when they need help, but no one knows them, and they want to ask without appearing forward/threatening/bothersome.
Finally, she turned to me and said, “I don’t know you at all, but I need to run to the bank across the street, can you watch my stuff?” Being asked to watched a stranger’s belongings instills a certain kind of panic. What if something happens to the stuff while I’m watching it? What if she doesn’t come back before the train arrives? What if there is something sinister about her adorable matching luggage? But in the end, she was already running toward the ATM before I could even answer.
Late twenty-somethings and early thirty-somethings belong to an odd in-between generation when it comes to trust of the public. We have parents who reminisce about the days when you could leave your house unlocked, your car keys on the driver’s seat of whatever was parked in your driveway and everyone knew everyone on the same street. However, these are the same parents who taught you about ‘stranger danger’ and never, ever to talk to people you don’t know, no matter how cute their puppy. (Although, much of this advice applied when I was a child.) It certainly is true that things have changed a great deal, and continue to change, when it comes to trusting people you encounter. There are reasons for this, of course, and the reminders about suspicious activity from train station posters, and radio ads about numbers you can text to report issues, have a very real purpose.
However, in these everyday situations, where you are thrust together with a stranger, how are you to react? Personally I would never leave my belongings with some lady on a bench in the dark, but there are times when the kindness of strangers must be relied upon. We also have to meet strangers every day if we ever want to have friends, date, or make career connections. There are whole events dedicated to ‘networking’ … just a fancy way to say ‘meeting strangers with similar interests or valuable experiences to share.’ As the world grows more global, our need to interact with strangers will increase, while our view that it is safe to do so apparently decreases. What a strange paradox.
When the fashionable stranger returned from her trek to the bank we boarded the train together, chatting in the last car. We discovered that we grew up in the same area, we were in the same field of work, and she had attended the same school as my sister. She seemed relieved to learn this information, even though the opportunity to abscond with her belongings was long since passed. Standing at the exit with her cumbersome bags, as the train pulled into her stop, she waved goodbye in a friendly way and that was it.