A feeling of heightened awareness washed over me as the stranger approached. It must be something similar to a small animal catching the whiff of a predator nearby. My guard went up, and a scrutinizing evaluation of the man approaching swiftly took place.
It was a very quiet evening downtown, with only one person distantly walking at the other side of the courtyard in front of the parking garage. My young children, with lollipops in their hands, were squabbling a bit from having been exhausted by hours of heat and walking. The man approached swiftly. He was quite a bit taller than me, and looked a bit rugged, but not entirely unkempt.
“Can I use your phone to find out if a Greyhound office is here? I need to buy a ticket,” he said. I, boastfully, am an excellent judge of character. I took him in quickly, and got a strong harmless-but-slightly-sketchy vibe. I never know quite what to say in this situation. I don’t let strangers use my phone. Maybe it is selfish, I don’t know, but it always seems like a bad idea to me. That said, I couldn’t just walk away from that harmless in-need-of-help look about him, stranger or not.
“I think this is just a bus stop and that there is no ticket office here, but let me see if I can look it up.” There, I had thwarted him touching my phone, but was being helpful — a sort of careful balance. This day and age it always seems like trying to be a good person and be safe is a careful balance.
The Careful Balance: To Interact with a Stranger/Potential Ax Murderer…or Not?
I am a woman barely over five feet tall, a petite one hundred and twenty pounds, and with two small children as my constant companions. There has yet to be an occasion where I have been alone with my children while running into a vagrant and felt safe. Maybe I have stared for too long at too many horrific news stories touting stranger danger, or maybe I was born a natural skeptic, but I have very limited faith in human nature — at least under those circumstances.
When approached in this way, I assume that there is a reasonable chance the stranger is a serial killer, an ax murderer, or otherwise someone that will end up pictured in one of those horrific news stories. In reality, those odds must be pretty small. But who wants to take that chance?
But — I debated as I typed “Greyhound” into my phone and kept my peripheral vision on the man — isn’t assuming every stranger in this situation is evil only making things worse? Someone in a tough spot only gets more desperate when no aid is given. There must be a careful — cautious — balance.
That Stranger Danger Look in the Eyes
As I searched through a dysfunctional website and a bunch of useless Google suggestions, I asked the man where he was headed. He said he had come here for a few months to work, but fought with his boss, and got evicted. His phone wasn’t charged, and when I told him maybe he could go to a coffee shop to plug it in and use their internet, he claimed the phone didn’t work properly. That sounded a little fishy. There was a moment that hung there in the silence between us, and I got the feeling he thought I would offer him something — money, or a place to say, a ride somewhere — something.
He had that wild animal look in his eyes of someone that is used to being desperate, and my findings probably didn’t improve matters. “There is no full service ticket center here, it is only a bus stop,” I read from my phone.
“Does it have a link to where one is?”
He thanked me, I wished him luck, and I hurried away as he settled onto a park bench. As I walked, the guilt began to wash over me. I walked to my comfortable and functional minivan with a tank full of gas, loaded up my kids holding overpriced lollipops, to drive to my home with a soft bed and warm, dim light to write this story by. And then I thought about him — stranded.
Almost certainly because of bad decisions on his part, the skeptic in me said. But who are you to judge a stranger? Whispered my conscience, and further added, You didn’t help him.
Tipping the Scale
I whipped out my phone and took it a step further — I found the location of the ticket office. I drove the van back to the park bench I had left him to give directions to where he could walk to the not too far away office, but the stranger was gone.
I don’t know if he found that office. Or, if he was really even looking for it (whispers my internal skeptic.) But if he did need a ticket, I hope someone that is carefully balancing being a good person vs. a cautious person tipped the scale ever so slightly toward the good. He — and society — need a bit more of that.