stranger

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. 

stranger

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?” 

“Sorry, no.” 

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.

stranger

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. 

Am I the only person out there that thinks random strangers approaching in desolate places are ax murderers or serial killers? Do you tend to tip the scale toward ethics or caution? I’m curious to see where the rest of us stand. 

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gingerbaca
Growing up in central Florida, Ginger took annual vacations to St. Augustine throughout her childhood. She quickly learned to love the combination of historic charm and the beach, as well as a deep love for all things Florida—hot and humid summer days, thunderstorms, and the smell of orange blossoms. After meeting her husband in Gainesville, they relocated to St. Augustine where they have been living for the past fourteen years. In 2013 she became a mother for the first time, as well as a stay-at-home mom. Her family has grown since then, which now consists of her shy school-aged son, feisty preschooler daughter, two rambunctious dogs, and ten curious chickens. They are a homeschooling family who enjoy supplementing education with as many outdoor activities as possible.

9 COMMENTS

  1. I know a lady who was asked by a stranger to use her phone. In downtown St. Augustine. He WAS a double murderer and the subject of a nationwide manhunt. Be safe out there.

    • A stranger approached my car once when I was exiting the car with my then 4 year old son still in the back seat. He pushed me back in my car and tried to get my car keys from me. I fought and he did not succeed in getting them from me. However, he did get away with my pocket book. He was arrested with my cell phone still in his possession, and I was 4th woman he robbed that night. I shudder to think what might have happened if he did get my car keys. Just think what my poor son witnessed. He was a local street crack addict. I’m always weary of my surroundings especially around parking garages. Seen so many chronic street people out there scamming people too. I find it hard to trust any of them at their word. Sure there are folks in need out there, but I findit so much safer to give to charities that help the homeless, the street people and the addicts .

    • That is such a scary story. There are so many like it out there that erring on the side of caution is certainly necessary. Thanks for commenting.

  2. A friend of mine recently did a similar thing for a young man on St George Street… It turned out later, the news reported he was wanted for the murder of two people in Pennsylvania. Appearances are deceiving.

  3. I feel like so many people are concerned with offending someone that we lean toward helping even if our entire being is screaming red flags.

    I never took a chance with my children in tow, even as older teens, and would say something like, “I can’t help you tight now.” while continuing on and keeping a close eye out. If someone got too close for my comfort, I would hold up my hand and tell them to not come any closer. When I was younger, I really wasn’t as cautious and have even given rides (quite a distance) to people on the street. Now, I am just cautious all the time.

    Every large city has multiple places that can help the homeless. If they aren’t willing to accept that help, yet want a handout from me, I’m going to assume they don’t desire to go by the rules associated with many of those services – no drugs or alcohol being too of the list – and that doesn’t warrant any extra help from me.

    • I like the holding up the hand idea. In my experience I am approached much less often if I have my kids with me. Panhandlers seem to know mothers will be defensive. This guy that approached me (writer here) did not strike me as your standard panhandler, but a low-life nonetheless. Yes, if they need help, they should find it from organizations. I think if this guy really did just need help finding a place to buy a bus ticket, then he probably found what he needed just wondering around.

  4. They are not the true homeless in StA. They are the vagrants and panhandlers that scam and prey on people. They are drug addicts or alcoholics. Just say no thank you and walk away I had a man at midnight on StG Street ask to use my phone. Very nicely dressed, very polite . I thought he was a tourist. Held my phone while he used it. Found out next day he had killed his stepmother and 10 yr old brother. Robbed 2 stores and stolen 2 cars in PA . Be very careful!.

    • It is very true that you never know who you are dealing with when approached by a stranger. That is a scary story. I generally just walk away too when approached. It’s those grey areas though, like when someone asks a question rather than asking for something, that are tricky.

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