Growing up in Midwestern America, one of the first school assemblies I can remember being corralled off to was the annual presentation on the topic of Stranger Danger. This talk was carried out with heroic indignity by an ever-shifting but always-cheerful entity known as Officer Friendly, a for-hire, aw-shucks, perennially unthreatening police officer from the local precinct whose job was to instruct an unruly herd of squirming six and seven-year-olds that we should always listen to our parents and teachers, but never, ever talk to strangers. Particularly perilous were strangers offering candy. A curious child, I’d wondered if it was OK to ask the stranger what sort of candy he was packing in the backseat of his Ford Abductor (a handsomely wrapped Twix might be worth breaking the rule for). But Stranger Danger’s laws were absolute. The world was a dangerous place, but as long as you went straight home after school and didn’t talk to Them, you would be all right.
Officer Friendly may have been particular to my region, but its message is one drilled into every child’s brain. The world is a nuthouse, says the message, and you never know what nut you’re going to crack, so best not to crack at all. Stranger Danger’s iron-clad rules may have worked wonders for the small set but they seemed hardly practical for adult life. If you didn’t talk to strangers, how would you ever meet new people? The answer came boomeranging back to me in sturdy, Midwestern black-and-white logic: you wouldn’t.
Then in my late teens and early twenties, I developed a chronic case of wanderlust. I’d always enjoyed our family road trips to the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest, but for the first time, I was booking flights and staying in houses or hostels without my parents for company. My first transatlantic journey (and by no means the last) was to Ireland, where my friend Kate and I spent a gregarious month cavorting in clubs and pubs, Officer Friendly a dim hologram from a dull and innocent age we had no use for anymore. Spend a month in Dublin? And not talk to strangers? You’d sooner go to a brothel to cure yourself of a sex addiction. No, not only was it was far richer to talk to strangers, it was virtually impossible not to.
So began my highly fruitful, well-traveled, stranger-infested decade, because as that notoriously unsociable W.B. Yeats once said, “There are no strangers here, just friends you have not yet met.” In the Troubadour Café in London my friend Rachelle and I passed an hour talking to Nino the Crazy Croatian with his titillating tales of fleeing KGB tanks and his as-yet-unrealized invention, the Karl Marx shoe polisher. In Cambridge I traipsed with a scruffy, soft-hearted busker who serenaded me with Oasis songs. I discussed the weather with a weathered woman in Connemara and traded travel tales with an Australian adventurer in Amsterdam. A med student in a death metal band showed me an autopsy on his iPhone in Phoenix, Arizona, while a bandana-clad bouncer in Amarillo, Texas confessed his life’s ambition to wrestle bears.
Not all exchanges, I’m afraid, have been so lively. James Joyce said he never met a bore. Lucky him, for he never sat next to the rubber band salesman from Pennsylvania on a six-hour flight. Longing for noise-cancelling headphones, I endured a litany of mind-numbing salesman’s minutiae. I responded with cheerless monosyllables, and when I feared I’d been too forthcoming in my responses, resorted to grunts. I longed for a decoy diamond ring to ward off any ideas he might be getting about me, a young woman travelling alone. By the time the red-faced rubber band raconteur had ordered his fourth baby Jameson’s and had started to lean lecherously over the all-important armrest, nothing short of brass knuckles would’ve done to help my predicament.
I suppose without the leering and leeching strangers, there’d be no need to sharpen one’s street smarts. Though it shames my social side to say it, I’ve learned that when the going gets truly rough, there’s no harm in popping in the earbuds and feigning deafery. Even so, I can’t help but wonder, as I tune myself out in the name of so-called self-protection, what stories I’ll miss out on from friends I’ll never meet.
Therese Cox lives in Brooklyn and lurks in Dublin. She is a fiction writer, indie rock accordionist, and volunteer writing mentor for Girls Write Now, an organization that supports at-risk teenage girls in New York City. She blogs about cities, road trips, and architecture at http://ampersandseven.blogspot.com and has just finished a coming-of-age novel set in Dublin, now making the rounds. Twitter: @ThereseCox