I have never understood parents who tell their kids not to talk to strangers. Since 99.9% of the people you will encounter in life are strangers, this seems like really bad advice. Rather than teaching kids to fear strangers, we would be better served to help them learn how to talk to strangers, and how to trust their instincts when it comes to any situation. The wise Will Rogers once said, “A stranger is just a friend I haven’t met yet.” Or if you prefer, even the Bible admonishes, in the book of Hebrews, to “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Some of my best days are those that contain conversations with strangers, even when those strangers seem, on the surface, like people you might want to avoid.
Today was the perfect example.
Maya and I went to pick up her birthday cake (her birthday is tomorrow) from the Cupcake Cafe which is located on 9th Avenue next to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Not a neighborhood in which I would choose to spend a lazy afternoon, but that is what happened today, since the cake was not ready when we arrived. I had my camera, so we walked around taking photos, stopped for coffee and were making our way back down 9th Avenue when I briefly caught the eye of one of the guys who loiter in the area. He smelled sharply of alcohol and was talking loudly to a friend. As Maya and I passed, they began to amble up the block behind us. At the next corner, as we waited for the light, they approached us and asked what I was photographing. I smiled and said whatever struck my fancy. And we proceeded to have a friendly conversation. They thought we were from out of town (walking with a camera near 42nd St. usually brands you a tourist) so I told them that we live in the city and were just here to pick up a cake. A birthday cake. They then addressed Maya, asking if it was her birthday cake -she said it was – and how old would she be – she told them. Eventually I took photos of one of them, at his behest, and then we parted ways as they wished us a good day and Maya a Happy Birthday.
Did I hesitate when these two men, who didn’t look (or smell) to be the best of sorts, started following us and then spoke to me? Honestly, yes I did, but just for a second. I decided that a respectful and friendly response would do no harm, and if my gut told me something was up, we could walk in the direction of the two or three police cruisers parked just over a block away outside the bus station.
Maya followed my lead and afterward we agreed that if we had seemed fearful or defensive, we might have gotten a different response from those two men. Instead we wound up having a pleasant encounter and got a couple of good photos to boot.
I always tell my kids to trust their instincts, and to never let appearances alone sway them. Most of the time strangers are not to be feared. Besides, if you never talk to any, how will you learn to know the difference?