Why We Are Scared of Strangers

Blurred woman walking up stairs
Blurred woman walking up stairs

"Can I tell you something?"

I'm walking down 6th Avenue pretending that I'm totally and completely invisible.

My arms are flailing and my favorite song is barking inside of my ears.

I'm 15 minutes late for something. Ever since I moved to New York City, three years ago, I'm always 15 minutes late. For something.

"Excuse me?" He says, attempting to catch my attention without making contact -- eye or body.

I stop walking and pull an earbud out.

By now, he's walking beside me, as if we've planned this whole thing.

As if we weren't just two strangers sharing an inch of sidewalk that is worth more in NYC real estate than both of our jobs pay us in just one year.

My heart is racing because he is strange in the way that any stranger is to you at first, in NYC, when they try to chat with you out of the blue.

Everybody you meet wants something: directions, assistance, comfort, some spare change. So it's only natural that we slowly begin to zap ourselves inside of a locked translucent door when we meet somebody new.

Esepcially if they surprise us with a hello or a question or a proposition at 9:30 p.m. on the corner of 17th Street and 6th Avenue.

"What?" I say, as an electronic melody pumps inside of only my right ear.

"Can I tell you something?"

We're conditioned early on in our lives to turn our heads and run in the opposite direction from strangers. But we forget that, as we tiptoe through our lives -- only to remember it again when we've grown up and finally understand the dangers we tried to understand at too early of an age.

"No!" I say, annoyed as if we've bantered before. As if he's asking me something he should already know the answer to. "I'm late. For something!"

I was rude. Really, extremely, painfully rude -- and I didn't mean to be.

***

Three of my friends moved out of NYC last week.

I'm telling my Lyft driver this as we're sitting in traffic on a foggy Sunday afternoon.

"Three of them," I repeat for dramatic effect, looking for a back seat hug of pity.

"That's just what happens, sweetheart. People come, people go, new people come."

I sigh into my half-eaten package of Trader Joe's licorice.

"You just," he paused, turning around to see my eyeballs, "have to give them a chance."

***

After my words pushed the stranger to turn and walk away, he tried once more to tell me something.

"Well..I..I... just wanted to... well."

I'll never know what it was he wanted to tell me.

Maybe it was that I had a bug on my shoulder or he liked the song that was starting to echo out of my headphones or that he knew someone, once, who reminded him of me. But I'll never know.

I walked in my direction and he walked away in his.

And I realized that I'm going to be an awfully lonely person if I keep walking in my direction, all of the time.

If I keep walking with my ears plugged and my guards up and my trembles toward strangers.

After all, strangers, often, are the ones who spare us change.