My Parents Taught Me to Talk To Strangers

Right now, I’m at that age where my friends are becoming parents and am close enough in maturity to my older co-workers who are also parents to be able to share their stories and gripes with me. I would have to call myself a pretty sheltered kid, at least as far as my parents were concerned. (What my friends exposed me to is a whole other world.) The one thing my brother and I picked up from them, though, was to talk to strangers.

No one I know would ever encourage a child to talk to strangers.

I remember being 7 years old and taking the bus with my (biological) dad one night. The bus broke down and while waiting for the replacement bus, this guy struck up a conversation with my dad and offered me a candy. I wasn’t a complete fool – I just stared at that thing in his hand and my dad encouraged me to take it.

Um, what is wrong with you…?

I took it, anyway, because bio-dad told me so, even if I really didn’t want to. Now that it was in my hand, I felt like I should eat it so as not to be rude. Even at 7, I recognized that my idiocy in prioritizing politeness over impending death sounded stupid, but I did it anyway. This is really just to point out that you should trust your instincts. This doesn’t apply to all strangers. If your alerts are going off – and, at that moment, I felt like this guy was a pedophile without knowing the word or meaning – abort mission and run. I questioned bio-dad’s creeper alert instincts for the rest of my life.

That story was so contrary to my point, but I’m leaving it because… Stranger Danger.

There’s a time and place, which can end up being lots of times and places.

And then, there’s my step-dad. He’s totally that dad that cracks up at all his crazy jokes, no matter how many times we’ve all heard it. He’s the dad that always has to make a joke with the wait-staff. He knew everyone everywhere – the doorman at the various office buildings he dealt with, security guards, parking lot attendants, wait staff, local shop owners. He’s a guy that talked a lot. He might be the stranger talking to you right now.

In Junior High, when he wasn’t able to pick me up from school, I would walk home. Sometimes, I would pick up my brother from school, if they needed me to. Our apartment at the time had an easier access through some alleys, than through the front and I often took the alleys in and out.

One time, my parents came home after I did a surprise pick-up of my brother from school. (Sometimes, they got home earlier than his after school program finished.) They weren’t at all surprised to see my brother home and I asked them why. They said, “Oh, they gypsies in the alley told us they saw you two come home safe.”

That’s when it really dawned on me how my Dad’s chatty personality benefitted us as a family. I never realized how many people I came across just living my life – coming home from school, going out and walking around town, and getting something to eat – made me feel so safe. I lived in Hollywood. It’s not a small town by any means. It never made me feel spied on. It just felt like my alley was a family.

Make a few friends you never thought you would.

One person that was a big part of our daily lives during that time was a homeless man named Henry. He technically lived in our covered parking area. There was a raised “sidewalk” under the storage cabinets above our parking stalls. Henry slept there in a sleeping bag under the warmth of our car engines. We shared our food with him and often sat around and talked story. Henry was totally like an uncle to us.

In return, he was a security guard to our cars and was one of the people who checked to make sure we got home safe.

Our downstairs neighbor also became a friend to Henry. Over time, Henry moved in with him as a roommate and was able to pick his life back up.

I’m no social butterfly, but I’ll rarely turn down conversation.

Because of my upbringing, you’ll often see me talking to strangers. I’m pretty shy and I don’t really initiate conversations, but all it takes is one comment for me to roll with it.

There was a time in my single life, after the heart-ache was over and I started to embrace the world again, that I’m pretty sure half of Hollywood had my phone number. Yeah, ok, so maybe the intentions weren’t entirely platonic, but I felt like it was nice to be in such an environment, but still not be amongst strangers.

I was friends with the guy who sold flowers on the street corner, the bouncer at one of the hip-hop clubs, the owner of a piano bar, and random regulars I met anywhere from inside the clubs and restaurants to standing out on the street.

Sad to say, my current neighborhood isn’t so friendly.

Maybe I’ll try to change that. The world raised me to think that the city was a scary place and the suburbs were where it was safe to play on the street. I personally feel lied to. People in the city are used to being surrounded by people and noise. The suburbs feel like everyone runs inside from all the noise and the people, and stand by their windows making sure their property lines aren’t being crossed. (Seriously, people get antsy about cars parking in front of their house if it’s not their guest. WTF.)

The suburbs don’t feel safe to me right now. I don’t know who these people are. But if I have to overcome my shyness to benefit my sense of safety, I’ll fucking get the muffins baking in the oven and come knocking at your door.

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