Stranger Things

screenshot-27In an effort to get to know more about the people in our community, I try to get outside the building a couple of times each week. I’ve taken walks around different parts of the neighborhood. I’ve stopped in to the Deseret Industries, Shoreline Fire Station 61, Shorewood High School, and the Highland Ice Arena to introduce myself.

During my outdoor excursions, I’ve noticed that some adults still adhere to the personal safety rule that several generations of Americans learned as children: Don’t talk to strangers. In recent years, we’ve discovered some problems with the oversimplified “stranger danger” rule (e.g. there are occasions when it’s important for children to find a safe adult to ask for help.) It turns out, we may also have created an unintentional consequence for adults.

Of course, there are different theories about why we tend to avoid talking to strangers. Some of us have become cell phone zombies, seldom looking up to notice that there are other human beings around us. We may not appreciate the inconvenience that sometimes comes with talking to strangers. Some of us think we should all just “mind our own business.” And perhaps some of us never really learned how to talk to strangers.

In an effort to learn more, I went looking for answers and stumbled upon an article by Kio Stark called “How to talk to strangers.” As you might guess from the title, Stark doesn’t spend much ink explaining why most adults still don’t talk to strangers. Instead, she offers five “expeditions” that can be done alone or with a partner. I was so intrigued, I decided to try them all.

Over the next five months, I intend to try one “expedition” each month and share some of my observations. As she introduces them, “The expeditions are presented in order of increasing challenge — increased complexity, increased emotional risk, increased potential for depth of interaction.

The first expedition is a warm-up…” Whether you try the rest or not, I encourage you to at least try this first one.

1. Watch and learn – spend an hour in a public place where you won’t likely encounter people you know. Take notes about what you see. Describe how people are dressed, their posture, their skin color, how they interact. If you are inspired to invent backstories for any of them, make sure to specify the details about them that inform your narrative. Note any characteristics about them that inform your narrative.

Here are my notes from “expedition 1” – Watch and Learn:

First, a confession, I spent 30 minutes, not the whole hour. As part of my “get to know the people in our community” exercise, I decided to sit on the bench in front of Deseret Industries between the cross walk and the bus stop. I sat down at 11:45 on a sunny Thursday morning and counted 31 people in those 30 minutes (literally, one right after the other.) I offer ages and descriptions that are, at best approximations, at worst reveal my culturally biased judgments.

A 50-ish Asian man pulling a suitcase walks to the bus stop. Seconds later he’s joined by a white man in his 20’s wearing hoodie with thin white cords running from hear ears to what I guessed was the phone in his pocket. While they wait, they do not talk. In fact, they never acknowledge one another.

A 20 something black man across the street waits at the cross walk. When the signal finally changes, he walks his bike across and head into the Deseret parking lot.

I look up again to see a white “business woman” across the street, repeatedly pushing the button for the cross walk, just as the young man before her did. When it finally changes, she crosses with a pronounced limp. As she comes closer, I notice the coat over her arm hides a paper sack, and what I thought was a briefcase is a folder with loose papers. She too heads into Deseret.

An ‘older’ Asian man walks by in front of me. Our eyes happen to meet. We nod to one another, as he continues walking up the street.

Two women now wait for the bus: the older in a sweater, the younger in a sweatshirt and bright orange running shoes. It seems they both walked out of the Deseret parking lot, but neither have packages. Neither sit. The younger looks up from the cell phone in her hand only once, to glance at the bus schedule, before looking again at the device in her hands. The older stands and waits patiently, perhaps never inclined to distract herself, not even with the schedule.

A young Asian man wearing a backpack walks by me. He glances at me but quickly looks away when meets my eyes. Across the street, a middle-aged homeless man strolls down the path. His overstuffed backpack and the “attitude” of his walk make me think, “he’s not afraid to fight.”

From one direction, a young mom pushes her toddler in a stroller and passes me just as a woman wearing an official looking name badge passes from the other direction. The woman with the name badge meets my eye and smiles.

A family of four wait to cross the street to come to my side. The ‘mom’ stands behind the stroller. The ‘dad’ holds onto the “leash” that tethers the toddler. The ‘parents’ take turn pushing the button for the cross walk that everyone seems to agree takes too long to respond.

Across the street, beyond the path and greenway, I see an older man walking slowly behind a walker that appears to double as his grocery cart.

A pair of women come by, talking to another. They are too engaged in their conversation to notice me. Following a dozen steps behind them, walks a white-haired woman in dark sunglasses. Holding her purse against her chest, she wears the strap over her head and one shoulder to keep it safe. She glances at me but looks away without acknowledging me.

Across the street, I think I see an older man walking for exercise. As he comes into view I see he is not as old as I’d first thought. He is probably not exercising either. His hands are stuffed inside the pockets of his sweat pants. He looks like he has been cold for some time and is trying to get warm.

A stylishly-dressed younger woman strolls toward me (maybe one of the first to walk from the north to the south on my side of the street.) She has been shopping at Fred Meyers. Her purchases under her arm and in the bags she carries. She stops at the bus stop. I assume she’s headed home to some trendy North Seattle neighborhood. After she adjusts her bags. She keeps walking. I guess we’re in the trendy neighborhood.

An old man comes toward me carrying a paper bag. A tube runs under his nose to the oxygen tank he has in a sling draped over his shoulder. He’s followed closely by what I describe as a tattooed “hipster” in a beanie carrying a thermos of coffee.

A 30-something bearded man in a ball cap waits at the cross walk, pushing the button as if playing some rhythm push, push, push, push…push, push, push, push… Two women out for their morning “walk and talk” stroll by him. Push, push, push, push…finally it changes and he crosses toward my side of the street.

For the first time, I look up to see no one walking on either side of the street. There is only the pile of blankets and sleeping bag bundled around the unidentifiable person that’s been on the park bench across the street this whole time. A cyclist rides by on the path and seems not to notice. I stand up and head inside just as a pack of 6 teenagers head my way.

Then and now, I’m intrigued by my assumptions and my descriptions (e.g. While age and gender seemed to carry through, at some point, I stopped identifying people by race.)

Next month, I’ll summarize her second “expedition” – Say ‘Hello’ and I’ll share my experiences.

Pastor Kelly