Saturday, April 16, 2005

Don't talk to strangers

In the first few months after I moved to Washington, I noticed that strangers didn’t talk to me on the Metro the way they did on BART. Other Californians in my graduate program also noted that people were less friendly with strangers on the East Coast. I don’t think of myself as someone who talks to strangers. I rarely strike up a conversation with someone I don’t know—I’m too much of an introvert. But when someone speaks to me, I nearly always answer. Usually it’s a tourist who needs directions. Occasionally, someone will ask me about the book I’m reading. I will commiserate about the weather when a stranger offers to share his umbrella at the bus stop on an unexpectedly wet day. And these superficial conversations with strangers don’t make me uncomfortable.

There has been a man on my bus in the evenings, who has decided to initiate conversations with me. Something about him made me uncomfortable the first time, a few weeks ago, but I wasn’t entirely sure what it was. I was sitting near the front of the bus, talking with Marvin, the driver. When we pulled out of the Pentagon, I opened my book.

“Excuse me? Miss?” I was totally engrossed in my book, and it took me awhile to realize I was the one being addressed. I looked up. “Can I ask you a personal question?”

I looked at the man. I had noticed him when I first boarded the bus. He had been talking on the cell phone in a loud, slightly twangy voice. He was sitting near the front of the bus, and I had wished he would go to the back to finish his conversation. And now, he was sitting not too far from me, wanting to know if he could ask a personal question.

I glanced at Marvin. I could tell he was listening.

“Okay,” I said, not totally comfortable with it, but not feeling that I could say no. Besides, if the man was out of line, I knew Marvin would make him get off the bus.

“How many pages have you read?”

I was relieved. It seemed like a silly question, but it wasn't exactly personal. I looked down at my book, checking the page number. I don’t usually use a bookmark, choosing instead to note the page that I’m on, so I knew how many pages I’d read since I’d left work, how many I’d read on the Metro, how many I’d read on the bus from the Pentagon.

“Of this book?”

“Just since you’ve been on this bus.”

“Um, eighteen.”

“In what? Four minutes? Are you some kind of speed reader?”

“I—no. It’s a good book.” [Actually, it was a great book, and if you haven’t read The Kite Runner, you need to. Now.]

He apologized for bothering me. We exited the freeway, and I got off a few stops later.

I didn’t think about him again, until I was waiting for the bus earlier this week. Brian and I had ended up on the same train coming home, and I was talking to him when the same man interrupted me to ask the time. I answered him, and turned back to Brian.

“Now is that really the time? You aren’t one of these people who sets your watch 5 minute ahead or something?”

“No,” I told him. He, Brian, and I had a brief conversation about people who set clocks ahead. Then the bus came, and Brian and I spent the ride home talking with a woman who lives in our building. When we got home, and I mentioned that the man was the same one who had asked me about the book, he agreed that something about the man made you think he was weird.

Yesterday it happened again. I had noticed the stranger in line behind me for the bus. I settled down to read, and tried not to notice the man when he sat down across the aisle from me. Marvin wasn’t driving, and I was not up front near the driver.

“Excuse me, miss?” The bus was moving off of the freeway, merging onto the traffic circle. “Can I ask you a personal question?”

I didn’t want to say yes, but I wasn’t sure why. His last personal question had been harmless. But I felt uncomfortable. It wasn’t just that I didn’t know him. I didn’t know the man who had offered to share his umbrella with me while we waited for the Metro bus outside the Spanish embassy a few weeks back. But I had taken him up on his offer, and over the course of a few bus rides we had gotten to know each other. His name is Miles, and his wife had a baby girl back in December. He’s not a stranger anymore, but he started out that way. Why did this feel different?

I didn’t say yes. I just looked at him, waiting.

“Have you ever considered growing your hair longer?”

I turned away from him, looking straight ahead. I noticed that the woman in front of me had stopped reading. I didn’t know her name, but I’d smiled at her in greeting as I got on the bus, as we use the same bus stop and we have spoken casually before. I could tell she was listening. I wished Marvin was driving.

I didn’t know what to say. It was a personal question, and while I couldn’t say exactly why I didn’t like that he had asked me, I was certainly uncomfortable. I considered not saying anything.

“I’m not going to talk with you about my hair,” I told him at last, not looking at him, as the woman in front of me pulled the cord to request the next stop.

The man apologized, and I rose to follow the woman whose name I didn’t know but who was not a stranger off of the bus.

We had gotten off one stop before ours, and walked up the hill together. She told me that I had been right to not simply ignore the man, but to be direct with him. She had requested the stop, thinking it would be a good idea to just get away from that man. She turned to walk down her street as I walked up the stairs in front of my building. Next time I see her at the bus stop, I will ask her name.


ann said...

Sounds like you did the right thing. Not only in the way you answered, but also in the way you got off the bus early.

Trust your instincts. They will often tell you very accurate things about people... even when those things don't always make rational sense.

Lauren said...

There was a guy I went to Hayward with who always made me very uncomfortable. I couldn't say what it was. He was an older guy with a very long gray beard. We had classes together. He never asked me anything too "personal." We just talked about Math and the campus and stuff. But I always tried to avoid him, while he tried to not be avoided by me. I can't say what exactly made him seem so creepy. He was just wierd.

Andy said...

Instincts are important. Glad you're paying attention to them. If you want to look at instincts in another context, read Gladwell's new book, "Blink".

Elizabeth said...

Actually, the whole thing kind of reminded me of The Gift of Fear.

matty said...

Did you get the woman's name who shared your same instinct?

But, you know, longer hair might shape your face in a dynamic way.
Of course, I don't know what your hair's like nowadays.

Elizabeth said...

I haven't seen her since then. Well, not to talk to her, anyhow. I saw her from my kitchen window this morning, when she was waiting for the bus, but due to circumstances (and by 'circumstances,' I mean mango margaritas) beyond my control, I was running behind.

Okay, Matt, you wonder that people think you're gay
? When you say things like "shape your face in a dynamic way" so convincingly? (I could so get into a game of trying to spot signs of Matt's gayness. Anyone else?)

matty said...

I'm down for it.

I mean I'm "down" as in up for playing it. It being the game you mentioned. Not down in any other sense of the word. Not that I'm "up" for what you're talking about, just would like to take hold, er, part in said game.

mica said...

I saw him kiss his brother on the lips... how many points do I get for that?

Elizabeth said...

The woman whose name I didn't know before is Rebecca. I finally asked her when we were waiting for the bus this morning.

matty said...

I'm glad you got her name. At least you'll have another person to speak with besides Marvin that won't creep you out with hairy comments.