I got in a stranger’s car last week. Sorry, Mom and Dad.
It gets worse when I tell you that I had a few thousand dollars of camera equipment on my back and in my hand. And that I had met her just 5 minutes earlier.
I was filming in Atlanta on the sidewalk outside of Harold’s Chicken and Ice Bar. The next thing I know, a woman is by my side warning me about the neighborhood we were in.
“I wouldn’t carry that equipment out in the open if I were you,” she said. “What are you filming?”
I told her that I was filming a documentary series on the role of restaurants in revitalizing neighborhoods. She immediately suggested that I capture footage of the King Center (in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.) two blocks away. And the next thing I knew, she was getting into her car waving me in.
“I’ll take you there,” she said. “It’s safer for you this way.”
Perhaps I should not have agreed, but I did. Was I trusting because she was a woman? Or because she seemed to be looking out for my safety? Did I just agree to go because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings and say no?
She had a nice car, nearly new, I think. It would just be a quick trip, I told myself – after all, she was waiting for her order of fried chicken from Harold’s. On the ride over, I learned that she had a doctor’s appointment that morning and was surprising her boyfriend with lunch because she took the day off.
But I didn’t learn her name. Or maybe I did, and I just forgot. I am bad with names.
It all worked out in the end, in that I made it out of the car alive and with everything I had when I got in. I waved goodbye to her, the kind stranger who it seems will forever be just a stranger.
I met a lot of strangers on my trip. I was a stranger. When you’re out and about with a fancy camera, it makes it hard to hide that you’re new to the neighborhood.
Ordinarily when approached by strangers, I’d carry on about my business and ignore them. I barely interact with the other shoppers at the grocery store. I wear earbuds when I ride the Metro signaling that I am otherwise preoccupied. But this time I paid attention.
In San Antonio, I watched a stranger hand a young man a bag on the corner of East Commerce Street. The young man took the bag and gingerly passed back a wad of cash. Then the skies opened and water poured over them as if to wash away the evidence of what had just happened, and what I had witnessed.
I started running. I didn’t know what would happen to my camera—or me—in the rain and with the stranger across the road.
He followed, yelling.
“Miss! Miss!” the man hollered through the rain.
I kept going, but he caught up.
“Miss,” the stranger said, panting, “Can you spare a few dollars? I need to take the bus to get home in this weather.”
I stared at him, perplexed that he had not seen me seeing him moments ago receiving more than a few dollars.
I lied. “I, uh, don’t carry cash, I’m sorry,” I said hurriedly, and rushed off toward the train, relieved he had not seen my monopod and figured out the value of the contents in my backpack.
Despite the fact that you may think I had two close calls, I enjoyed the independence of traveling alone and would gladly do it again. So often we take trips with our loved ones and colleagues that to set out alone to unknown places feels like a true adventure.
And without friends to shape my experience in the cities where the train stopped, I interacted with strangers. See, you never really travel by yourself. People can’t fight the innate need to form human connections, even if that means connecting with strangers.
I crossed the country with 25 strangers. I know them better now; our living quarters were too close to not get to know my train companions. But we have all returned to our daily routines in the cities across the country where we live. We might keep in touch on social media. Or we might go back to being strangers. And in the end, our time together will just be a shared story, where for 10 days we cohabitated in a moving train, and then diverged as we continued down our separate life paths.
Every friend, after all, was once a stranger.