Talking to strangers

Someone stops you for help in the street. What do you do next?

5 minute read
If you need help in a crowd, what do you do? (Illustration by Hannah Kaplan, for Broad Street Review.)
If you need help in a crowd, what do you do? (Illustration by Hannah Kaplan, for Broad Street Review.)

I was about to walk across 15th on Locust when a silver-haired man swerved toward me in the crowd. I couldn’t hear him through my earbuds, but he kept talking, so I took them out.

“Where’s an OfficeMax? Or a Staples? Do you know?” he was asking.

“How about a Kinko’s?” I said. “Near 16th and Walnut.”

“Sure. Okay, thanks.” He hurried off. I moved to step off the curb, but had missed the light.

“Can I ask you a question?”

I don’t mention this because the encounter was unusual. For my entire adult life, everywhere I go, strangers have talked to me—all kinds of strangers. People of all genders, ages, and races. Locals, immigrants, and tourists. It’s almost as if no one owns smartphones. Or a map.

This can be tough because I, like most women, experience frequent harassment in public. After many years of strangers calling me a bitch (or worse) just for walking by, each time someone (especially a man) approaches me, my body tenses and I glance around for a quick getaway.

But long years of other experiences also command me to stay where I am and listen. And this week, as I find myself in need of a hand from the crowd, I can’t stop thinking about this. I may not know you yet, but I’m about to pause in my stride and tap you on the shoulder.

I was booking it toward Old City a couple weeks ago when an elderly woman stopped me. She was trying to get to a doctor's appointment. She told me the doctor’s last name and an address Google wouldn’t recognize. The only other thing she knew was that it was a practice in the Jefferson system. I walked with her to the nearest Jefferson hospital entrance, where she could find an info-desk staffer.

From dim sum to the subway

On a recent Sunday morning in Chinatown, I was in the middle of a fresh, steamy shumai quartet at Ocean Harbor, my favorite dim sum place, when a man walked up to me, out of everyone else in the teeming dining room. Without preamble, he thrust his cell phone and a business card toward me. He spoke very little English, but indicated that he needed me to dial the number for him.

The first time I thought about how often this happens was 10 years ago, when I was joining the morning flood of humanity out of New York City’s Penn Station after taking an early train up for a weekday assignment. By the time I found my driver a few minutes later, two people had already made tracks for me in the crowd, to ask for directions I couldn’t even give.

Teenagers find me when they get turned around in the subway. People who aren’t sure if they’re on the right train stop in the aisle to ask me. When I’m walking my dog in the neighborhood, people pull over in their cars. When I’m shopping, other customers ask me to help them find things—even after I politely mention I don’t work there. When I was hospitalized several years ago for depression, other patients on the ward asked me if I was a nurse.

I swear that every time I pass through Eighth Street station on the Market-Frankford line on a weekday afternoon, a different elderly woman plunks down next to me and tells me her life story. Pulmonary troubles. Grandchildren. Christmas plans.

It never fails. Someone at the Eighth Street station needs to talk to me. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
It never fails. Someone at the Eighth Street station needs to talk to me. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

Low risk

What is it about me? I have theories. Before I was writing and editing full-time, I worked as a tour guide for about four years. Maybe something about that job never rubbed off and I just look ready to tell you everything you need to know. Or maybe the woman in the Acme on Passyunk last week summed it up.

My earbuds were in again while I put my purchases on the cashier’s conveyer belt. The next shopper was gesturing urgently at me. I emptied my ears. “Yes?”

"They sure expect a lot of us women, don't they?" she said. I have no idea why she said it to me, or at that moment, but I nodded.

Because she could be right. If you’re looking for someone to help you—or just someone to talk to—a woman moving confidently around by herself probably fits every profile for a low-risk encounter.

My turn

While I’ve been writing this, I’ve been thinking about everyone who’s asked me for help in the street over the last several months—far more people than I can mention here, or even remember. And I’m realizing that right now, from my keyboard, I’m understanding how they feel.

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One day in Rittenhouse, a woman in her early 20s stopped me to ask for directions. It turned out we were heading to the same coffee shop, and we fell in step together. She told me about interviewing for grad school here. As we approached the door of the café, I seized my chance for a survey of one.

“Do you mind if I ask you something?” I said. “What made you pick me out of the crowd?”

She shrugged. “You look trustworthy.”

I regularly miss traffic lights, fumble to pause and rewind my podcasts, check Google Maps, and scour my brain for the information strangers need, from the right train platform to the nearest cheesesteak. But all these questions are weirdly affirming of life in the city. I actually appreciate the constant reminder that we all need a hand sometimes. And we’re not afraid to reach out and ask.

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