Trusting strangers is anathema to conventional wisdom. The impulse is schooled out of us by our parents, grandparents, teachers, and by much of the media we consume. A stranger is suspect. A stranger may bring harm. Better safe than sorry. And yet, we trust strangers every day — to not swipe our book or scarf from the cafe table while we gather all of our other (often electronic and monetary) valuables en route to use the bathroom; to drive on the designated side of the traffic line and resist causing roadway crashes; to fly us over an ocean or drive us on busy streets; and to not watch while we key in our pin numbers.
Is the question: When do we or must we trust strangers? Or is it about degrees of strangeness? The pilot of an airplane, for example, wears a uniform that bears the marker of institutional validity. Clearly he went through the necessary steps to become a pilot and has been sanctioned by a corporation that, perhaps by its sheer size and volume, average citizens come to trust. Less so a reason may be the actual track record. But no matter, a uniform engenders trust. And perhaps leads to extreme reaction when that implicit, built-in trust is violated. (If you know the tales of Frank Abagnale, you may be immune to even this form of second and third degree trust.)
Trust takes time. That makes sense. Time to simultaneously gather evidence about patterns of behavior while also being gauged and assessed yourself. Trust is a two-way street, isn’t it? What would you have done, then, if the following happened to you:
After an hour of riding around the city on the Barclay’s bike I had hired earlier in the morning, ending up much farther north and east than I had initially intended, I finally found my way to Broadway Market in Hackney. Right near the Regent’s Canal, at one end of the market, I knew there would be a docking station where I could turn in my bike and be well within the 24 hour deadline since I had first hired one yesterday. It was 10:15 and I had two hours to spare. Seconds before I was about to pop the front wheel in to seal the deal, a woman approached me. A young woman, who looked to be maybe in her late twenties rushed up to me holding an open wallet and a credit card in her right hand. Hanging from her left hand was a small, white shopping bag that looked like it had a worn pair of flats in it. Could she take my bike, she asked. At first I thought I was hearing things. So I just stood there staring at her. She asked again, adding that her cycle release code — the number you must punch in to release one of the bikes for use from the docking station — didn’t seem to be working and she was rushing to work. In retrospect, it seemed odd that she wouldn’t opt to take the bus or tube, which might deliver her to her destination more quickly. But in the moment, I was still bewildered by the request. And by the timing of it. You see, I had just been thinking to myself about coincidence, and timing, and the conditions that do or do not allow us to consider being open to the unknown. I had been thinking about these ideas in part because of my recent trip to Cyprus, during which I learned more about the Turkish occupation/invasion (depending on perspective, I suppose) that occurred in 1974. When I shared some of my thoughts on the experience with a friend, he sent back an excerpt from a short, reflective essay by Octavio Paz who is writing about visiting the University of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. In the excerpt, Paz and the officer leading him through the campus overhear voices and laughter on the other side, whom the officer referred to as “the others.” Paz writes: “That was the instant that I realized – and it was a lesson I would never forget – that our enemies too have human voices.”
The young woman waited for me to respond. All rational reasons for denying this bizarre request went through my mind, including the fact that I didn’t know her from the guy walking down the street and that I had to return the bike to one of the many docking stations by noon if I wanted to avoid an excess of fees. But instead I asked for her name. It was an odd one. A rather beautiful one. She wrote it down for me, including her mobile number and the name of her workplace, Harvey Nichols, to where she was currently headed. She showed me a credit card with the same name and her library card. No photo identification. I asked.
Don’t worry, she said to me, as if I wore the expression like too much rouge. She was not my enemy, no. I didn’t know her well enough for that. But I was nervous, and yet I handed the bike over to her as she thanked me repeatedly. I watched her walk the bike over the small bridge and as she did so she attempted to reassure me again: Don’t worry. It was not said with an airiness, but with declaration. A command.
The entire interaction lasted less than two minutes. But it had formed a strange pit somewhere deep inside me. I thought it was because I was nervous, feeling swindled or taken by a cheeky girl who was now having a laugh with her friends. But it wasn’t that. The pit resulted from the fact that I was somehow sure it was ok; that is, my gut felt fine. My brain started to go on overdrive. What could I do? How could I do something? So I went and had breakfast at l’eau à la bouche — mushroom tartlet and a cup of tea. And I read. With me was Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head. It made for some not-at-all light reading as I settled my nerves and strategized my next move. The pit remained.
40 minutes later, I made my way via the canal walkway, to Mare Street where I caught the 55 bus back into town and near Russell Square. On the seat next to me was an empty Foster’s can and it was either this or something about my general demeanor that prevented people from taking the seat next to me on the top of the double decker bus that wound its way through Cambridge Heath and Shoreditch, and as we passed the street where Fix Coffee sits I found myself craving a latte. The questions continued. Who was this woman? Why had I trusted her? Was it simply because she looked like she could have been the sister of a student who took my course last year? Had my internal observation system short-circuited on the basis of incorrect assumed familiarity? Why didn’t I take a picture of her? Rather than fight these questions, I let them filter through my mind as I split my attention between the unraveling of Martin Lynch-Gibbon’s life, so cleverly penned by Murdoch, and the changing landscape as we moved steadily south and west.
Perhaps I sprinted just a bit from Bloomsbury Square to my flat and found the customer service number for the Barclay cycle hire. I pressed 2 because I’m a casual user, and then waited for a representative who asked me for my surname and my first name and the 16-digit number on the credit card I had used to hire the bike. I paused momentarily, again. When stories of identity theft are rampant, I am forever skeptical of sharing this information over the phone, and more suspect still when the person on the other end repeats them aloud. Who is listening? Who is writing them down? Will I be charged for some exotic pet or jealousy-inducing vacation? I had bigger fish to fry, so I obediently read the numbers to her and provided her also with the reference number for today’s hire. I was just making sure that the cycle had fully locked in, I said, because I was rushing to a meeting and wanted to make sure. Just make sure. I sounded like a lunatic, but she accepted this tale. Then I waited. I heard her click and clack on the keyboard, breathe in and out, there were voices in the background. I wondered where the customer service office was located. In someone’s apartment? In a building somewhere? Where, exactly.
Right, so it looks like you hired the bike from Bloomsbury and it’s showing as returned to the Seville Street docking station in Knightsbridge. So this is all closed out.
Seville Street in Knightsbridge. Right by Harvey Nichols.
The pit was minuscule by this point, but still present. I typed the young woman’s name into Google and found her twitter account. With a picture. I’m not sure of the lesson here, but I’m confident that isn’t merely a tale of trusting instincts, the kindness of others, or the promise of humanity. At the very least, it made for a good story.