Smiling in the Land of Stranger Danger

Tom Chapin


I grew up in a small town in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania. It had about a thousand people in it, and I was the paperboy (THE paperboy). If I walked by someone on my morning route without smiling and saying hello, my folks would hear about it before I got home, asking what was wrong.

Then I went away to college, and in a few days found myself walking in the corridors of the M. Carey Thomas Library at Bryn Mawr College. I happened to be walking toward a young woman, and as we passed, I smiled and nodded as usual...and got to see as she suddenly averted her head and started carefully inspecting the intersection between the wall and the floor. I stopped dead in my tracks, which only aided the speed of her journey down the hall, and I quickly began to learn the world is not a small town.

All these years later, I still have difficulty making allowances for those we in my town would have considered subclinical paranoids at best. I don't see why the healthy should pretend to be sick in in some sort of sympathetic mimicry of the emotionally ill at ease.

Spending your life practicing the precepts of Stranger Danger only turns more potential friends into dangerous strangers, the exact opposite of what is desired. Unless you enjoy living in a world of Strangers.

So I'm still likely to be found spreading consternation among the Suburban Superficialites by treating them as human beings, instead of as statues as inanimate as the rest of the carefully manufactured plastic world they live in, pretending they can escape their fears by projecting them on everything outside of themselves that is in even the slightest way unpredictable.

I've been talking to their kids over the last few years. A number of the worse off have found Snowball, an antidrug crusade that among other things has the motto "Hugs, not Drugs." And I get to see these kids hugging each other frantically, sometimes seeing ten or twenty kids giving fifty hugs in a few minutes. And I wonder why they are trying to be so much more intimate with each other than we small town folks were. And I realize that they all too often are coming from families where the fear of the Strange is so deeply ingrained that parents are even afraid to deal with their own children except as strangers too.

And I sigh, give my daughter another hug, and go back to work...

Tom Chapin --
rev: 2005-May-25