I am walking to work on a beautiful, sunny morning. A rainbow of flowers are in bloom and the birds are playing a John Coltrane riff to the trees. A man approaches from the opposite direction carrying an oversized Starbucks container, with a big grin on his face. “Good morning, neighbor,” he says, “I like the way you trimmed your beard, so it sticks out on the side! You’re lookin’ good!”
I smile at him as we pass each other, scanning my internal database to make sure I don’t know him, and then immediately conclude: Either this guy is on drugs, or he should be.
I’m sorry, but I was brought up to be suspicious of strangers. “Don’t take candy from strangers,” my mother was always warning me. “Mom, why would I take candy from a stranger? Dad owns a candy store. I can get any kind of candy I want. The weird guy who hangs around the playground only has crappy Jolly Roger hard candies, with pocket lint all over them. I usually feel sorry for him and offer him some of my candy.”
“Don’t give candy to a stranger, either. He could have diabetes and candy could kill him, and then you’ll wind up in jail with murderers!”
Try as I might, I can’t ever get Mom’s warnings out of my head. When people start acting friendly, my alarm bells go off. If a pretty girl stops me to ask directions, I’m already two steps ahead of her. She isn’t really lost. She’s really a Jehovah’s Witness. As soon as I tell her how to get where she wants to go, she’ll try to convince me that I’m the one who’s lost, and only she knows the directions to where I’m trying to go. Don’t help her! It’s a trap! Candy! Stranger! Candy!
All too often, friendliness has been used on me as a weapon. I’ll be minding my own business at the caf'”, contemplating why no one has invented a see- through toaster, so you could see exactly when the toast is done, when some guy at the next table interrupts to ask me how I like the hash-browns. The next thing I know he’s trying to sell me hernia insurance, or aluminum replacement windows, or a time-share parking garage in Boca Raton. Strangers acting friendly has become as bad of an omen as the phone ringing at suppertime, or people with clipboards knocking on the front door.
Often times friendliness makes me confused. When people act like they know me, but I can’t remember them, it makes me feel stupid, or senile. Then I get angry. Why can they remember me so well when I don’t have a clue as to who they are? Don’t they have anything better to do than remember who I am and what we have in common? Whether our sons were on the same baseball team ten years ago, or we were next door neighbors until last July, it doesn’t seem right that they should know something about me that I don’t. Of course it’s even worse when I remember somebody, but they’ve forgotten me. I can see them wondering what my angle is, or whether I’m planning on pushing them into an elevator so I can steal their jacket. Meanwhile, I’m devastated to think I’m no longer recognizable as their adorable babysitter from 1970.
Maybe once upon a time friendliness was next to godliness, but now it just seems to be a way to find P.T. Barnum’s next sucker. Winos are friendly to me, when they’re trying to hit me up for spare change. My children are especially friendly when they need a ride, or permission to do something they know I don’t want them to do. Waiters seem to get extra friendly toward the end of the meal, when they think I’m deciding how much to tip somebody who forgot my salad, but brought extra crackers for the cold soup to make up for it.
I don’t want to be like this anymore. I don’t want to be suspicious of friendly people, and I want to be able to be friendly without having strangers think I’m a serial killer or an Amway salesman. Life is much more pleasant and interesting when people are spontaneously nice to each other.
So whether I know you or not, I’m going to be friendly anyway. I’m going to be the first person at the bus stop to say what a beautiful day it is to have my car break down. I’m going to hold the door open for others, even young ones who should be holding it open for me. I’m going to let people with only a few items cut in front of me at the checkout line, and then I’m going to ask them about their families and their odd nutritional habits. Maybe I’ll start carrying candy around in my pocket. And even before you tell me how good my beard looks, I’ll offer you a piece.
But don’t worry, Mom, I’ll be sure to check for diabetes, first.