Updated: Nov 15, 2019
An encounter with Jeff in Central Park, New York, made me comprehend why I trust strangers. And, when I decide to trust them.
“Are you missing a wallet? Is your phone still with you?” My friends from New York exclaimed on hearing of my encounter with Jeff. I’m pretty sure they thought I was reckless; maybe a little dim too. In today’s time, in the most urban, hectic and unfriendly city of New York, what happened to me sounds rightfully absurd.
It was a rare hot day in October 2019 when I met Jeff in Central Park. Or rather, he met me.
I had just passed through the South End entrance of the Park from the 5th Ave subway exit. With me was Rosa, my breakfast buddy from my stay. She had tagged along with me to end her inadvertent getting-lost-in-the-NY-subway syndrome. Little did she know I am directionally challenged myself.
We were fending off the vendors accosting tourists with bicycle hires, cycle tours, horse & carriage tours, water bottles, sun hats and a ton of other surprisingly useful items. That’s when I hear the voice above the hustling, “Are you ladies lost? Do you need help?” I use the royal ignore that I’ve mastered dealing with touts pretty much every day in India, and continue to look for self-help – marked maps, signages or an information centre.
The voice eggs on, “Do you know where you want to go? I can, probably, show you the way…” A 50-something old man had stopped at a pathway on a rock, patiently waiting for a response.
I found myself saying with a chuckle, “Honestly, I don’t know where to go yet. I don’t know what there is to see here.” I had landed up here without wanting to do the standard internet search on ‘Things to see at Central Park’. Taking things as they come was my new travel mantra.
Jeff took that in with a pause, “Do you want to go to the fountains that are down this way? Everyone goes there and they’re quite beautiful. It’s a short walk… C’mon, I’m headed that way too.”
My quick scan revealed he had no visible ware to sell. He was in clean shirt and shorts and had a canvas carry bag. Perhaps, he was a benign guide on foot…
“I just come here to feed the birds and the squirrels.” He said, as if in response. “I can show a few things along the way…”
Rosa and I automatically follow him. Jeff changes his brisk walk to a slower pace to keep up with the rotund Rosa. He points at the open field to the left, introducing the Sheep Meadows like a pro guide. As we walk along he gives us the history of Central Park – How in 1853, the New York State Legislature enacted into law the setting aside of over 750 acres of land central to Manhattan Island to create America’s first major landscaped public park; how locals were moved to pave way for this. He also gives us some of his own history. Jeff used to live in New York before moving to Long Island. He comes down here on some days to meet his friends post work. And, spends his mornings here.
Passing the many hawker stalls, Jeff hands us some tips, “If you want to buy water this is a good point as it’s just $1. It gets more expensive inside. Are you carrying any food? It’s best to get that from the supermarket before heading in. I picked up ice candies for my friends here. They are just 80 cents a piece!”
I was beginning to wonder if we were meeting his friends too when Jeff waves an ice cream to a caricature artist and a bead jewellery maker at their carts. “Hey fellas, how’s it going? Do you want an ice cream?” A hard-to-refuse-offer on a hot day like that. “Where are the other guys?”, he inquiries. It was evident that he didn’t know them by name. Just by face on his regular route in.
The ice creams for the two hawkers that were not working that day were offered to us. The profusely sweating Rosa quickly accepts. I am reluctant. “You should have it, Jeff. It’s a hot day…” Jeff smiles and says, “I am fine… are you sure you don’t want it?” as he pulls out the last frosty ice candy from his canvas bag. I watch the slurping Rosa and the other two ‘friends’, I notice the factory sealed plastic wrapper and I give in.
The burst of the chilled Raspberry flavour in my mouth is so satisfying on this hot day, it freezes my fear of having broken the big rule about not accepting food from strangers.
Somehow, it doesn’t feel wrong here.
Jeff spends the next 2 hours with the two of us, taking us to the Milton Tile Ceiling, the Bethesda fountain, past the conservatory water and the beautiful lake and into the Cherry hill, pointing at the flora, fauna and narrating stories. He appropriately gives us loo breaks and pauses on benches when we look tired. He leads us to his favourite spot up a hill where the temperature drops a few degrees in the shaded cover of green.
We sit there and discuss our countries, our friends and our lives. He brings out nuts for his furry and feathered friends. The squirrels, tentative at first, eat off his hand. He has pictures of squirrels he’s befriended, though, they all look the same to me.
He patiently helps us understand the NY subway system with a brand-new map that he whips out of his pocket! “These maps are free so I pick them up as I always meet tourists in Central Park. Here, you can have it.” I let Rosa have it. She was certainly the more needy one.
I had decided that I’ll tip him when he suggests it. Almost as if reading my mind he says, “I meet tourists here all the time and they are so happy they offer me money or want to take me to lunch. I always say, I don’t do this for money.”
This is the part that stumps most people. My friend in Chicago had bewilderment to my story, “So, what’s the catch?”
But I totally get this. There is no catch.
Over and over in my travels I have learnt that unlike our urban notion, people like meeting people, being nice, being helpful and smiling together. They do it just because. In Jeff’s case, one of my theories is that he’s probably lonely and this is his way of meeting people and spending quality time with them. His theory was that he was raised to be like this. “My parents made me and my brothers lawn my neighbour’s lawn before we did ours.”
Jeff was going to chaperon Rosa to the MET Museum, so we parted ways. He gave me careful directions to Belvedere castle and Strawberry Fields. And, I gave him a hug. He was the best thing I saw at Central Park.
He came back as soon as he had turned, with a word of caution. “Don’t trust everyone… not everyone is like me.”
Now, at this point, I’d like to say exactly that - Don’t trust everyone. Not everyone is like him. As a solo woman traveler, I am careful before I dole out my trust.
And, I have some pointers I use on HOW TO TRUST A STRANGER -
· I size up the person. If there is something off about him/her, I don't indulge.
· I keep my guard up. Till I am absolutely certain.
· I keep myself in public places. Till I’m absolutely certain.
· It’s easier when other people you know are involved too.
· I ALWAYS have an exit plan in place. An excuse of sickness, having to be elsewhere or use of pepper spray... At the slightest of discomfort, I employ it.
· I never look vulnerable [Most times I don’t feel vulnerable. The times I do, I don’t show it. If you look weak, you will allow yourself to be a victim.]
· I use my judgement about people. I trust my instincts. Most times, I am right.
· Finally, I expect the unexpected. In my opinion, a-not-so-good experience is also a good experience that helps me learn.
So why do I trust strangers? When people travel, they're signing up for encounters with strangers every day. Isn’t that the whole point of travel? I love meeting strangers and getting to know about their homes, culture, food and life. So that the world is less strange. Sure, I meet some nasty ones, that shake up my belief every once in a way.
This day, however, I gradually trusted this stranger. And, aside from not losing my wallet, I was richly rewarded with a friend for a few hours.