In the Fall of 1972, I began post-graduate studies at the State University of New York in Binghamton. For the first time, I was truly on my own. I was 500 miles from home and 500 miles from anyone I knew, with my own apartment and no car.
That didn’t bother me much. I was ready for adventure and didn’t mind taking the bus from Johnson City to the college campus. There was a certain pleasure in getting to know the area from the window of public transit.
A young woman alone in a strange place is always vulnerable, and I had one particular experience that might have turned out badly.
There are many lonely people. Some of them are that way by choice; others are that way by circumstances. The price I paid for my freedom could have been higher than what I would have wanted to pay. I should have learned a lesson about walking down the streets of a strange town looking for cigarettes at 10:30 at night.
The meeting of two lonely strangers at night is often the stuff of romance and adventure. When the intentions of one are malevolent, it is often the stuff of tragedy.
The lonely soul who followed me home could have taken me away and no one would have been the wiser. As it was, he had a gentle approach and listened as I impressed upon him my dream of being a scholar and college professor. No time for anything else.
Perhaps there was someone else walking with me that night. Perhaps I was just lucky, but he accepted the handshake I offered instead of the kiss he wanted and left me safely at my door.
When you are alone and far away from home for the first time, you tend to notice other people who are alone. When your transportation is your feet and the bus system, you are quick to spot others who are the same.
You do your shopping close to your bus route. You see other people walking the sidewalk with bags of groceries dangling from their hands or clutched to their chests. You become a beast of burden. You can only buy what you can carry or tote.
Fortunately, if you have no car and have to rely on your feet or mass transit, chances are good that you can’t afford to buy much anyway.
One afternoon, I was riding the bus in a section of town that was unfamiliar to me. The bus came to a stop and several people got out. I watched as they stepped from the bus and went their separate ways.
Among those who stepped out was an elderly woman lugging two shopping bags. I saw that she was very elderly. At least eighty. Eighty is ancient when you are twenty-two. And I could see that she was alone with no young person to help her.
I didn’t know where I was, but I knew that if I stepped off the bus, I just had to wait for the next one in order to resume my trip.
So I left the bus at that stop and offered my help to the burdened old woman. She accepted my assistance and we walked together to her home. We set her groceries on the kitchen table and she offered me a cup of tea.
Then we talked. Yes, she had children, but they lived elsewhere. She was on her own but comfortable with that and capable of managing. She and I had much in common despite our ages. You take life as it comes. You deal with the problems of the day without complaining or despairing. Instead, you plow on with tenacity, hope, and joy. You are alone, but you are comfortable with yourself and your own company, and comfortable in the knowledge that you have people who love you and whom you love.
I returned to my apartment and never saw her again. It had been a brief and chance meeting, but we both took something away from the experience.
Recalling that experience and the motivation that made me leave the bus to help her, I suppose that it would have been prudent for me to have ignored her and continued on my way. It also would have been prudent for her to have rejected my help. We were strangers and owed each other nothing. Instead we both took a chance and received something good in return.
It is a world where you run a risk by responding warmly to a stranger. But that is the world we live in and we have to react with caution and suspicion. That lonely person could be your worst enemy. Keep your distance. “He who sups with the devil should use a long spoon.”
We take our chances when we reach out to others. Especially as a lonely stranger in a strange town. I have spent much of my life alone and I’m happy with my own company. But I have been fortified by the people I’ve met. Many of them began as strangers. Individuals who have come and gone and have blessed my life somehow along the way.