Strangers by George Merrill

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One summer, as a teenager, I worked as a laborer for a ship’s chandler in New York Harbor. In those days, freight ships had access through their hulls for tenders to come alongside and deliver staples. I was always thrilled to meet my foreign peers as we handed off sacks of coffee and boxes of fruits from the tender to the ship. One of the rituals – it seemed universal and instinctual then – was to greet our fellow laborers from various foreign ports by offering them cigarettes. There would be an immediate nod and smile of camaraderie. The recipient would in return take out his cigarettes like Gauloises and offer me one as I extended my pack of Camels toward him. Then came the task of trying to converse, as neither of us spoke the other’s language nor were we even sure where others were from. We would gesticulate, point emphatically, raise our voices for emphasis, as if volume would bring understanding, as we attempted to learn more from one another. Where are you from? Who do you work for? In the process we occasionally understood differences and what the other was getting at. I remember how exhilarating it felt to wend our way through the apparent differences that separated us to connect and discover something in common.

I believe to know others and be known is one of the most basic hungers of the heart. We yearn to be connected, to be a part of the whole.

There is something universally satisfying about finding kinship in a stranger. For starters, it might mean nothing more than establishing that you’re both smokers. Still, better to begin there than to remain strangers. We may be from different countries, speak different languages, and even have similar bad habits, but we all enjoy the same heritage having traveled here the same way riding the Milky Way. In one instance for me, the awareness of others grew from floating alongside foreign freighters in New York Harbor and finding some hitherto unknown traveling companions.

A thought about this apprehension with strangers today troubles me, but I am not sure what there is to do about it since I fear it’s become a way of life. How has such universal suspicion has become part of our daily lives? I’ve become increasingly aware that in the last maybe twenty years we are living reactively, defensively with each other. I hate to see it, but it’s begun showing itself in all kinds of ways that communicates the message that whatever is strange and unknown is necessarily dangerous. It’s evident in small ways. The popular way of saying our goodbyes is to say ‘take care.’ Must we be so hypervigilant and remind others to be?

There are public indicators that we must protect ourselves from one another. I’ve noticed in supermarkets that there are disinfectant dispensers or handy wipes to clean off the carts we push to carry groceries in. It’s as if just being human is a dirty enough business to make us threats to one another.

I have watched my children as they raised their own and observed how they behave. It’s as though there were dangers everywhere. ‘Don’t talk to strangers’ is a refrain I hear from many parents these days who legitimately fear for their children’s safety. Few children today roam the neighborhoods to play. I cannot but feel sad. Whatever has happened to us that we don’t welcome the stranger, but instead suspect him or her of being dangerous?

In a strange twist, the cellphone has both lent itself to this phenomenon and at the same time offered some protection from some of the imagined dangers. Children now carry their phones everywhere and some texts they receive can be frightening. The children also have in their hands the instruments by which they can seek help in situations where they might be vulnerable.

Every parent’s nightmare is losing a child or fearing he or she may be walking into danger. Is there a more anxious atmosphere now than there was fifty years ago? I suspect there is and it results I believe from loss of real neighborhoods where people know one another by name. Here on the Shore where retirees come to live, some permanently, some weekending, has created communities where people have houses close by but do not know who their neighbors are or if they do, rarely see them.

It’s interesting to note that new houses under construction have their porches in the back of the house to insure privacy. In the past, porches were on the front where neighbors welcomed seeing other people coming and going. “Private Property, No Trespassing” is a common warning seen on the lawns and front gates of many properties.

A prominent African-American educator once told me about growing up near White Haven here on the Shore. It was during segregation and in a small black community. Despite the indignities of segregation, she recalled fondly the neighborhood. To paraphrase her story, she said that since that long ago time, she has not experienced the safety and solidarity of a community. Neighbors knew each other and were called “Aunt” and “Uncle” by all the kids. Even if Mom and Dad weren’t at home, kids had to behave, as neighbors kept an eye on them. They grew up as we hope kids grow up; feeling safe and cared for. People knew and had come to trust one another.

My granddaughter Leighton is fifteen. She recently volunteered at a summer camp in Delaware providing day activities for children from homes with limited means. One little girl, age five, grew fond of Leighton. One day as they were engaged in activities, the girl looked to Leighton and said; “If you were only brown you could be my sister.”

“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” reads the scriptures. I would add that angels come in all colors and many don’t speak English.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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Letters to Editor

  1. Diane Shields says:

    Beautiful! Can I share this on Facebook? or other venues??

  2. MArY WOOD says:

    We need people like Merril to remind us that we all started out as adorable little babies — in any color.
    Thank you Spy

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