The Danger Of 'Don't Talk to Strangers'

(By Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)
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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Several days ago, as I stood outside the Vienna Metro station waiting for my girlfriend to pick me up, a minivan pulled up to the curb in front of me. The window rolled down, and a middle-aged man in the driver seat beckoned me over, saying, "Excuse me, sir, I hate to bother you. . . ."

Sadly, we've all been conditioned to bristle at the sound of those words -- the same as we steel ourselves against pleas for spare change on the street -- and I, too, hesitated. But I could tell how flushed and serious he looked, so I stepped up to his window. A dog lay in the passenger seat and was panting heavily as the man asked whether I could dial a number for him. He told me he was supposed to pick up his wife but couldn't wait to get his dog to the veterinarian. I paused again. What kind of scam is this, I thought? I hand him my phone and he drives off? He's using his dog as bait?

Even in the moment, I recoiled at my naked mistrust.

After I tried twice, unsuccessfully, to reach his wife, I finally handed over my phone so that he could try to reach someone else.

In his hurry to save his dog, he'd left his wallet and phone and everything else behind. Someone had hit his dog and left the poor animal in the street. Only by accident had this man found him alive. I was close enough at that point to see the dog struggling, spots of blood on the seat.

His owner finally reached a daughter, barked a few desperate instructions that she needed to reach his wife and tell her what happened, and then hung up. He returned my phone, thanked me and tried to reach for money to repay me for the phone minutes. Absolutely not, I said, though I hardly felt comforted by this trifling act of chivalry.

His daughter called back, crying hysterically, about five minutes later; she wanted to reach her father, and my number was all that showed up on her phone. I didn't know what to tell her, except that I thought her mother was due any minute at Vienna.

I still feel sick that my first impulse when a driver pulled up in distress was that he'd want to swindle me. Sure, I did what I could and made those first calls for him, yet it took seeing his badly injured dog and the strain on his face before I let go of my phone.

Maybe you'd act differently. Maybe you'd trust him and not think twice. But just two days ago, I was pretty sure that I was that open-hearted and socially responsible.

-- Karl Wirsing


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