My anxiety goes through the roof anytime I find myself in an unfamiliar environment surrounded by people I do not know. Knowing that, would you believe me if I gushed to you about how much I truly enjoy traveling alone? Oddly enough, it's true.
While it might be ironic that I have an overall distrust of people I do not personally know, I do enjoy holding conversations with strangers as a means of understanding my surroundings more clearly, challenging myself to embrace new experiences. An especially sacred hobby of mine since I was a teenager, I have found myself in a constant state of wanderlust every time I am surrounded by new places and faces.
One such time left me with a combination of confusion, curiosity, nervousness, and sympathy in about a five-minute span.
Bad weather and lost luggage caused my New York-bound flight to drop me off at Baltimore-Washington International Airport one summer day. Sure, the airline had revealed to me that they had been searching for my checked bags for hours and I was a few states away from being safe and sound at home, but I would not let my precious energy be riddled with any more stress than what most people were likely to experience in a time like this.
After wandering the food court for hours with a steady pace to make it seem as if I actually had somewhere to go, it was becoming impossible to ignore the heaviness of my eyelids. I headed downstairs to Baggage Claim and, reluctantly, rested my head on the armrest of a seat outside of the Lost & Found office. As soon as my items had been located, I would collect them and then get on to rescheduling my flight with the least amount of human interaction as possible.
A few extra hours led to an overnight stay in the airport basement. I woke up to no sight of my luggage; at this point, a slight strand of annoyance had come over me. This wasn't fun anymore. The clothes on my back and a small handbag were the only things in my possession. My ID and debit card sat comfortably in a pocket while I finally succumbed to sleep deprivation.
Random and sudden noises throughout the area kept me in and out of a decent nap. One in particular was the voice of a brawny man who decided to make my resting stop his next.
"Do you mind?" he asked, followed by plopping down in the seat next to mine. I rolled my eyes and proceeded to get up and start strolling around again until I could spot my bags rolling into the Lost & Found office. The man stood up as well and began to follow me.
In experiences like this one, I have found it helpful to engage rather than run. Some strangers prefer a challenge, and if I don't give them one by being friendly and making it easy for them, they might be turned off and go try for someone else who shows fear.
I stopped walking and turned around with no attempt to show my annoyance.
"I just got off the train and I need to get on the bus to go see my mother in Philly," he said.
"What are you doing in Baltimore?" I asked.
"I didn't have any money, so this was the next stop," he said. "I just got released from prison."
"How long have you been away?"
"It's been some years. I want her to see how much I've changed—"
"For the better, right?" I interjected. At this moment, I realized I had tapped into his vulnerability.
"Yes, of course," he said. "You must not be from here."
"So why don't we each get on our way to where we belong?" I flashed a quick smirk and continued on my stroll. A tug on my handbag reaffirmed that the man was still following closely behind me.
"Ma'am," he said abruptly as I turned around. "I need money to get on the bus. You gonna give me some or not? I'm trying to be nice about it, but I can change my mind."
For a brief moment, I considered the many aspects of this conversation. On one hand, a complete stranger chose to share a deep and meaningful tidbit of his life with me. On the other hand, he had also mentioned that he was fresh out of prison and, after all, I was the lone woman target of choice in his effort to scrounge some quick cash.
It was all so confusing. Was I getting robbed in the midst of what started out as a halfway heartfelt conversation? I tried my hardest to save face in hopes of detracting his attention on me since I couldn't take a chance against my safety.
My eyes found the next ATM and, together, we walked over and I withdrew some money. A small pile of twenties dispensed from the machine, and I placed them in his open palm.
"Promise me something," I said.
"When you get to Philly, find your mom and kiss her on the cheek and think of me."
The man half-grinned, crumpled the money in his pocket, and scurried away to the sliding-door exit that led to the bus station.
Shortly after, the conveyor belt came on and my long lost luggage slid down. I gathered each bag and headed back upstairs.
At this moment, my lust for wandering had worn out its welcome. Despite my previous adventures that had led up to this nerve-racking event, what mattered more was my final destination. Much like the man who had approached me in Baggage Claim with a desperation in getting back home to his mother, I was in such desperate need of being somewhere safe and comfortable, too.