New Yorkers are not rude people. It’s just that we can get through the day without a lot of extraneous chitchat. We can communicate with each other with a quick chin lift, a head nod, and if need be, a series of simple yet eloquent hand gestures. When I first began traveling outside the City, I was baffled by the strangers who spoke to me for what seemed like no reason. “Good morning?” What the hell is that supposed to mean? Is this a set up? What kind of scam are you running here?
After lots of travel and exposure to other cultures I am less overtly hostile to the social niceties non-New Yorkers seem to require. I know now that every salutation is not a stick up. But there’s a part of me that’s still on guard.
When my dad and I walked into the lobby of the medical center for his doctor’s appointment a man in the waiting area said to him: “Hey, you retired from the Fire Department?” My dad, who worked as a civilian at headquarters for over 20 years, is always wearing his FDNY jacket. “Yes,” he said. “I retired in 1991.” Then the Stranger said, “That’s a nice pension.” And as the warning bells went off in my head my Dad said: “Yes, very nice.”
Whoa, whoa, whoa! Pension? What? Flag on the play! Did I just hear that? Did my dad hear what I heard the way I heard it? Who goes to finances inside of a 10-second conversation with a stranger? Con men, that’s who.
I unglued my eyes from my cell phone to look this vulture in the face. I’m not physically intimidating but everything about me said, “I see you, mother fucker. Keep it moving. Today is not your day.” I guess it worked because he had nothing further to say to my Dad. The set up was shut down.
Was I being paranoid? I’m paranoid about becoming paranoid like my mom. She watches the news and is so fearful she tells me to be careful when I go to the bathroom in my own house. As if the hallway between the living room and the bedroom goes through the Gaza Strip.
Maybe this stranger meant my Dad no harm but there are people out there who prey on old folks thinking they’re an easy mark. And you don’t have to mug them. The long con, the real money, is in being nice to them; chatting them up, becoming their friend. And then the real geriatric stranger danger begins.
And so sometimes (not all the time because that would be paranoid) I’m apprehensive when my Dad leaves the house. I want to say, “Where are you going? What time are you coming back? Did you ask mommy if you could go?” And I know now that this is how my parents have felt about me ever since I was old enough to toddle out past curfew, and now the proverbial shoe is firmly on the other foot.
I watch him go out sometimes with a mixture of fear, hope, and trust: Fear when a Silver Alert flashes on my phone. Those are Amber Alerts for the elderly. Did you know those even existed? The worst are the ones where the missing is described as “last seen wearing a housecoat and slippers.” I hope that things will be ok and if they’re not that I’ll have the head and help to handle it. And I am trusting that there are more heroes than villains. You know, the good strangers who make sure the little kid running in the store is actually with someone and that the old person meandering across the street actually makes it safely, especially now since one of them is probably mine.
And taking an old page from my parents parenting book I too now have my spies: People around the neighborhood who text and Facebook Messenger me when they spot my dad out and about. People he may not even notice because they give him the familiar New York City greeting: a chin lift, a head nod, and no questions about money.