I often wondered where my street smarts came from. I grew up in a small town, where people did not lock their doors, a place where it was okay to leave keys in the ignition and the door of the vehicle wide open. (Yes, my father did just that.)
I grew up in a time when children went door to door on Halloween asking strangers / neighbors for candy.
Everyone in my life was trusting, and nothing bad ever happened.
So, when I moved to a big city, how did I instinctively know not to make eye contact with a ranting stranger on the street, subway, or bus?
How did I know to buy purses with over the shoulder straps and ensure that all important zippers faced in?
How did I know that it’s best to just “look like you know where you are going” even if you are lost?
Was I just born paranoid?
But as I started to reflect on stories of the motel from my childhood, I realized, most of my street smarts came from being raised in the manager’s apartment of a motel on the south end of a small town called Blackfoot, Idaho.
When I was in kindergarten, school only went for a half day. The other half of the day, I spent with my father or hanging out alone. I would help my dad clean rooms. I would walk around the parking lot and pick up cigarette butts, a penny a piece. I would wander around the back yard, inventing stories and going on adventures. I would watch my dad fix the pickup, van, or a sink. I would try to help him install a toilet in a room under renovation.
Not matter where we were around the motel, people would chat with my dad about their room or life or money situation. Everyone knew I was the manager’s daughter. If I was out in the parking lot without my dad, people would ask,
“Have you seen M___?”
“Hey, is your dad around?”
My parents taught me very early, not to talk to strangers, not to engage. Being shy by nature, this was not a difficult thing for me to grasp. I got it. If you see a customer coming, avoid them at all costs, never answer the office door, and as I learned, one day, never take gifts from customers.
In the comfort of our home or in the backyard, no one bothered me, unless I walked past the back windows of their rooms.
One day, I was walking around the backyard, heading down the alley toward the “back back” yard, under the windows of a few of the rooms. Unexpectedly, a tenant, one of the weekly renters who was fairly new, called to me from his window.
Now, due to the nature of the arrangement, me, a small child, and the window rather far up, I did not feel like I was in any immediate danger. I knew I was breaking the rules, but it did not feel dangerous. This renter was a stranger, but we were separated by a large amount of space. He was just trying to make friendly conversation.
So, despite all warnings, this stranger was able to engage me in conversation. As I remember it, it was a fairly harmless conversation about what I was doing and if I liked music, and it ended with him handing me a little pink keyboard out the window of his room. I took the piano. Thanked him and went back inside to play with my new toy.
The problem came when my parents noticed this toy.
“Where did you get that?” My mom asked.
“The man in number 5 gave it to me.”
“I was just walking to the back, back yard, and he gave it to me through the window.”
I remember that my mother was furious. Perhaps she was embarrassed, but more than likely she was worried or scared. My mom, never fond of raising children around an ever-changing group of wayward travelers, had thoughts of child abduction or molestation.
“You cannot keep that. Do not take gifts from the people staying here. You should not trust them.”
I was confused and scared, as she lectured me about the danger I had put myself in. As at all times in my life when emotions reach a peak, I started crying. I just wanted to keep that pink piano. I had no idea that I had put myself in danger. The man did not seem scary, and there had been a wall between us. I did not think I had done anything wrong.
“And never talk to anyone from the backyard. Just ignore them or tell your dad.”
My parents gave the piano back. I have no idea what words were exchanged, but I do not remember ever being bothered by that tenant again.
I do remember being nervous about passing under those windows. I do remember hurrying because I did not want strangers watching. I do remember being scared of any interaction with a tenant. And when I was old enough that I started cleaning rooms, I remember I would always clean the rooms I knew people had left first.
I never accepted a gift from a stranger at the motel again.
I also gained my first real taste of street smarts.