I was just a few feet away from Sophie the whole time, but I didn’t hear what happened. When I turned back from the trash-can where I had been throwing out Sophie’s snow-cone, there was an older man, in dirty clothes, handing Sophie a crumpled dollar bill.
“What’s going on?” I asked, swooping in, removing the dollar from Sophie’s hand. The man smelled of alcohol. His dollar smelled, too.
“I just told her I’d give her a dollar for a bite of pretzel,” the old guy said. We were in front of the snack-bar at our busiest local beach, and Soph was holding a giant pretzel. I tend to have good faith in people: I thought maybe the snack-bar line was too long for him, maybe this homeless-looking-guy was in a hurry, maybe he really did want to pay a dollar for a small portion of our pretzel.
I gave him a piece of pretzel, thinking that would be the quickest way to make him go away. “Rip me off a big one, Momma,” he said. I gave him my meanest look, and he sped away on his kid-sized BMX-bike.
And I hugged Sophie. And told her not to take money from strangers. “But he’s not a stranger,” she told me, “I liked him.” Sophie tends to like anyone who smiles or wears pink. So far, our nicely sheltered life hasn’t given me much cause to worry. But the more I think about it, the more sketchy this guy seems. What had he said to her before he gave her a dollar? What kind of guy attempts to bribe a toddler with money anyway? What homeless guy pays a dollar for food that’s worth less than a dollar?
So, all day today, Sophie and I have been discussing the difference between strangers and friends. I have been telling Sophie that friends are people whose names she knows. I know that’s not a good definition, but it’s the clearest one I can think of, for her vocabulary. I’ve been telling Sophie that if she wants to talk to a stranger, she should first make sure that Mommy or Daddy is near. I know lots of people have the simpler rule, “Don’t talk to strangers,” but that would rule out the friends we make at the playground, or the new-to-her coworkers that her Dad brought to lunch today, or oh so many people.
I don’t want to live in a world where we can’t talk to strangers. But I also don’t want a sketchy homeless guy giving a beer-soaked dollar-bill to my gorgeous and innocent toddler.