The Front Porch: When strangers knock, divergent instincts put to test

First came Jean, crying and shaking, who said she was having a nervous breakdown and asked for a hug, and I figured, Well, OK. I didn’t know her – I didn’t even know how’d she’d gotten into my building – and I didn’t know how she picked my door to knock on.

She sat on my couch awhile, and we watched a bit of “General Hospital” and talked about her life and my life – she’d recently lost a couple of jobs – and I left her there as I went to get ready for my night shift. I hoped she wouldn’t steal anything while I was in the shower, and if she did, it would be something I had two of.

While I was in the shower, my brother came home and took Jean to her home, which turned out to be in a brick building around a downtown corner from our brick building. “Who was that lady?” my brother asked. This was about three years ago. She didn’t steal anything.

Next came a woman whose name I don’t remember, even though her visit was more recent – last fall. She walked up to my door on a late afternoon and knocked, but by the time I answered it, she was walking away. I called to her as she crossed the street. She turned around and said, like Jean with tears on the edge of her voice, that she was very cold. She was shaking. She asked if I could help her.

She came in and sat on my couch – different home, different neighborhood, same couch. We mostly talked about her life. She said she had a degree in psychology. She said she had grown children. She said she had a boyfriend who’d wronged her, and I don’t remember exactly how, but it had something to do with money. She cried a lot.

She said she didn’t want to go back to the psychiatric ward, but she called it something else – “Ward 9,” I think – and she laughed at me a little when I asked her what that was. She eyed me sideways like I was a nitwit. She said she had a sister in town, and she gave me the sister’s phone number.

The sister sighed a lot on the phone and said, “I’m sorry you have to deal with this.” “I’ll call you back,” said the sister, but she didn’t. We went outside and stood on the porch so the woman could smoke and looked at my neighbors’ houses. I asked her how long she’d been homeless, and she held up four fingers.

She took off across the yard when my boyfriend’s car pulled into the driveway. “It’s OK,” I called after her. “He’s pretty nice.” She was gone.

Last week came a man with long brown hair, who informed me that the length of his hair had nothing to do with alcoholism. “I haven’t had a drink in 19 years,” he said.

He stood back from the door. He was thin and fair-skinned. He looked me in the eye but held himself shyly – head low, peering out from behind his bangs. He wanted to rake the yard or wash the windows. He wanted five or six dollars. He wanted to get something to eat, he hoped within two hours.

I told him I didn’t want him to perform any labor but I’d get him a couple of bucks if he waited on the porch, and he did and I did. He looked disappointed.

During each of these incidents I was alert and wary, but I tried to keep any hint of distrust off my face. After each of these incidents, I felt mildly relieved not to have been robbed, or worse.

This week I called the House of Charity to see how the professionals handle these situations.

“If I don’t know the person, I don’t answer the door,” said James Landry, operations coordinator. “If I’m not expecting anybody I don’t answer the door. It’s just a basic safety issue.”

Yeah, I know.

“You have to be aware that because someone is telling you something, you don’t know that that’s true,” Landry said. “I hate to say that, to be that way about it, but that’s the way it is.”

Yeah, I know.

“I would caution you against letting somebody in your house,” Landry said.

Yeah. Jean was casing my apartment. The cold woman was looking for cash to snatch. The long-haired man had a knife. These are all possibilities.

My instincts told me none of these people intended to harm me. And yet: I work at a newspaper, where I read an inordinate number of stories about things that happen to people who agree to mail mysterious packages to people they’ve never heard of, who give rides to bedraggled hikers, who open their doors to strangers. These things happen so often that they often warrant just a few paragraphs or don’t make the paper at all.

For those three people, I thought I’d done the right thing – chosen to trust in the face of need, my instincts dependable. Or maybe I’ve just been lucky.

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