Was it the songs from “Napoleon Dynamite” I’ve used for Coconut Girl videos? Or my “Vote for Pedro” PJs? Whatever it was, on Tuesday, I Law-of-Attracted Uncle Rico to my doorstep.
Rico arrived at 11 AM while I was working at the dining room table. The kids were at school and I was drafting plans for a house. My husband was seated next to me, hammering away on his laptop. He pressed mute on his conference call and signaled for me to answer the door.
I didn’t recognize Uncle Rico at first. Gone were the mustache, polyester vest and toupe I so love. But there was something familiar about him all the same. His let-me-put-you-at-ease smile tipped me off that he wanted something. Who was he, a canvasser? Was it November or January? I checked my daughter’s Fairy Houses calendar hanging by the door. In the picture, snow topped a tiny bark and moss dwelling. Nope, not a canvasser. Aware that I was sizing him up, Rico stepped in closer, and called from the other side of the glass: “Ma’am, I’ll just take a minute of your time.” “No thanks,” I called back, turning towards the dining table. Knock, knock, knock. Undeterred by the chilly reception, Rico reached for his laminated name tag, which hung from his neck on a black lanyard. He held it up for me to see like Dorothy flashing the ruby slippers to the Emerald City guard.
Uncle Rico: We also need some way to make us look official, like we got all the answers.
Kip: How ’bout some gold bracelets?
Uncle Rico: We need like some name tags with our picture on it, all laminated and what not. I mean, we gotta look legit, man.
For a second I was star-struck. Then I realized it wasn’t actually Uncle Rico, just a Comcast rep. He was peddling cable-internet bundles instead of a Bust-Must-Plus, but same difference as far as I was concerned. Did he really think I was going to open the door because he had a name tag? His flummoxed expression when I said “No thank you, goodbye,” showed that he did.
That evening around the dinner table, I used the Rico reconnoiter as a family teachable moment. Now in elementary school, my children’s social circle is larger than it once was. They have drop-off play dates, and are learning to navigate interactions with specials teachers, coaches, and neighbors. In our small city, several young adults have disappeared in recent years, and an attempted child abduction occurred in December at our local mall. As a parent, I forge safety rules in a blue-orange fire of optimism and fear. “Most people in the world are good,” I said that night, talking with my mouth full. “But some people are dangerous…” We discussed different encounters with strangers and what they should do, as we’ve done many times before. I explained that adults must also use safety rules, that taking care of ourselves is something we never outgrow. “That’s why, even though Mommy’s a grown-up—and even though Daddy happened to be home at that time—I didn’t open the door. We never open the door for strangers.”
Strange, it seems to me now, that I had so much range as a child growing up in the midwest during the 70′s and ’80s. From age six, I roamed freely from back yard to back yard, and street-to street. From age ten, I rode my bike a mile to “the Loop,” a small shopping district. Americans these days debate whether childhood is truly more fraught with danger, or whether it’s the pervasiveness of scary news stories that creates this perception. The outcome of this debate must be determined over and over again by a parent on any given day. “Can I go to the new neighbor’s house to play?”, asks the upturned face. And the winner is…
Even when I was young, I never opened the door for strangers. My childhood home had a mail slot beside the front door. Inside, a hinged wood panel opened to a cold metal chute where letters tumbled down every day at noon. After school, if solicitors came calling, my siblings and I would send words back up the chute like a latch-key Whisper-Ma-Phone. “Come back later!” we’d yell, then run to the window to make sure our message was received.
Uncle Rico: Back in ’82, I used to be able to throw a pigskin a quarter mile.
Kip: Are you serious?
Uncle Rico: I’m dead serious.
It was good to see Uncle Rico at my door on Tuesday, even though it wasn’t really Uncle Rico, and even though I didn’t want a deluxe cable deal. Danger and opportunity are often bound up together, and watching Rico flash his name tag gave me another opportunity to talk about danger with my children. People say “It takes a village…” It turns out the village also includes strangers.