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Seeking strangeness

I was speaking with a kind and interesting trucker last week outside of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a man — a stranger to the both of us — approached my friends and warned them: “Do you know that woman there is actually a man? I’ve never seen anything like that before. There’s something to talk about in church.”


I was initially repelled by what seemed like blatant transphobia. However, upon our return to the woods later, perhaps as my mind cleared, I questioned my own reaction to this remarkable woman. I was struck by how my own biases had damaged my interaction with this trucker. I didn’t know, nor would I have cared, that she might be transgender, but I had felt uncomfortable around her for an entirely different reason. I wasn’t being transphobic, but I was shying away from physical unattractiveness, from perceived poverty and, worse than any single characteristic, from strangeness.

The trucker had only a few of her original teeth, sticking at odd angles. The lines on her face bore testament to her 60-odd years, and, oh, the tales she told! Frugal but ambitious in the early days of personal computers, she had gone dumpster-diving for parts to assemble her own. The power source alone was built from parts of four decrepit ones, and the entire assemblage was cooled by an oscillating fan and held up by a pizza box. Beyond that, we discussed the TV show “Rocket City Rednecks” and its importance to science education, the meningitis epidemic at Princeton and the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, as well as Shakespeare. We also swapped stories on how we’d involuntarily ended up at Days Inn Somerset — her engine breaking during a long haul down Interstate 70 and us being evacuated from our nearby Outdoor Action trip due to a few cases of gastroenteritis.

Despite her conversation and obvious lack of ill intent, my OA freshmen and I were constantly on edge, clearly trying to distance ourselves from her. There was no reason to be afraid — the hotel parking lot was well-trafficked, it was broad daylight and the front desk was 15 feet away — but the thought of rudely slinking away was clearly on everyone’s mind. The truck driver herself was hardly menacing — average build, clearly well past her peak physical fitness. Her appearance was vaguely off-putting, but no more so than the sight and smell of our unwashed OA bodies.

Our reasons for shying away were manifold and, perhaps, justifiable. Too many trips to New York and downtown Denver, and ubiquitous images of people who are simultaneously homeless, crazy and ugly have perhaps led me to conflate the three attributes. Or maybe, after one too many stories of truck stop serial killers, we feared the trucker for being a trucker. The reason itself matters less than the fact that it has little basis in fact and could easily have prevented us from meeting and engaging with a fascinating person.

I met a number of other fascinating strangers this summer. In a bus stop in South Bohemia in the Czech Republic, I spent an hour chatting with a Czech former maître d' at a high-end restaurant near my Littleton, Colo., home, who had come to know a number of hockey players, including former Colorado Avalanche forward Milan Hejduk and New Jersey Devils right winger Jaromír Jágr during his time there. In Nuremberg, Germany, I stayed with a married couple of professional translators, Lawrence and Peggy, who opened their home to my friend and I — even though we were strangers — and invited us to an organic beer festival where Lawrence was playing with his band, Yellowbelly. I can safely say that I learned more in conversations about European culture and history with these and others like them than I did in nine weeks of scientific research and museum visits.

The more Princeton students puncture the Orange Bubble, challenge their conceptions of normal lives and learn from situations they would have just as soon avoided, the better. Interactions with people who don’t conform to Princeton’s community and don’t lead the bland and safe lives we live here drive us to change the world. A more porous bubble makes for a graduating class more apt to change the world outside of it. Maybe the next Rocket City Rednecks or Mythbusters can come from an inspired Princeton student. Or maybe the next game-changing hardware coming out of Princeton will be built in a pizza box.


Bennett McIntosh is a chemistry major from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached

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