There’s a story in my life which accidentally ended up turning into a test for new people.
The first time I went to London, when I was 19, I hitchhiked my way there solo. There was nothing odd about that: I’d been doing that since I was 14. It was what I did. From my point of view, the trip went very smoothly indeed, with a few insignificant bumps (a French lorry driver misunderstanding the nature of our relationship; a disgruntled asshole dropping me in the middle of the motorway; getting picked up by the French police and managing to blag a free ride – that sort of stuff). The only remarkable thing happened when I got to Calais.
In those pre-internet days, I had gotten there utterly clueless as to how much the ferry was going to cost – which, for me, was a lot of money. I did have it, but spending it on a ticket meant that I would not have it for future needs, such as food. I was wandering around trying to work out my cheapest option when this English guy picked me up. Once I explained my situation, the guy made me a straightforward offer: if I went to a hotel with him, he’d give me £200. He showed me the money. I declined, he dropped me off, and we parted company.
When I got to London and found my friends, I happened to told them the story. They were shocked, horrified, and insulted on my behalf. The problem was that I wasn’t at all shocked, horrified, or insulted. I was completely puzzled by their reaction, and curious as to what the hell it was about. They were completely confused by mine.
When the guy made his offer, my immediate internal reaction was “how much?!?” Back in those days, that was easily ten times what the average teen addict would have charged for the very same kind of service. I couldn’t justify that price tag; not in general, as I’m below-average-looking, and particularly not after a few days getting scuzzy on the road. I looked like any other teenage street kid, and they don’t command that sort of price, so I figured that something odd was up. Either he was police, or something really iffy and potentially dangerous was going on. Regardless, prostitution really wasn’t my thing. So, a polite “no, thank you” seemed the best answer.
My friends’ point of view was completely different. To them, the guy had horribly insulted me by suggesting that I may be for sale. There was no consideration beyond that point – not the offered price, not the politeness with which the offer was made, nor the willingness to accept a refusal.
I couldn’t understand how someone could insult me by offering ten times the going rate. I couldn’t understand that the offer per se was insulting.
None of my “street friends” could understand it either: most seemed to think that, given the price offered, it was almost a compliment, though really just too good to be true. But my London friends were school friends, fellow inmates at a scholarship-only institution I somehow weaseled my way into. They were mostly upper-middle-class or higher, so their backgrounds were utterly different from mine. Nobody’d ever tried to buy or sell them. Nobody’d ever tried to forcibly take them. In my experience, that sort of behaviour was the norm. It was there, like the weather. To my school friends, it was alien and shocking.
The story has become a way of quickly establishing people’s background. The responses are nearly always polarised: “was he a cop?” vs. “how very dare he?” I’ve yet to hear a response that doesn’t fit under either of these categories.
What was your gut reaction?