Before our girls went back to college this year, we gave them the usual advice. Don’t walk on campus at night alone, don’t take rides with strangers, etc. I stopped short of arming them with pepper spray.

I wondered, do they really need to have their thumbs poised, ready to blind someone with pepper spray? Or, has our culture become paranoid?

As a freshman at Miami University in tiny ivy-covered Oxford, Ohio, I was utterly naive. Violent crime seemed some far-off rarity that happened in New York City or Los Angeles. So, when a strange man with a thick foreign accent offered me a ride when I was stranded at the Cincinnati bus station, I took it.

I was on my way back to school from my cousin’s wedding in Louisville, Ky. Due to some kind of mechanical failure, my bus was late arriving in Cincinnati, causing me to miss the one daily connection to tiny Oxford. I used my last coins at the pay phone trying to call my dorm phone to see if anyone could make the 50-mile drive to pick me up, but no one answered.

I sat in the vinyl bus station chairs and glanced around the shabby terminal. Realizing I would have to wait for the next day’s bus, my mind raced. “I’m out of money. No one knows where I am. I have to spend the night in the bus station. What am I going to do?”

I began to cry.

Mid sob, a thin man with a brown face and a thick Indian accent tapped me on the shoulder.

“Es-cuse me, Miss, can I help you?” he said.

I was so relieved to have some kind of human contact and looked up at the man with tears flowing from my eyes.

“I missed my bus back to school!” I sobbed.

He inquired where I needed to go, and after a moment of thought, offered to drive me to Oxford.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “It takes about an hour.” But he agreed, and I followed him out of the grungy bus station to his car — a brown Ford Fairlane sedan with no distinguishing features. The stranger closed the passenger’s seat door after I willingly got in with my backpack. I didn’t even know the way to Oxford, and could only tell him to go north. He headed out of the city on unfamiliar roads, looking for signs along the way.

Soon, the last traces of suburban sprawl were in the rear-view mirror, and we were surrounded by the vast cornfields of southwestern Ohio. Not many cars on the road; no one really noticed the plain brown sedan with the foreigner and the 18-year-old girl. No one — not my roommates, my parents, my aunt in Kentucky — had any idea that I was in the middle of a cornfield, locked in an unmarked car with a strange man.

It would take hours for them to realize that I wasn’t on that Greyhound bus. The stranger had plenty of time to hide my lifeless body in a cornfield and get back to the anonymity of the city, and his secret life as a serial killer.

But that didn’t happen.

“Thanks so much for the ride, Mister,” I said to the stranger as he pulled up to my dorm. I offered to run inside and get money to pay for gas, but he politely refused, only asking me to point out the nearest fast-food location.

Without the need of pepper spray, my faith in human kind was blissfully blind, and I gratefully waved farewell as the stranger pulled away.

What am I saying? Should we unlock our doors, unzip our purses and tell our teenage daughters to take up hitchhiking from city bus terminals?

Definitely not a good idea, but who wants to live with the pessimistic assumption that all strangers are dangerous? Sure, there are a few wackos out there who make it smart to carry pepper spray, but as we protect ourselves, let’s not chastise the entire human race.

Besides, without the kindness of strangers, I might still be stuck at that bus station in Ohio.

Read more of Lisa Smith Molinari’s columns at: Email:

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