I grew up during the height of the “stranger danger” warnings in the ’80s. (I don’t want you to deduce my age by that, so I’m just going to say that from 1980 to 1989, I was 2 years old.)
It was around this time that fears of Pod People and Freddy Krueger and The Blob were replaced by fears of windowless vans, whose giant sliding doors opened like the shark from “Jaws” and inhaled oblivious children while they walked down the street.
I distinctly remember my mom warning me to stay away from Strangers. With a capital S.
She said: “We need a code word, so that if I can’t pick you up from school, and I send someone else to pick you up, they will be able to give you that code word and you’ll know it’s OK to go with them.”
I was 8 years old, and before this the only thing I’d ever really feared was a clown doll coming alive. (Yes, I’d just seen “Poltergeist.” What were my parents thinking?)
My mom asked me, “What would you like that code word to be?”
Even at a young age, I sensed the gravity of the situation, so I thought hard for a few moments.
Finally, I answered. “Butterfly.”
“Butterfly?” my mom repeated.
“Butterfly,” I said with confidence.
“OK, so if I send someone to pick you up, ask for the code word.”
“Butterfly,” I said again, feeling a little bit like James Bond. I mean, we officially had a secret code word. We were basically doing espionage. “But what if you send Mrs. Johnson?” Mrs. Johnson was my mom’s best friend and someone I knew well.
“She’ll know the code,” my mom said.
“What if she forgets it? I’d probably go with her anyway, because I know her.”
She closed her eyes. “No, you need to learn, don’t go with anyone who doesn’t know the code word. Whether you know them or not.”
I nodded. “But why would you send someone I didn’t know to pick me up?”
“I don’t plan to, but if I did, I’d give them the code word.”
“But what if it’s a stranger who just happens to say ‘caterpillar’?”
“That’s not the code word. The code word is ‘butterfly.’”
This was getting very confusing to my young unformed brain, partially, I think, due to the fact I had attention-deficit disorder.
“I think we need to pick a new code word,” I said.
My mom sighed loudly. “OK, what would you like the code word to be?”
I tried to think of the biggest word I knew. “Onomatopoeia.”
Now, you may wonder why an 8-year-old knows that word. It’s because I was raised by nerds. Mom was an English nerd. Dad, a science nerd. My mom and I would play a game called “Onomatopoeia” where we would jump on the trampoline and take turns shouting words that sounded like the noise they made.
So yeah, “onomatopoeia” was our code word. And luckily, we never had to use it. There was no driver of a windowless van who stopped me, telling me my mom had sent him.
“What’s the code word?” I would’ve said, pointing a finger at him.
“Wrong! It’s ‘onomatopoeia’!”
And then he would snap his fingers and say, “Curses! Thwarted again!” and drive off.
My point is, let’s fast forward to 2018, in a world with Uber and Lyft, where, if we need a ride, we find a random driver online, get in an unfamiliar vehicle and promptly give a stranger our home address. Not only that, but if we’re drunk, or otherwise impaired, and it is the middle of the night, and we’re alone and possibly vulnerable, we’re considered stupid if we don’t.
If only it were as simple as climbing in the car and saying, “Do you have the secret code?”
And the driver would answer, “I’ve just been fully vetted by your mom. The code word is ‘onomatopoeia.’”
And then I would say, “Drive on! Let’s go safely into that dark night!”
So, just a reminder, when you request a ride, check the car descriptions, verify your driver’s name. Let him/her say your name before you identify yourself. Try to travel with friends. And if worse comes to worst, stop, drop and roll.
Wait... I might be getting my ’80s safety techniques mixed up.
And maybe, try to keep in mind there’s a driver, who is inviting a stranger into her car, who feels responsible to deliver a rider safely home.
Brodi Ashton is a New York Times best-selling author who lives in the Salt Lake City area. She’s also an Uber and Lyft driver who shares stories from the road in this occasional column.