Why is it that when we have to use the washroom or take a break at a crowded public place (such as a library or a cafe) we often ask a stranger to watch our belongings? On the one hand, we must realize that this only brings further attention to our absence, thereby indicating, if only to the stranger, that there is property all set up to be stolen. On the other hand, we believe that we have established a sense of trust with the stranger precisely because we have selected them, among all the others, to be put in charge of such an important task.
Experience demonstrates that the stranger almost never watches the belongings. I am witnessing such an event as I type this at the University of Guelph library. The stranger has not looked at the belongings once since she had been asked to do so 15 minutes ago.
So what, exactly, is going on in this interaction? Has it not occurred to us that by asking a stranger we are in effect signalling our absence, drawing attention to it – precisely to the stranger? The implicit logic played out here is no different from that of little Hans. It is by signalling the absence to a stranger, that is, by substituting a signifier for the absence, that some anxiety is alleviated. However, the underlying absence nonetheless remains the same; moreover, the possibility of killing the ‘thing’ (e.g., the belongings which may now be all the more stolen) becomes heightened.
Twenty minutes later, the girl returns to her belongings without checking with the stranger at all. The stranger for her part has still not turned around to check on the safety of those belongings.