Fifteen years ago, I found myself at a remarkable crossroad of social networking.  I had just delivered a paper on the NAFTA Mutual Recognition Document (MRD) for Engineering Professionals at an academic conference at a University in Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico.  Those were exciting times; the MRD was the first modern attempt to treat knowledge like a tangible financial instrument.

My paper was well received and after so much preparation, I decided to take a walk to unwind.  It was a warm evening and I hiked briskly down a side street drifting deep into contemplation about the possibility of a great new international social network.  Engineers from both developed and less-developed countries could build the infrastructure for real economic growth against the forces of oppression and cheap labor.

Soon, the pavement turned to dirt and I realized that I was very lost.  I looked up through the haze of smoke and dust casting awkward shadows from a lonely street lamp through the tangle of power lines. Nearby, a group of Cholos sipped their Caguamas from various crouch positions.  In the distance the sound of Mariachi music, dogs barking, a televised soccer match, and a crying baby droned on in a muted cacophony. The smell of Carne Asada combined oddly with musty earth, car exhaust, and a distant sewer vent. The world suddenly became surreal as my enthusiasm for social networking gave way to foreboding anxiety.

In the corner of my eye, I caught the shadow of a figure limping toward me from behind a brick wall long under construction.  Old, torn and stained ranchero style clothing hung from the frame of the dark figure that approached.  His boot heals were worn to the ground and his broad dark bandito mustache hung low contrasting with groomed hair.  His weathered face, expressionless, relayed his many years of life in the parched desert.

My anxiety turned to terror as my worst fear appeared before my eyes. This dark stranger raised his hand to reveal the shiny barrel of a very large handgun.  I was too scared to move.  My mind raced as my heart screamed out “DEAR GOD, PLEASE DON’T LET IT END LIKE THIS”.  Then, in a smooth reverent motion, the dark stranger held the pistol flat with both hands as if presenting a gift.

He calmly spoke in simple Spanish, “Would you like to buy my pistol?” After an long pause, I found myself stuttering back in my broken Spanish “You have a very nice gun sir, but I am not in the market for one today, thank you”.  He returned the weapon to his pocket and offered a sincere salutation of good health to me and my family before walking back into the darkness.  At that moment, he reminded me more of my late grandfather who I missed dearly rather than evil presence I so feared a mere 20 seconds earlier.

My heart raced as I retraced my steps back to Campus.  Suddenly it occurred to me:  If this old man thought that I had enough money to buy his gun, why didn’t he use the gun to take my money?  I asked a local colleague about my experience to which his response was, “The old man saw that you looked respectable.  He knew that you could be trusted with the responsibility of owning the weapon and not present a threat to his family, children or community (i.e., HIS social network)”

I realized that this poor dark stranger of the night paid me the highest professional compliment I have ever received.  I can only hope to find in myself the humility to live up to his prejudice and to live down to my own.