Talking to Strangers in Public

Yesterday I went to my local coffee shop to get away from the Internet and read a book. Since I’m too poor to have a cell-phone, leaving the house without my laptop means going back to the world of the 1980s. My brain slows down. I regain the ability to think in complete sentences. I can lose myself in the world of the world of the United States Civil War or the French Revolution. I can talk to strangers. I went inside, ordered a coffee, nodded to an old women who smiled at me, then quickly grabbed one of the comfortable chairs near the window.

Ever since I cycled through New England, I have been unable to turn down a stranger who asks for directions. How many times had I been lost somewhere in Western Massachusetts only to be saved from going ten miles out of my way by some helpful stranger who took five minutes out of his time to help me find the road that Google Maps helped me lose. So when I heard a woman ask a man in broken English if he knew the way to a drugstore, I jumped at the chance, not only to pay back the man who helped me escape the twilight zone that is Worcester, Massachusetts, but to show off my laboriously acquired Spanish.

Gira a la izquierda. Sigue. Walgreens es cerca de tres cuadras a la derecha.

We talked for a few minutes. Between her broken English and my broken Spanish, I think I managed to get her to the right place. After she left, I looked around, almost hoping that some Trump voter would tell me that “this is America. We speak English.” Then I could practice my “performative white ally” skills and ask him to step outside and settle it like bros. It didn’t happen. The coffee shop, which is in that part of northern New Jersey the New York Times has dubbed “Brooklyn West,” probably had as many Gary Johnson and Jill Stein supporters as it did Trump supporters. If you say anything as dumb as “this is America, we speak English” in my part of the world, people will probably just laugh at you.

As I looked around at my fellow coffee shop patrons, mostly twentysomething and thirtysomething New York City commuters – the coffee shop is part of a mixed use condo building right across the street from a New Jersey Transit station — I was suddenly reminded of how poor I am and how old I am. Just then, as if on cue, the old woman I had nodded to on my way in, changed her seat to sit closer to mine. She asked me if I lived in town. I told her I lived in the town next door and knew my way around. She asked me if I knew the location of a good bar. I told her to walk through the tunnel in the New Jersey Transit station, make a right, and she would find a very good one a few blocks down the road. I looked back down at my book, but she kept talking. She was from Philadelphia, she told me, and had spent a few days in Elizabeth, which she liked. Who in their right mind likes Elizabeth? She was planning to visit Plainfield or Somerville. Who the hell visits Plainfield or Somerville? My eye wandered to the large, cheap knapsack she had on the chair opposite her table. It was full of clothes.

I continued to read my book, not because I have anything against talking to strangers, but because the woman was older, and poorer than I was, perhaps even homeless. She had moved her chair next to mine because not because she had wanted to ask directions, but because she was lonely and wanted to talk. How many times have I been in a similar position? I should have talked to her as long as she wanted. Instead, I tried not to hear what she was saying, burying my head in Bruce Catton’s Glory Road, marveling at the way ordinary young Americans had once been willing to die for their ideals, or at least trying. In reality, I was ashamed at how approachable I must have been, that I lacked the quintessentially upper-middle-class American skill of of being private in public. This woman had noticed how eagerly I had given the Spanish speaking woman directions to Walgreens, and had marked me off as a fellow misfit in need of company, which, of course, I was. Eventually she got frustrated and moved on.

How many of us live lives of quiet desperation, unwilling to acknowledge our own reflection?

6 thoughts on “Talking to Strangers in Public”

  1. I read a study once on ‘loneliness’ on how lonely some people just are, nothing to do with social class or anything; some people go for two weeks without having a human interaction and how a simple “hello” or “how can I help?” or “how have you been?” could bring someone out of that depth of loneliness. After I read this I have made an effort (and believe me, it’s a big one) to engage people I meet, look them in the eye, whether it’s the grocery store, gas station or just any random place. And I never guessed how much people appreciate these small gestures, gestures which don’t cost anything but a bit of one’s time. And I realized it also made me happier, my natural tendency at shutting myself off has improved too.

    1. When I was 20 (and deeply depressed) I vowed to talk to at least one stranger every day.

      But I was so out of it that when the girl who worked at the college library tried to start up a conversation about the book I was checking out, I just looked at the ground and grunted incoherently.

  2. Thanks, Stan. It seems a point of view from anywhere is always interesting, especially from persons with a reflective, contemplative mood. I’m contemplating that Hilary, as a former president’s spouse, should not have been allowed to run. And perhaps the Bush son should also not have been permitted, to avoid “dynasty” presidents. Family connections should not be considered as new candidates may simply be surrogates for former office holders. And, you know, how foolish was Bill Clinton to have placed himself at Lewinski’s mercy, falling for “sex at work”, a little distraction which married men completely screw up when they get trapped in a blackmail situation where their behavior they know is reprehensible becomes a secret that a person knows can be used against you. Don’t fall for that friendly stranger, Stan. (You already know that, obviously.)

  3. I’m glad you brought this up. I’m struck by how lonely Americans are, generally, meeting their social needs through electronic media, including telephones. We live in boxes, go to school and work in boxes, ride in boxes, and otherwise box ourselves off from direct contact. I think public transit is a great vehicle for mixing different groups, and it’s too bad buses and trains are so undervalued as socializing force. Transit in Europe and in New York City provide good examples of how civilizing public transit can be.

    I like to read in coffee shops, too, and to talk to strangers. When I’m in the right mood, I try to make eye contact with people on the street and to smile. With all the hate-mongering in the mass media, I like to remind myself and others that there are still friendly, open-minded people in the world.

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