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Conversations with Strangers


 Yesterday, I ended up talking to a stranger. Thankfully, there was no candy involved, or lost puppy dogs.

 It was the kind of conversation that began with small, awkward (yet polite) smiles, which were followed by random (somewhat inane) commentary on obvious things. “Man, that child is noisy!” “He’s probably upset by something so strange and ordinary.”

I don’t make a habit of having conversations with strangers. This one was unavoidable.

He was an around my parents’ age (I think – about 60). He was painfully skinny, walked with a can, and was obviously sick. But he made an effort to make small talk, so I obliged. It’s the polite, nice thing to do.

It turned out to be a very uncomfortable conversation, but not because he was creepy. He was very forward, and at one point, he realized it. And then he apologized for asking such questions of a stranger.

Later on, I found myself slightly resentful of the conversation, because it was intrusive. It caught me off guard in the way that pointed questions often do.

I’m also carrying around this man’s story, too. Because he told me more about his life than you’d expect. He’s sick, obviously. He’s divorced. He has a son in his early 20s. They bought a cat. The cat amazes and amuses them both. They also keep a rather messy house, one where the cat is free to bat at dirty glass on the table.

But those are facts. That’s not the man’s story. His story lies in the way he managed to carry himself. It sits in his positive attitude, the one where he was more worried about his son than himself. He was quick with a smile and a joke. (Thank you, Billy Joel. Now I’m going to be singing Piano Man all freakin’ day.) He was upbeat, but lonely. Which, I think, is why he’s taken to talking to strangers.

In our worst moments, it helps to have someone to listen. To just be there. People often worry too much about not knowing what to say or do. I’m going to tell you a secret: you don’t have to DO or SAY anything. Just being there is enough. Showing up.

I’ve always believed that a smile can brighten someone’s day. So, whenever I’m out, I smile. (At home, I usually resemble a comatose zombie, unless there’s coffee. There’d better be coffee. Otherwise, I’m totally eating your braiiiiins.) I smile, because I can.

Sure, I have bad days. Everyone does. I have days where I’d rather not get out of bed. Where I break coffee pots, slice open my finger, run into a wall, break the handle off of the washing machine – and accidentally almost set fire to dinner.

Shit happens. I know – not eloquent. But true. Sometimes, the truth is enough. It doesn’t have to be pretty. Often, honestly, it isn’t.

But smiling? That I can manage. Because you might be the next stranger I run into on the street, or in the supermarket. You might be having a crap day. Maybe your wife left you, or your dog died. Maybe you just got fired, or it’s been years since you’ve had work. Maybe you can barely get out of bed anymore, but you don’t know how to get help.

I don’t know. I won’t know. I’ll still smile at you. And if you make polite conversation, I’ll make a point of engaging, even if it makes me uncomfortable. Because there’s no way for me to fully know your story. I’d still be honored to glimpse just a little bit.

  1. March 3, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    I think that’s really nice of you, and I do the same. Although sometimes it’s painful because apparently my smile looks like I’m making fun or teasing or laughing at someone or something. Oi.

  2. March 4, 2011 at 9:00 am

    What a lovely little life’s vignette… Thoroughly enjoyable.

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