The One About Strangers

The One About Strangers

To begin, I must admit that I’m not entirely sure of the lasting impact of the coming narrative. This post, quite possibly, will lack the crisply tucked corners and carefully tied bow that others might use to envelop their blogs. But if you’re okay with wrapping paper that must again be cut once the present has been partially wrapped, then you are invited to listen along. (Writer’s Note: The writer is not trying to be self-deprecating, but rather aims to inform and caution you to always manage expectations.)

This story takes place on a Thursday in late August, the day before my lovely roommate Abby’s birthday. Abby’s boyfriend helped me get her out of the apartment so Operation Birthday could commence. Because what fun is baking a cake while the intended recipient is watching? Zero fun. I much prefer sneaking around and using code names. Things were running fairly smoothly, all things considered, when I realized I was missing a key item: string with which to hang up the piñata.

My carefully laid-out plan involved only a small window of time to accomplish a great many things. I talk, walk and shop at one speed: quick like a bunny. With confidence that I could run the errand and be back to clean up before Abby returned, I zipped on over to Target and found the string (aisle 10, home improvement section). Having rocked that part of the equation, now Iwas ready to roll. But on this particular night, a statistically insane concentration of humans also wanted to purchase some items at Target. I let a small, audible sigh of exhaustion escape my lips and sauntered up to the end of the monstrous line.

As I and the rest of the Dallas population sulked silently, a Target employee, new to the scene, opened up an additional register and announced, “I can take some people over here.” This is the retail shopping equivalent of waving a red flag in front of thousands of stampeding bulls.

"Come on, dear," a gentle, somewhat melodic male voice encouraged.

I turned slowly to identify the person to whom such words belonged. Was he talking to me? Should I ask him in my best Robert De Niro voice if he was talking to me? Do I know him from somewhere? Am I supposed to know him from somewhere? Does he think he knows me?

Yet instead of verbally communicating actually anything, I could only stare. Then, this over 6 feet tall, mid to late thirties, well dressed and generally attractive man smiled directly at me, nodded toward the newly opened cash register and said, “Let’s go.”

(Still one of us speechless), together, we relocated to the other line.

And now comes the time of the story when you’re hoping that we fell madly in love. Or rescued a helpless animal. Or something. But remember I told you upfront to manage expectations. Nothing incredibly remarkable happened the rest of the shopping trip. I was thankfully able to form real words that real humans can hear, and we had a truly pleasant conversation. And then we went separate ways to our separate lives. Operation Birthday included a piñata hanging properly from the ceiling and an overheated angel food cake that was forced to cool down in my closet. Whether or not we fell madly in love is not the point.

The grandeur of such ordinary words is the point.

(For some background):

With the exception of the Humans of New York founder and the titular character Anne of Green Gables, I am of the opinion that no one likes strangers more than I. I base this not on a constant feeling of general goodwill toward mankind, but rather the culmination of specific instances involving strangers that make me feel as though I could just burst with joy.

I’ve had some truly wonderful moments. One occasion involves a frantic morning in Brooklyn, when I was approached by a local who kindly helped me find my way. Another time involved a suitcase of about 45 pounds and a few flights of stairs leading down to the subway. I had walked right up to the stairwell and was about to make my descent, when an unfamiliar person said, “Let me help,” grabbed my bag, cascaded down, hoisted the bag over those unwieldy silver turning gates, nodded in my general direction, then turned and headed back up to the streets of Manhattan. I have been privy to secrets and incredible tales, in settings of bars and even teepees.

But this was different. These words, though few, addressed a fundamental aspect of the human condition: the desire for community. I’m not sure where Emily Post stands on checkout line etiquette, but many Americans see the journey to a new line as a lonely one. I was standing in front of this gentleman in our line; that was our only commonality. Yet, he chose to invite me along. He addressed me with a term of endearment, and on his tongue the word felt as comfortable as well-loved house slippers.

Good writing should say something that means something. The problem is, I’m not sure what I believe this experience means. All I can really tell you is that “Come on, dear,” is a phrase I have since carried around with me fondly. Do you ever have phrases appear in your head at the oddest of times? I don’t mean song lyrics that you’ve just heard and then can’t quite shake. I mean something that doesn’t quite fit the current context. I’ve had to stop myself from blurting out, “Know your onion!” more times than I care to admit. Now I sometimes start to say, “Come on, dear,” when a conversation dips into a lull or a meeting runs too long. I have yet to speak the words into existence for myself. Maybe a lack of opportune setting has held be back, or maybe I’m still a bit in awe.

The obvious closing statement here would be a challenge to converse with strangers more often or in a new way or something of the like. I’m not going to ask you to do that. Instead, I want to challenge you to think about what community means to you. Because sometimes it can sneak up on you, disguised as a man in nice loafers at Target, and invite you to feel enchanted with life once again.

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