Talking to Strangers

In response to some questions I’ve gotten, I’d like to expand on the “friendly stranger”.

The woman I met on the Light Rail is anonymous, because that’s what you are and what you remain when you speak to a “friendly stranger”. I don’t know her name. I don’t know where she lives or where she was going to fly on the day I met her.

The young man who met her at Union Station called her “Grandma”, so I made an assumption. He could have been grandson, great-grandson, an in-law–it makes no difference.

She was beautifully dressed. Tiny. She wore an old-fashioned sky-blue pillbox hat. And she wanted to talk.

That’s all I know about her, and all I ever will need to know. What I might want to know doesn’t matter–what matters is that she had something to say, and she chose me to say it to.

I don’t know what it is about me–maybe I just have “that kind of face”. Maybe I spontaneously smile at people too often. Maybe I just look like a teddy bear. I don’t know why, or what causes people to come to me and talk about whatever is on their minds, but it has always happened.

This is not something I actively seek out. I also don’t hide from it.

Sure, there are times when I’d like to keep my face buried in my book, but when someone initiates a conversation, I respond. Sometimes people need an ear; I have two.

Of course, if the conversation turns uncomfortable–like the urine-scented drunk wanting to wax poetic about the size of my breasts–I excuse myself and get gone. I’m not obligated to talk to strangers, and I can always bow out if I need to.

Mostly, though, my experiences as a “friendly stranger” have been positive ones.

The “friendly stranger” has no responsibility to further a conversation with questions or opinions. The “friendly stranger” mostly listens–really listens–to the tale offered. I have sometimes laughed and sometimes cried. I have, on a couple of rare occasions, been moved to take some action. One of the better examples of this was when I realized the wheelchair-bound companion on the bus would have to handle her chair alone in foot-high snow drifts.  She told me her son usually met her, but he’d been delayed by the storm, so at least I’d know it wasn’t a frequent occurrence. I pushed her home, and made sure she got inside safely.

I don’t ask for names and I don’t offer mine. I don’t ask where they’re going or where they’re from. Sometimes they say; mostly they don’t.

The “friendly stranger” phenomenon isn’t about making friends. People who seek one out are looking to tell a tale, get something off their chests, share a secret that can’t be told to any mutual acquaintance. Sometimes these stories are bursting to get out, and sometimes they’ve been hidden away for so long the teller has to drag them up and out of a deep, dark well.

While this has been an ongoing thing my whole life, living in a city the past two decades really expanded my availability. I have often used public transportation to get to work, school, or activities. Seven trips out of ten, I would enjoy whatever book I was currently reading. The other three trips, I would have a seat-mate who wanted to chat.

I’ve heard birthing stories, surgery stories, accident stories. I’ve held hands with people who had just lost a loved one and needed to tell someone how they were really feeling. People don’t always want to do that with family and friends, because they’re afraid that person might feel the need to compare losses. I get that. I have stories like these of my own–we all do.

Of course, there are also the wonderful stories of marriage proposal plans, and new jobs and pregnancy after years of trying. Joyful stories that left me smiling all day.

There was a little boy with his mother who demanded to be allowed to sit next to me and tell me about his first trip to the library. That one made my whole week! I didn’t tell him about the rapture I felt on my first library excursion, when I–all by myself!–got my own library card and checked out books to read. I didn’t need to share that, but his story brought all those wonderful feelings back. My smile must have been a mile wide when he read me the first two pages of his “lie-berry” book before he and his mother had to get off at their stop. “Goodnight, Moon.” What else? I smiled all night.

If you, too, are a “friendly stranger”, you know that it is a gift. Some of the stories you listen to might be hard to hear, but the need to speak is strong in those seeking a willing ear.

Sometimes, I will share a story. Mostly I don’t, but when I do, no one gets hurt by gossip, because there are no names or references to places. Just “this guy” or “that woman” had this or that happen.

I can’t offer any advice on being a “friendly stranger”. You don’t choose it. People choose you or they don’t. I’m grateful to be chosen on those occasions when I am.

I’m also grateful for the times I get to sit and read my book.

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