Friday, January 28, 2011

The Kindness Of Strangers

Barbara: I had to wait for my daughter the other day because she had an interview in an out-of-the-way place and needed me to take her there and home afterward. Thing is, the interview might last anywhere from half an hour to a couple of hours (as luck would have it, it took two). Now I’ve been wading through an intensely difficult and distracting revision of a 300-page manuscript, so decided that I would ensconce myself in the nearby Starbucks and get some work done.

It was snowing out, just climbing up from a frigid -20, and I didn’t like the look of the cold, hard-backed chairs that I could have chosen. I wanted plush and cozy. Well, wasn’t there a nicely plush and cozy chair right next to an older gentleman––Stranger––who was enjoying his coffee and was deeply immersed in the local paper. I asked if he minded if I sat in the chair next to his; he said of course. I pulled out my computer, and off I went, plunging into the dark world that I had created and was now irrevocably changing. 

Twenty minutes passed and then Stranger, apropos of nothing, very gently asked me what I was working on. Now, this happens to me a lot at Starbucks. Older gentlemen, friendly, curious, possibly retired men enjoy engaging the people around them, and a light-hearted question is often thrown my way. The ensuing conversation usually lasts just minutes and I’m always glad I’ve partaken. It’s the real-life version of blogging or Facebooking—getting to know a little about a fellow human being that you wouldn’t otherwise get to know. And older people who try to engage you are always ALWAYS fascinating. They have so many stories, such a wealth of experience, and––if they are compelled to talk to you––are probably pretty good raconteurs.

No different with Stranger––yet Stranger was utterly different. He was a retired sociology professor and, MAN, did we have a conversation. We spoke about everything from my work to his work to marriage to love to our tribal natures to world politics (which I know very little about, but with the incredible catch that he was an Israeli dedicated to sustaining the Jewish faith in modern times and I was of German descent who struggled with guilt issues).

Anyway, long story short: I met someone incredible in that Starbucks who I would never otherwise have met had I been closed off to human interaction. So this is one part shout-out to my new Friend (who has no idea I’m blogging here), one part encouragement to you to lend an ear to a wise person, and another part pat on my own back. You heard me: ON MY OWN BACK. I’m not ashamed to tell you––in fact I want to shout it to you––that, yes, he was a kind stranger, but so was I. And I feel immensely, incredibly lucky that because of an initial kindness, his by letting me sit next to him, mine by letting him interrupt my work, my world opened up plus one.

I just had to share that with you.

Deb: Barb, the kindness of strangers is one of the many things that can make my day. I can strike up a conversation with a can of soup and have been known to do so. I love love love chatting with people and having moments of connection. My Mom, Dad, and brother are all like this. It is the only way of being I have ever known and it is glorious and satisfying. We all have the uggers moments in our day where people behave badly, so it is gratifying and life-affirming when we interface with a lovely face. 


  1. I, too, am a chatterer. I love this about human interaction that is why I force myself to get off this computer and go places to chat. Some of my best conversations have been on planes. I am glad it was two sided as opposed to those who only want to chat about themselves and never ask questions of you.

  2. I am not one who talks to strangers a whole lot. If someone talkes to me I am going to answer them beacause I don't want to be rude,but I am not one to just strike up a conversation just anywhere. Anytime that I would strike up a conversation it is just very short. I do like when I do talk to people and talk to them like I have known them for years. Those are the easiest people to talk to. I feel more comfortable talking to those people who don't make me feel so weird. Maby it's just me but there are times when someone does happen to stike up a conversation and I get this weird feel. Almost like a creepy feeling. Anyone else get that kind of feeling,cause I do.

  3. Oh, the plane, the plane. Another story for another time is how I met one of my dearest friends because my husband took up a convo on the plane.

    And Lyndsie, you bring up a very valid point, and I kinda wish now I'd thought of that when I wrote the piece -- I think the talking to strangers is a product of getting older and having more experience. I totally felt like you did once upon a time. But then I learned most people are NOT creepy (even though clearly some people ARE). And that's what opens up the world farther and better. And that's the heart of why I felt so excited by this encounter -- it's from the discovery and confirmation of this truth.

  4. You gals who are open to chatting with strangers would totally fit in out here in smalltown Saskatchewan! We (or at least, I) talk to everyone we see on the street. If we didn't, we'd be considered stuckup and unfriendly.

  5. Oh, this is great, Barbara-very nice to have connected with somebody, however briefly. It was definitely good of you, though. I sometimes am open to that kind of thing, and sometimes am in a mood to be left alone and get crabby if someone talks to me when I'm busy.

  6. Yes,sadly in a big city we're more accustomed to polite distance than chatty closeness, but there you have it -- new experiences, great discoveries!

  7. Older men have often approached me and sometimes still do. These days however many of the old men are younger than me.

  8. A couple of years ago, an older guy from the gas company came to put in a new meter on the side of the house late one afternoon after I got off work. I didn't know anything at all about that stuff so I asked him if I could watch and would he please explain what he was doing.

    While he was puttering with the equipment, we were chatting. He mentioned that he had been in the Army and had been in Vietnam. What he didn't know was that at that time I was seriously involved with someone who was a huge military history buff. So, when the gas guy mentioned what his rate was and what unit he had been in, I just stopped and stared and then blurted (sorry about that), "You were a spook." He kinda squinted up at me trying to figure out how I'd figured that out. Then, he started really talking, really telling stories. He'd been in communications and intelligence gathering for SOG. Some stories, he still can't tell because he still feels bound to secrecy. Some, he has begun to tell after all these years. Some, he never wants to tell.

    It was a very interesting hour -- a living history lesson.

  9. At my job I work with a lot of older people and you think I would be use to strange people just putting up a convercation but i'm not . However it is funny to me how the older people will talk to you like they have known you for years. My great grandmother is one of the people who even if you are just sitting near her she will tell you about her home life and family and stories about the older days. So if you are sitting near her you better get ready for a LONG,LONG storie time. Cause trust me her stories can last a life time. Of corse she is 91 so she has got a lot of them to tell.

  10. Nag, "the older men are younger than me" -- ha!! That day will soon be here too!

    Rigel, I so love this story. It is beautiful -- and exactly what I'm talking about.

    And Lyndsie, I've met people like your grandmother, who maybe have more stories than you have time to give. That requires the gentle but kind extrication ("Well, it's been lovely talking to you, but I have to get back to my kids/dinner/saving the world/fill in the blank.")

  11. I just realized I talk to strangers all day thru the internet like you and Deb. I consider this stranger talk until we became friends without ever meeting.
    I recently was at a play and Cameron Manheim was there and asked if her mother could sit next to me as Cameron would be on the other side of her Mom. I said of course. Her Mom talked to me non stop until the play started and told her daughter she had met a lovely women (me) and now considered me her friend. I learned all her kids, their jobs, their family and her life. We were early for the play. An amazingly dramatic woman and a kick as well. I happen to have loved Cameron in all her roles but LA LAW was my favorite. A great night talking to a wonderful Mom about her kids.

  12. That's a great point, Madge. We all seem pretty good at forgetting the "strangers" part, huh?

    I love your story about Cameron and her mom -- she's so awesome (from a fan pov). I can just bet that was a wonderfully memorable experience!

  13. Depends entirely on my mood. Sometimes I shut myself off, but sometimes I am receptive. And the times I am, I have often been rewarded like you were.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.