As a child born in the 80’s, I came of age during the Jon Bennet Ramsey abduction, and was told by parents, teachers, and even Sesame Street never to talk to strangers. Us latchkey kids were instructed time and time again to walk directly from school to home each afternoon; “do not talk to anyone you do not know, do not take candy from anyone you do not know (or do know for that matter, you’ll ruin your teeth), do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars.
Now, as a young twenty something, much to my parents dismay, I have come to believe in the power of strangers. I live life on the road. My job requires me to drive a van full of women’s bicycles around the country, bouncing from city to city promoting women’s cycling. It is the best job in the world. It is also the loneliest job in the world. Whole weeks go by where I will see no one I have ever seen before. In the morning when I first wake up I often have to remind myself what city I am in. It is in this job that strangers have become my sanity.
My first week on the road, I embraced my solitary state. I’ve always prided myself on being an independent person- and it made a great joke – whenever someone would call and ask how it was going, was I lonely yet, I would remark “of course not, I’m in great company!” Eventually that joke got old, (ok, really quickly that joke got old), and I teetered on the edge of falling into a listless state of loneliness.
I was in Louisiana when it happened. On my way to check into my b-rate motel I stopped at a super Wal-Mart to grab a frozen plastic tray of over-processed food for dinner. It was 11:30 pm, and as a vegetarian looking for dinner in the Deep South I figured my choices were slim. So as the glimmering lights of a Super Wal-Mart came into view, shinning like a beacon of capitalism and all things plastic, I rejoiced and thought- I can get a frozen dinner tonight! I grabbed a package of frozen lasagna, checked out and headed to my hotel. With my prize lasagna gripped tightly in my hands I checked in and trotted victoriously up to my room- oh what a feast I was going to have! Only to find, there was no microwave. Every other hotel I had stayed in, to that point, had had a microwave. Refusing to be discouraged I grabbed the phone and dialed the front desk. “Do you all, per chance, have a microwave down there?” I asked in my sweetest, most pleading, can you help a sista’ with a frozen block of lasagna out voice. “Nope, sorry.”
“Are you sure?”
I hung up the phone, sunk into the bed, and sat dejectedly holding my hunk o’ frozen pasta. Then brilliance struck. My hotel was bordered on either side by hotels, with more across the street. One of them must have a microwave. I chose the one to my left where the side door had been propped open, by some unsuspecting guest who never knew that because of their carelessness I was going to sneak into their hotel, conquer their microwave, and steal 13 volts of electricity.
Making sure the coast was clear I tiptoed in the door, than walked non-chalantly to the front desk area. The “breakfast” area was there in plain view. I rejoiced thinking surely this is it- the moment I have been waiting for! But as I stood there, trying to take in the breakfast area as coolly and calmly as any guest would take in the breakfast area of any hotel at 11:30 pm, I realized, there was no microwave. I would have just turned around and walked out the front door at that moment except for the fact that the lady at the front desk had now returned to her post and was staring as inquisitively at me holding my box of frozen lasagna, as I was staring at the place where the microwave should surely go. About to embark on some long winded lie, I was cut off by her sincere “can I help you?” It had been a long day. I couldn’t lie. The whole story came pilling out. She looked at me, smiled and said, well I’m not supposed to do this, but the employee break room has a microwave. Follow me. And in a matter of moments my lasagna was being thawed. But the kindness didn’t stop there. The two of us stood there talking in the break room while the microwave hummed. She asked where I was from; I told her what I did for a living. I asked her where she was from; she told me she had lived there her whole life. For five and a half minutes the two of us talked, and in those minutes I realized that I wasn’t nearly as alone as I thought I was. I am surrounded every day by thousands of people who could become my best friends.
Strangers daily play some sort of role in the maintaining of my sanity out here on the road. Take for example the man who flagged me down as I was driving through the Everglades. When at first when I saw him waving at me wildly from the side of the road my first thought was “keep driving, don’t stop for hitchhikers” but as I noticed that he, and his entire family, were all piled out of their mini van and staring intently at the side of the road, I threw caution to the wind and pulled over. He waved me over as I stepped cautiously out of my van, and said “Look!” Sure enough, there was a whole brood of baby alligators hanging out on their momma’s back, sunning themselves in the warm Florida afternoon sun.
My life on the road winds on, in and out of motels, across state lines, and into and out of the lives of a thousand different best friends. For this I believe that there is an innate goodness in human kind, which has built a strong bond between people who would otherwise be strangers. A human condition which reminds me that the next gas station attendant could be my brother, a long lost friend, or just someone who tells me a bad joke and makes me smile at the end of a long hard day on the road.
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