I believe in talking to strangers. Not in careless ways that would make your mother shudder. I just know firsthand that connecting with people I didn’t know has added meaning and joy to my life, in unexpected and serendipitous ways. Living in a troubled world where evil people exist, we yearn for perspective. It’s good and necessary to be reminded that others are intrinsically good.
Alone with the owner of a long, narrow shop in Old San Juan in September, I marveled aloud at the treasures on display – a delightful jumble of rare books, old keys and coins, Panama hats, delicate issues of old Cuban magazines. His love of his collection became obvious as he answered my questions about various items. I’d been there browsing for perhaps ten minutes when he rose, went to the back of the room and inserted a CD. The tiny, dusty shop was saturated with Pavarotti singing Nessum Dorma from Turandot. As he walked back toward me, I asked, “Pavarotti?” and he nodded yes. He saw my eyes were full of tears, not only from the beauty of the music but because Pavarotti had died the week before. He paused in front of me, clasped his hands in front of his vest and said, “I know. I know.” That’s the memory I’ll keep from that trip.
I normally like to use time on planes for reading or sleeping. The man who sat next to me held a book I had been wanting to read. Choosing to risk starting a conversation that could last all the way to St. Louis, I asked and he told me about the book. Then he noted my accent and asked where I was from. I asked about his Southern accent. He replied that he grew up in Selma, Alabama. I told him that I spent my summers there with my grandparents. He asked about them. When I mentioned that my grandfather was an optometrist, he asked, “Was his name Dr. Gray?” I nodded in amazement. He said, “Your grandfather gave me my first pair of glasses.” He went on to tell me what a kind and thoughtful person my grandfather was; it meant a lot to me since my memories of him were of a gentle, quiet shadow. Such a lovely gift of synchronicity – that by listening and talking, we discovered a connection that could so easily have been missed.
My dear friend Nancy always sends a car service to pick me up at LaGuardia. An impeccably dressed, distinguished gentleman greeted me at baggage claim. Thomas had immigrated to New York eight years earlier from Soviet Georgia because “we were literally starving.” He had been a famous concert pianist there; a regime change destroyed their economy. He sold their house, and all of its furnishings, including his beloved grand piano, to get airfare for himself and his family. Because of bureaucratic complications, his wife and adult daughter had to go to Canada; Thomas and his son came to the US.
They are still not allowed to cross the border and have not seen each other for years. He was quite poor, having gotten work in the city as a limousine driver. He was asked to play in occasional concerts through his musician friends. He said although music was the essence of his life, that it was so difficult to practice on the small electric keyboard in his tiny apartment because his hands were so tired from driving. He talked about being one with the piano when that was his vocation and daily practice; now his hands felt awkward and choppy on the keys. Despite all of the tremendous losses Thomas had experienced, he glowed when he talked about how grateful he was to live in our country and how he just knew there was going to be a better day because America is the land of opportunity. He said his one indulgence was the Internet, that he puts on earphones at night so he won’t bother his neighbors and listens to concerts from the master composers he knows so well and that he plays along in his mind, silently and with joy.
My buddy Sam believes in rewarding people on the spot, all year long for exception service. She’ll tip 100% at a restaurant or give a bellman $20 when their friendly, professional attitude is remarkable. That opened a whole new way to connect with people for me; I call it my ICU – I See You. Many folks living with quiet desperation feel invisible; even a quick, small gesture that allows us to connect can matter. So now I’m delighted to find ways to surprise people with tangible human kindness – the salesperson at Macy’s who looked so tired and troubled; her sister had just died and this woman was raising her sister’s four children and was wondering how she could provide Christmas for them. I was so happy that I had $50 to slip to her and say, “I want to help you with that.” Or the teenager at McDonalds who was taking our orders from the parking lot when I pulled through on Saturday morning with my pups to get them their sausage biscuit treat. I said, “How’s your day going?” and she had tears in her eyes when she said, “Not so good.” I gave her $10 which she initially refused until I insisted, saying, “I want you to know that your life will not always be like this. And that even people who don’t know you, wish you the best.” While waiting outside the main post office in New York City, I saw an elegant older woman with a rickety shopping cart. She was huddled over a takeout box, having sought shelter on the stairs from the wind. We started talking and she told me she had been an actress on Broadway years ago, with her own apartment and a lovely life. She was in an accident that left her unable to work and she lost everything. Now she has to be on the street when the shelters close during the daytime. I asked her permission to let me give her money for dinner at a real restaurant where she could go in and sit down to eat. I left counting my blessings.
It doesn’t have to be about money, although it’s what can make a difference to many; having money can turn a crisis into an inconvenience. I haven’t always had it to give and may not always have it. So I’m also practicing being a better listener so I can give the gift of attention, of letting someone tell their stories or recount their memories. And I can ask them to “Tell me more” instead of launching automatically into my own experience. These stories compose and contribute to a life, mine and theirs. I’m not sharing them so you’ll think more kindly of me. It’s my way of sharing awareness that has changed my behavior. It’s actually selfish in a way because it feels good to give. It feels good to give back for the life I’m blessed to have. It’s my way of saying to the universe, “Thank you.” I personally have been buoyed many times by the kindness of strangers when I felt I was sinking. We never know what someone else is going through; we are all fragile in our own way. Let’s be gentle with each other, just in case.
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