I believe that we should talk to strangers. By engaging in unexpected, friendly conversation with strangers, our lives can be affected in ways that are extraordinary. I learned this valuable and life-changing experience during my sophomore year of college.
I am a student and part-time waitress in Chicago, and I spend most of my time at work engaging in as little “real” conversation as possible. This is not done intentionally, but rather instinctively. Growing up, I was used to phrases such as, “Don’t talk to strangers” and “Mind your own business.” As a result, I don’t talk to unknown people at work, beyond taking orders and the occasional weather chat. Similarly, I never strike up a conversation on a three-hour plane flight or know the name of the woman I ride the train with every day. But the process of keeping to myself ended in a life-changing way.
One night, a little old man, probably in his eighties, came in and sat in my section. I took his order and went on my way. But I noticed that he came in week after week and always sat at one of my tables. Slowly, I began having short conversations with my new guest. His name was Mr. Rodgers, but he insisted that I call him Don. I learned that he and his wife had gone to dinner and a movie every Saturday. Since she had died, he carried on the tradition alone. I began looking forward to him coming in and telling me his movie reviews. I also knew his order by heart: a half of a chicken salad sandwich, a cup of potato soup, and a bottle of Coors Light (which he never finished).
As the weeks went on I began to sit and really talk with Don. We talked about his wife, his days flying in the war, his son who had grown and moved away. Eventually, we began to talk about my ambitions — going to school, my new husband, and the anticipation of my future.
About four months after meeting Mr. Rodgers, I received a call at home from a nurse telling me that Don was in intensive care at Chicago’s Mercy Hospital. He was experiencing complications from an emergency heart surgery and had begun to bleed internally. I immediately drove to the hospital to see him. The first thing he did was thank me for urging him to visit the doctor. At first I didn’t know what he was referring to. Then I remembered that about three weeks earlier, Don was complaining about chest pains and I gave him the number for a doctor I know. At the hospital, the nurses always asked, “Are you his daughter?” and I always replied, “No, I’m his waitress.”
Since meeting Don, I have learned that strangers can become acquaintances, and even friends. I recently found myself really talking to customers at the restaurant. I have had a lot more fun, the time has gone by faster, and I have gotten to know some of the people I see on a regular basis.
Don taught me that life can be much more enjoyable if I engage in friendly conversations. After all, I became more than just his waitress. I became his friend.