A few years ago, on a cloudy, rainy day, I was taking an idle stroll along the riverwalk in Des Moines and I came across a guy sitting on the steps. We chatted for a bit about nothing in particular. As I was leaving, I stopped and asked if I could take his photograph. He said “You gonna make me look sad or stupid?” I said, “Are you sad or stupid?” and he snorted and said “I sure am.” That’s when I took his photo. When I asked his name, he said “I’m just a guy sitting by the river.”
I talk to strangers. I like talking to strangers. I like meeting new people and learning something about them. Granted, most of my conversations with strangers are casually superficial, so it’s not like I’m learning anything important or meaningful about them or their lives. But the simple fact of meeting and having an idle conversation with random strangers tells me something about humanity in general.
And this is what I’ve learned: most people are pretty much okay.
This guy (points up), for example. He’d just bought a bunch of outdated science booklets for kids, and he was happy and excited about them. To me, they looked like badly illustrated pamphlets depicting decades-old information about science. But his enthusiasm was infectious, and I found myself actually interested in the best 1960s approach to dealing with prairie dog overpopulation.
Is that information useful? Nope, not even remotely. But I love knowing that somewhere out in the world is a guy who can give a logical, sincere, and passionate defense of relying on natural predation instead of poison to deal with what ranchers consider vermin.
Every stranger I’ve met has a story. They’re not all true, of course. I don’t think that matters. Mickey (above) told me he was a disabled veteran. And who knows, maybe he was. He had a Marine Corps emblem on his jacket but his cap said 101st Airborne, which is a division of the Army. He was using a hand-carved walking stick, which I admired–and that’s how we struck up a short conversation. It was too chilly outside to chat for very long, and as we parted I gave him a quick salute–which he returned.
Here’s a True Thing: in basic military training, they literally teach you how to salute. How to hold your hand and wrist, the proper position of your upper arm, the correct incline of your elbow. They make you practice this over and over until it becomes automatic. Mickey didn’t know how to perform a proper salute. Does that mean he was lying about himself? Maybe. Maybe not. Again, I don’t think it matters. His story didn’t have to be true; it still told me something about what he believed and who he’d like to be and what he finds important.
I met James on a hot summer day, sitting under a bridge. I was riding my bike, he was sitting in the cool shade drinking something in a brown paper bag. I stopped to get a drink from my water bottle. We discussed the heat, of course, but James also told me he worked at a nearby theme park; he liked to get away from the noise and the people, and the bridge was within walking distance. It was relatively quiet, cool, and it gave him a bit of what he called “down time.” You could tell James had been around a long, hard block–probably more than once–but he had a weird sort of muted raffish elegance about him. The careful way he trimmed his facial hair, his necklace, his sunglasses, his ornate tattoos–it’s as much about who he wants to be as who he is. And who knows–maybe he actually is who he wants to be.
Meeting strangers is easy; they’re everywhere. But it’s getting a wee bit more difficult to get them to talk. People are increasingly suspicious of strangers. I guess I can’t blame the guy in the photo above for being suspicious. It was a cold, foggy morning. I was riding my bike; he was walking a bike. So I stopped to ask him if he was okay, if he needed help with his bike. He hesitated, then said, “I’m okay; I live nearby.” I told him I had a small tool kit in my bike bag and I’d be happy to help if I could. He shook his head. He was clearly uneasy, so I let it go. Instead, I asked if I could take his photo. He asked, “Why?” I said something about his yellow hoodie and the fog, which probably didn’t make any sense to him. But he said, “Okay.” I took his photo, wished him good luck, and went on my way.
I wondered later if maybe the guy didn’t want me reaching into my bike bag. Maybe he thought I carried a gun there. Some people do. On one cycling forum I follow, there are lots of discussions about self-protection on bikes. People are afraid they’ll be attacked as they ride or when they stop, afraid they’ll maybe get bike-jacked. A lot of those fearful people have opted to bike armed.
Scared people are the last people who should be carrying firearms. But we now live in a world in which wrong-place shootings take place on an alarmingly regular basis. It’s inevitable, I suppose, that somebody will get shot for being on a bike in the wrong place at the wrong time (assuming it hasn’t already happened somewhere). The fact that a term like ‘wrong-place shooting‘ even exists is an indictment against our society. I’d argue one of the reasons we have wrong-place shootings is because fewer people are willing to talk to strangers. All day every day there’s a ‘news’ station that injects fear porn directly into the veins of its viewers. They tell folks that ‘others’ are out to get them, to take their stuff, to molest their children, to break into their homes, to take away their rights, to destroy their religion, to confiscate their guns. Of course, they’re frightened.
This is Kent. I met him on a cold, foggy morning too. He was walking the streets, sweeping up the trash other people (and their dogs) left behind. He’d been keeping the city streets clean for nearly three years. I asked him about his work. He said, “It’s not a bad job. I like being outside. I get to meet people, walk around, don’t have to stay in one place.” He’d learned which business owners were nice, which ones ignored him like he wasn’t there, which ones were rude. He wouldn’t identify any of the rude ones. Kent said there were about a dozen people who worked cleaning up the downtown area. He thought most of his co-workers were okay; a couple were lazy and some complained about the weather, but basically they were good, decent people. He knew most of the people he met on the street didn’t appreciate his work, but he said clean streets sidewalks make the city a better place. He wouldn’t say his job was important, but it was clear he felt he was doing something worthwhile.
These are just a half dozen of the many strangers I’ve talked to in recent years. All of them have been interesting in some way. All of them are connected in some way, if only by a shared community or a shared humanity. And I like to feel I’m connected to them as well. A guy feeling sad and stupid sitting by the river, a guy excited about science for kids, a guy who maybe lied about his past, a guy sitting quietly under a bridge, a nervous guy afraid to ask for or accept help, and a guy who gets up every morning and tries to make city life a little bit better. These people–these strangers–have enriched my life.
We don’t have to live in fear and isolation. We don’t have to be afraid of strangers. At the risk of sounding hopelessly like a Pollyanna, I truly believe the world would be a lot better place–and we’d all be a lot more relaxed–if we’d just take a few moments and talk to a stranger.
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Talking to strangers makes the world better. What you say is so true – most people are okay. They have humor, insight, want to have a chat. It costs nothing to spend two minutes talking to someone. Really liked this piece.
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I like this piece; I like to think I’m friendly and have a friendly face. People will often just start talking to me, but it’s a mixed bag for me- sometimes it’s fine. But as a female alone, I’ve also had men I smiled at or spoke to briefly, follow me, shout after me, chase me down the street, things like that. It makes a person wary of talking to strange men, for sure. Women are mostly ok to talk to, woman to woman, but as you’d expect there’s a real gender dysfunction that happens. If I’m with Paul, as a couple, he tends to talk to people first, and we get treated as a friendly couple with much less hesitation than either of us get alone. He has to be careful if he’s alone and he talks to women, lest they take it badly, but if I’m with him it’s all right. We moved to a much whiter, less diverse area, and now I make a special effort to smile and talk to people of color, and they are almost always smile, almost relieved, to see a friendly face. It does make me wonder how they get treated on a daily basis. The privilege, it burns…
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There are HUGE gender issues involved in talking to strangers. You may have noticed that all the photos in this piece are of men. As a guy, I’m reluctant to start chatting with a strange woman. There’s absolutely no reason for women NOT to see any male stranger as a potential threat. Patriarchy has poisoned society.
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I talk to strangers, too. I’ve learned that most homeless men will say that they’re homeless vets because the military has been been so glorified in this country that the average person will help a homeless vet before they help a homeless person who’s on the streets because they’re an addict or mentally ill or whatever … even though most of the time, they’re one & the same. But it shouldn’t matter why that person is homeless, what the reason is … everyone is deserving of compassion.
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There are a lot of class issues that come into play when talking to strangers. It’s usually fairly easy to chat with the homeless or the unemployed (or alternatively employed) because they have more free time during the day. It’s a lot more difficult to chat with a stranger wearing a suit, because people who wear suits every day tend to see most personal interactions during working hours as transactional. Plus men wearing suits are suspicious of being approached by somebody NOT wearing a suit.
One of the things you learn when you talk to strangers is there are a lot of social micro-judgments being made spontaneously.
I’m an introvert so talking to strangers is not natural for me. But I try it anyway and rarely have a problem. Fear, of course, is a condition we all must fight, every day, because if not it will consume us.
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I think the fear of embarrassment–the fear of looking foolish, of making an ass of ourselves, of appearing stupid, of being humiliated–is probably the most debilitating common fear. People often mistake this for the fear of rejection (which is also a common, legit fear), but rejection is always more painful when it’s public.
Walking up to a stranger and trying to start a conversation can be scary as fuck the first few hundred times you try it.
In some ways it’s easier for me because I spent several years professionally seeking out and starting conversations with strangers. I was a private investigator specializing in criminal defense, which meant I spent a LOT of time knocking on the doors of people I don’t know and asking them really nosy questions about stuff they often didn’t want to talk about. Talking to a random person on the street is SO much easier.