Goggles: Strangers Stop To Speak To Her
The other day my 11 year-old daughter told me she thinks I’m friendly and outgoing. I was secretly thrilled. Those aren’t two adjectives I’d use to describe myself, but I’ll gladly embrace them, especially coming from my daughter.
A shy child, I’ve worked to put shyness behind me, or “override” this trait, as a therapist would say. Not because I think there is anything wrong with being shy, but because shyness doesn’t get one very far in the jobs I’ve held. Shyness would not, I decided in my early 20s, advance my career.
Now, in my 40s, I find myself effortlessly striking up conversations with strangers. Or, I respond to strangers when they talk to me. My younger self wasn’t always so friendly or accessible. If someone tried to speak to me, I’d mumble something quick and turn away. Rude, I know. But, over time I’ve learned there can be something incredibly genuine about talking to people who I don’t know and won’t see again. It’s a refreshing change from my somewhat insular life in L.A. where this sort of thing is often frowned upon.
There are people who never talk to strangers. There could be a million reasons why they don’t. Maybe they find it useless. It could be the “stranger danger” fear factor. Or, maybe they’re just hardcore snobs. Then, there are those people who will chat with anyone, anytime about anything. They’ll talk your ear off, even as you’re politely saying good-bye. Then there are those in-between, like me.
Talking to strangers permits me to redefine my own rules about talking to people I don’t know. Some of my favorite conversations happen while I’m waiting… handling mundane, but necessary activities like waiting in line, waiting to pick up kids or waiting in line to get coffee. Learning what’s on someone’s mind and reflections about how their day is going can be a subtle pick-me-up. I’ve come to realize that two qualities I admire most in others-- and covet for myself-- are friendliness and confidence. After all, friendliness is a sign of confidence.
Last week, as I sat in the shade waiting to pick up my daughter from summer camp at an exclusive girls school in L.A. another mom sat down next to me. I expected people at this school to be aloof and unfriendly, but they’ve proven me wrong for two years in a row. I said “Hi”. She smiled. After the other mom and I exchanged ‘hellos’ it was as if we were old friends. Without me asking, she began telling me about her visit to the doctor earlier that day and her anxiousness over the fact that he found a suspicious bump on her pale, freckled skin. She confided she will need to go back to the doctor again for removal of a large section of the skin surrounding the suspicious area. As the words tumbled rapidly from her mouth, I sympathized with her and reassured her that her doctor was just being careful and she was lucky to catch the spot early. Because I lost my mom to breast cancer I told her that every year before I get a mammogram I’m ready to lose my mind. Taking off my oversized black sunglasses so she could see my eyes, I shared with her that waiting for the results brings another wave of sickening panic every year. She understood, telling me she’s a psychotherapist, and gave me the name of her doctor for my next mammogram, “He’s the best in the city,” she said. After that brief, intimate conversation, our kids arrived. We waved goodbye.
In the coffee shop near my house a few months ago, a woman approached me and said, “You don’t know me but I read your blog and I recognize you from the photo”. She’s petite, bubbly and talkative, sort of the opposite of me. I’m tall and reserved. We instantly began chatting like long lost friends about her search for the right school. Since then, we haven’t seen each other again, but she’s written several guest blog pieces for my blog.
How is it that I can have such intensely personal discussions with strangers? Does everyone do that? I don’t think so, especially not in L.A. Maybe I’m weary of putting up a “bubble” so I don’t have to talk to anyone I don’t know. Perhaps others are too. I’ve never wanted to live in a small town where everybody knows your business, but living in a big city can make one realize there is value in saying “hello”, being friendly and offering someone a “have a great day” before they’re off. L.A. is known for being a bit standoffish, especially if you didn’t grow up here. I did grow up in L.A. and I still find it alienating some days.
Mind you, I don’t talk to all strangers. I avoid the tiresome weirdos and obvious serial killer types. But random strangers, men and women, whose names I don’t know, but who I find interesting without knowing them, are my way of making this big city more humane. That said, I wouldn’t dare open the door for a stranger…not in this town.
Sometimes, after a brief conversation with a person I don’t know, my mood is lifted. I stop focusing on things that are making me anxious and stressed and focus on the moment. That’s my biggest challenge, staying in the moment.
A short discussion about which coffee is best or where someone got a particularly cute handbag or pair of shoes can be uplifting in a way I never realized. A compliment about a bag or earrings can lead to information about where to buy the item, whether it was on sale and if there might be any left. It’s a reminder to me that the simple things in life are often the best. It’s also a reminder for me to get out of my own head for a while.
Walking my black and white pit bull, Goggles, always leads to conversations with dog lovers who stop to compliment her, sometimes running across the street or park path to pet her, ask if she’s part Dalmatian (she’s not) and tell me she looks like a dog from a TV commercial. She loves the attention and I’ve grown accustomed to it.
While in the grocery store line the other day I had an upbeat conversation with the checkout girl and the woman behind me in line about Palm Springs (we love it), the outlet stores (crowded), L.A. traffic, tiredness (the checkout girl was “uber-tired”) and the awful Nordstrom Rack store nearby. I had $400 worth of groceries and the woman behind me had one cookie she munched on as we talked. She wasn’t in a hurry. By the time she got to checkout, her cookie was gone.
There’s something very personal and yet equally impersonal that comes with talking to people I’ve never met. Living in a big, fragmented city, smiling at someone I don’t know or a quick exchange gives me a sense of community that isn’t always present without these brief, enjoyable conversations. It’s a fascinating peek into another person’s world for a few minutes. It’s an intangible connection in an unconnected city. Wondering more about the person I’ve chatted with briefly rarely happens. It was just a fleeting moment in time that has passed, but one that often leaves a lasting impact on my day and perhaps theirs too.
If you were to ask me if I talk to strangers, I’d hesitate. Then, I’d say yes, I do.