When I first moved to the suburbs all those years ago, I had some difficulty adjusting to strangers talking to me in the supermarket. I'm not saying I had such a hard-ass urban upbringing, but really, it wasn't something I was used to, this total strangers saying things to me, things like Good Morning or Can you believe this heat we're having? My initial reaction was bristly, my hedgehog spines inclining ever so slightly. Why are you talking to me? Do I know you?
Over time, of course, I adapted. I relaxed, let my guard down, set aside this trueism of urban fauna that eye contact is an invitation to trouble. I became one of those people who chats with the person in line behind me, the person making conversation to break down the stranger-barrier.
An even more unexpected thing happened, which is that random people now tell me their funny little stories pretty much everywhere I go, unsolicited. I must have cultivated, unbeknownst even to my own self, some kind of look which says, please, tell me your truth. Somehow people know I want to know, that I need to scribble down their strange tale of the 1,700 pieces of Beatles memorabilia in their apartment in Terra Linda and how they stashed the collector edition Beatles book behind some boxes in the cereal aisle so that they can come back in a few weeks and buy it. And did you know this checker is my personal favorite? She's amazing.
Somewhere along the way I became approachable.
To look at me, of course, you'd probably never even formulate the thought that I was ever unapproachable. How much effort did I expend in earlier stages erecting tall battlements of ferocity around my innate chattiness and curiosity. What a waste! I've heard such amazing stories from total strangers now that I'm this kind of person who calls out Good Morning first in a clear, ringing voice, owning my piece of the community I live in, inviting connection.
So it is that this morning a man I've seen for years on my almost daily walks around the neighborhood, a man I haven't bumped into in 8 months, totally made me cry.
He saw me walking with Mr Burns and called out, from his front yard, "Did you get a new one?" When I answered Yes, he responded, "What happened to the old one?" I let him know our Jasper had died, and he cried out, full-throated, "Oh, I am so sorry he has moved on. He was a magnificent animal." He then rushed across the street to meet the puppy, to comment on how great Burns's friendliness is, how he adopted a dog from a shelter and it took her two years not to be afraid of every little sound. He wished me a good day and then was off, and tears poured down my face for the next few blocks.
This guy, this neighbor of mine, I don't know his name. I know where he lives, naturally, in a corner house a few streets over, with a tangled overgrown yard and shabby curtains in the windows. When passing his place, I am generally engaged in mental pruning, trimming back the weeds that climb as high as the front windows, wondering about how some of us are yard-keepers and others are not. Do they just not see it?
For all the years he saw me with Jasper, he would go out of his way to greet him. Sometimes he'd be striding toward us, purposefully, very early in the morning with a plastic bag containing who knows what in his hand. I'd wonder where he was coming from or going to at that hour and what he was carrying. He'd call out that Jasper was the very definition of Dog, just beautiful. I was a little uncomfortable with his effusion, at the same time that I deeply appreciated his appreciation. He was right, after all: Jasper was a magnificent animal.
Walking home this morning, Mr Burns prancing and sniffing at the end of the leash, I had time to really consider how much better it is to now be the kind of person that strangers can make cry. Most of the time, they delight me - they regale me with their little stories, make me laugh with their choice of words, with how they see things. Most of the time, I'm laughing, but then there are times, like today, when I cry. I cry and truly celebrate how precious it is to have that exchange with someone whose name I don't know, whose name I will probably never know. A reaching-across the strangerness, into something companionable that doesn't require that we know each other's names.
The names don't matter. All that matters is that we're here in the same place at the same time, witnessing the remarkable unfolding of our lives around us. Telling our stories. Some days making strangers cry.