First, we acknowledge each other as we pass by each day. Then, we smile and wish each other a good day. Next, we share a few comments about the weather, finally introduce ourselves and begin to make small talk. This is my how my relationships started with my walking friends; strangers that I’ve met while walking the same route each day.
First, there was the young woman who left the corporate world to become a dog walker (the same mother that left the room crying when she announced her career change, now introduces her as her successful entrepreneur daughter). It was the colorful set of keys hanging from her belt that sparked our initial conversation. Because she was out in all kinds of weather, she was tuned in to the National Weather Advisory 24/7 and became my personal weather forecaster.
Then, there was the striking, older couple who would take their morning constitutional; she, always wearing a stylish hat and he, looking like Santa Claus and sporting a carved cane (only for effect, his wife would say). After running into them at a couple of charity events throughout the city (including Big A’s* grammar school), I would instinctively look for a lovely hat whenever I’d enter a venue. I’d never know when they would pop into my life next, surprised to see him on a local TV station interview (turns out he was a famous Chicago area writer) or as Mr. Wiz’s* customer at the Mercedes-Benz dealership.
Finally, the gentleman that would be up so early walking his dog was always so cheery that I’d find myself smiling and continuing on my route with a newfound spring in my step. One of his daughters was the same age as Big A, so we started comparing notes and swapping Millennial one liners. A chance meeting in our neighborhood with our spouses has since led to a wonderful friendship.
A stranger is just a person that you haven’t gotten to know yet; take Miss Rye Bread. Once, when Big A was a little boy, we were walking back from the grocery store and decided to stop at Woolworth’s. One of the cashiers, a young Filipino woman who seemed a bit stern, noticed our loaded cart and cheerfully said “…Why don’t you leave your cart here. Don’t worry, I’ll watch your rye bread…,” noticing the loaf balanced at the top. For years, we would say hello to Miss Rye Bread on the street, visit her in whatever area store she was working in and never failed to surprise her when we’d sing Happy Birthday to her on her special day.
Nowadays, it’s not that strange to interact with strangers. Thanks to the internet, we date them, room with them, vacation in their homes, stay in their spare bedrooms or on their sofas, rent their cars and pay them to host us for dinner, along with other guests (who are also strangers).
As a child, I remember being told never to get into a car with a stranger. Then, Uber came along and I became totally confused. Now, Uber is currently developing new technology whereby cars will drive themselves. That means that when you’re picked up, there won’t even be a stranger in the car with you. Now, that’s strange.
As a self-taught expert in “strangerology,” I have found that it’s the age of the passerby and not the size of the city that dictates the eye contact level. The younger the passerby, the more likelihood that they will be tuning out the world around them, either by wearing ear phones or by walking, head down, transfixed by some form of social media (the latter technique should not be attempted by amateurs).
Attempt this next exercise at your own risk. There’s no chance for a repeat relationship. It’s just the flash of a human connection, a one-time opportunity for a relationship, the gift of a personal link from one to another. Try it; smile at a stranger as you pass them by and see their countenance change as if by magic. It will change their day and it will make yours!
*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.