“I love you…”
The handsome stranger peeking from a shiny metal grey Mercedes, sitting at the light next to me, definitely had my attention. It’s been a while since anyone tried to pick me up in the car (yes, it’s L.A., we spend an inordinate amount of time in our cars and we have become creative).
“…but you are not helping.”
Oh, ok, I was in for a scalding.
Let me back up. I had just given a dollar to a beggar, a young man with a “Please spare some change” sign, clean-shaven, able-bodied and no sign of mental illness. Nor was he veteran or he would have advertised it. I began giving a dollar to any homeless who approached my car about two years ago, as an exercise in non-judgement. I had realized I was willing to give to young girls, to people with clear signs of mental illness, to war veterans but not to young males or those who seemed to have an addiction. How did I know? Who was I to judge? So I stopped discriminating but, according to the handsome stranger, I wasn’t helping.
“You should check out Step up on Second when you get home. It’s a great program and they have the right ideas on how to end homelessness.”
“You know, I know I am not helping. I just do it for good karma.”
“I appreciate that, but please do check out StepUp on Second.”
And then the light turned and, 20 minutes later, safely back home, I did check out the program, which has been providing lodging, care and training for homeless people with mental illness with great success. President Clinton, Kobe Bryant and Steve Lopez, the LA Times columnist on whose column the movie “The Soloist” was based, are all supporters. While you should definitely check out the website, homelessness was not the point of my post. Talking to strangers is.
In my selfish 20s and my arrogant 30s I pretty much refused to talk to strangers. I was shy but, most of all, I wasn’t interested. I would plop myself down on a train or plane seat and open a book, bury my nose in it and avoid all human contact as much as possible. Pity the chatty traveller next to me, looking for diversion and meeting my cold shoulder. What a bloody fool I was.
I am not the batty old lady talking to herself yet, although I might be on the road to becoming just that, but I will talk to anyone who approaches me at the market, in line at the DMV, walking down the street or sitting next to me on a plane. Everyone has a story. Very often, their stories are far more interesting than my dramas. Or can offer useful information, like the homeless program or the crazy-looking tail lights on an SUV that an old man, bent over his cane and making his way home, made me notice one night as I was hurrying along, while he slowly shuffled and had more time to take in the details.
Everyone has a story. Sometimes they also have an agenda but that is ok too. The Muslim man at the Festival of Books with whom I engaged in a debate on polygamy and hijab, hoping to convince me to check out their Mosque, eventually realized, in the face of my atheism, that I was a lost cause but he still kept conversing and sent me on my way with a free copy of the Quran and a bunch of literature on the treatment of women in the Muslim religion (all very progressive, although all the examples dated to the 7th century).
I was always a good listener, mainly because my shyness forced me to listen more than speak but I was a selective listener, turning away from those who I perceived to have no value to my life. Since it dawned on me, in my 40s, that the world does not revolve around me, I have become more open. And people talk: out of solitude, boredom, need or because they still think the world revolves around them.
Listening to a shopkeeper tell me about his life in Morocco earned me a bigger discount on my purchase than he had anticipated giving me. The young man in the plane seat next to me on the way back from London is now a FB friend (and a possibly useful connection at Selfridge’s). With the frizzy haired lady who interrupted my breakfast in San Jose I had an interesting conversation on aging. Ottie and Portia came from a shelter I might not have found out about had it not been for the gay couple having a latte next to me at Starbucks in Palm Springs.
People taken as a mass, behind poll numbers or sweeping labels, are easily summarized and stigmatized. But I like to believe that inside even those I would not choose, at face value, to share bread with, lies a story I might be interested in hearing. I have come to find strangers, especially women, endlessly fascinating. And all it takes to get them going is a smile, eye contact – for all the time we spend in our cars or safely tucked behind our computer screens, it turns out we all like a chat.