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(Don’t) talk to strangers

Posted in Life & Love

Spotted in Norway by Bohemiantrails.com
Spotted in Norway by Bohemiantrails.com

“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.

19 homeless people in Orlando, Fl were asked to write one fact about them people might not guess. nextshark.com
19 homeless people in Orlando, Fl were asked to write one fact about them people might not guess.
nextshark.com

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).

From funnymist.com
From funnymisfit.com

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.

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11 Comments

  1. Right on! I have always avoided chattings with my colleagues as I was “too busy seeing patients”. But lately, I found that just by spending that extra few minutes connecting with my staff on a personal level helps the morale and attitude we have towards our work place and each other! After your post, I think I am going to extend my conversation comfort zone and start talking to strangers too 🙂

    April 29, 2015
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      As time consuming as it is, when I managed a large staff in the kitchen, I realized it always paid off to be there to listen and counsel the staff (or just chat). It goes a long way to buy goodwill, especially when you end up asking them to push or work overtime…which invariably you will!

      April 29, 2015
      |Reply
  2. Being an introvert talking to ANYone can be a challenge for me, but like you said, everyone has a story and when I’ve pushed my comfort zone way beyond stretching limits, I’ve been fairly surprised and delighted. Thank you for reminding me to do it more often. 🙂

    April 28, 2015
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I am still an introvert who has conquered her shyness. You wouldn’t catch me dead at any large gatherings – I still prefer to sit with a book on my own but I have learnt to walk out of my comfort zone, especially in one-on-one situations. It’s a great exercise for us introverts, I think.

      April 29, 2015
      |Reply
      • sofagirl
        sofagirl

        Though you have never been too shy to flirt.

        May 6, 2015
        |Reply
        • camparigirl
          camparigirl

          True. But that is not really talking.

          May 7, 2015
          |Reply
  3. I believe my husband has never met a human being that he won’t talk to. He gets free sandwiches, invites to places, favors he can call upon. He believes the world needs a little lubrication to turn. It’s so the opposite of me as unfortunately like you in your 20s I’m the one with my nose in a book discouraging any kind of interaction. But I admire you more social individuals. I eavesdrop but don’t participate which is quite selfish really.

    April 28, 2015
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Funny thing is, I am not a social person, at least not the one who enjoys large gatherings or going out all the time. I was very shy for the longest time and it was only with age (and acting lessons a long time ago) that I learnt to be less afraid of people. Or it might be a case of faking until it becomes natural!

      April 28, 2015
      |Reply
      • sofagirl
        sofagirl

        For me it has nothing to do with being shy – I just can’t be assed with most people.

        May 6, 2015
        |Reply
  4. silvia
    silvia

    I love you sweetie and you’re helping

    April 28, 2015
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      But you would always love me no matter what.

      April 28, 2015
      |Reply

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