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Robert’s regular is a large coffee and a chocolate muffin– no bagels ever. He’s 78 years old and walks nearly a mile from his studio near Union Square up to the waterfront where I see him about every morning at this Noah’s Bagels shop. His “good morning” gesture is so lively in his scruffled voice that you’re excited to greet him back, and in doing so, he’ll gladly tell you about his awesomely rent-controlled apartment, lack of health issues besides the occasional Advil for arthritis. That Old Southern Pacific Company brick building across the street? He had worked there for nearly 40 years.
Johnny has a cup of coffee too and asks about my morning. He tells me it’s a great day because he’s finally gotten enough money to take back his repossessed boat out in Half Moon Bay– he wants to sail to Mexico and start a new life. He enlightens me about the good days as a teenager in Santa Cruz when he and his gang went through the supermarket spraying whipped cream into their mouths before readjusting their canisters back onto the shelves.
Another day, on a warm afternoon, I meet Brian, all smiles and handshakes, who seems excited about taking the afternoon BART train out into the East Bay to reunite with his wife and son after backpacking through San Francisco. Before his drug experimentations and a run-in with the law for not having a permit for a gun that was used to protect himself from a drug dealer, Brian was a computer programmer out in San Ramon. I caught his attention because I was penning an actual letter to a friend on stationery, and he admired that. I still wonder if he ever caught that train.
I tell these stories because the storytellers let me in. I got a glimpse into each of their lives, which they so willingly shared. It’s startling at first, when I see this nonchalant interaction occur often in an urban landscape, especially in a place of undeniable confinement. Here in a city like San Francisco, looking down into the screens of our phones or tablets is your best defense at a private haven. But taking a step back and with the outsider looking in, you now look stupid. The world is right in front of you– actual people and life itself passing in seconds, uncontained in various forms. Ironically, this is also the dawn of social media. We want to “get out there” through our Instagram photos and the cute things we pin on Pinterest for the acknowledgement from strangers. So what is it about actual strangers that we’re not ready to accept?
Perhaps it’s all about stigma, the fear and stereotypes behind strangers who might be beggars or ready to victimize you in some robbery or assault. We’re being guarded, not intentionally rude. Still, we accept that outsiders see our virtual lives, while it comes off as unsettling to have a physical being approach you and simply just wanting to socialize. The difference? The answer is simple: distance. Distance between strangers online is fine; you’re good to go so long as those who do take interest in you remain distant and nonthreatening.
In this case, there’s something curious about the three individuals I’ve met, and also with the others I’ve met through my time spent in a big city. The sad truth about a plain as day encounter with a random person is that, frankly, – it’s not about me, or us. Let’s think about us for a second– us within our own circles of friends and family and people we do know and interact with everyday. People we know and support and who support us in return. For us, our immediate social ties are concrete. And maybe that’s not the case for a random person who sits down next to you and starts spilling their life to you. That brief talk aloud to you with your nods and replies can make the rest of their day and change their attitudes after long days or cold nights on a pavement. In a landscape sprawling with life and socialization, they can get by without really talking to anyone.
The next time someone is friendly to you, and they’re not a friend… Well, make them a friend. Talking with a stranger may seem inconsequential to you, but be aware of the person’s mood and voice. We’ve only come so far with coexistence; humans are naturally social entities that relate so well in common wants and desires, and the need for support and comfort is undeniable, even if for a brief five minutes of your day. Of course I get alarmed, startled at first– but who am I to turn away from a voice that wants to be heard?