How Connecting With Strangers Shapes Us

And Finding That Again In A Pandemic

At the store today an older man dropped his keys and couldn’t reach them from his wheelchair. He called out and I walked over to help. As I leaned down to pick up the keys, though, I hesitated. I haven’t been near someone I don’t know since February, before the pandemic.

He noticed my slight pause and said, “Sorry you have to touch them.”

I mumbled a quiet “it’s okay,” through my mask and our interaction was over.

Before the pandemic hit and social distancing became reality, I was with a gaggle of Ukrainians at a fish fry. People were everywhere, on top of each other, jostling, and I was squeezing past tables and grimacing while kids ran around my feet. Whenever someone said something to me in Ukrainian I just smiled stupidly and melted slowly backward into the crowd.

From there I was invited into a stranger’s home for a cup of coffee. I went, traipsing up narrow stairs into a little apartment where I sat at a long dining room table, sipping espresso and nibbling chocolate while making stilted small-talk with someone I didn’t know.

On my way home I realized I’ve never treated a stranger like family in the way this person did with me. But I want to.

I’d rather live my life that way, than the way I lived it before I knew them.

Fast forward and I was eating Georgian food at a warm, cozily-lit restaurant in Washington, D.C. with this stranger-turned-friend. We passed plates of steaming food — meat and bread and cheese — and drank wine. We went out dancing that night on U Street, and a man with a portable keyboard appeared at our sides.

He walked next to me, serenading us with a John Legend song until we joined in singing. People on the street smiled and laughed, and someone yelled, “Louder!”

I’ve never been the kind of person to walk up to strangers and offer a song, but people like that exist. Thank God.

Not long after, I was on a first date in a crowded dive bar, sharing gin and tonic with a man telling me stories of Lebanon. I wandered outside with him to share a cigarette and we let our shoulders brush as we watched the people walking past and wondered aloud who they might be.

He turned to me. “Does this place feel like home to you?”

I exhaled, considering. “Sometimes.”

“I haven’t felt at home in any specific place in a long time.”

“Sometimes I feel like I take it with me. Home. It’s inside.”

“Yeah.” He nodded, glanced at me and smiled. We turned back to the street in comfortable silence.

There are just some people that feel familiar, like you’ve known them for ages even as you sit together for the first time.

It’s been so long since I’ve had a serendipitous encounter with someone, and I wonder when I will again.

When we can’t connect with strangers, we miss out on forming new friendships. We miss that buzz of excitement at the fortuitous nature of life. We miss out on the ways we’re shaped by people who drop into our lives, whether to stay or just to shake us up a little before going.

I hate that we’ve lost this.

Today, still in quarantine, I went on the hunt for Thai yellow curry. I donned my mask and gloves and went to a market near my home, found the curry, and took it all.

At the check-out an elderly man was standing a little close to me. He was wearing a mask, but I kept edging away and felt a pang of annoyance — why is he so close? Don’t breathe near me!

The cashier rang up my order. One curry, two curry, three curry, four.

The elderly man watched as I did. Then he turned to me and said in a muffled voice through his mask, “Do you like those?”

I looked at him, and his eyes were crinkling in a smile. I laughed and he smiled again and nodded to no one in particular.

How remarkable that a playful comment and smiling eyes can change everything in someone else’s world.

Even as I was afraid to be too close to him, even as I wanted to move away quickly, he reminded me that light and humor shine through any situation. It makes its way through any ugliness and softens our hard, external shells.

There are always those special people who remind us that we’ve never lost as much as we thought. They remind us of who we are, who we want to be, and nudge us further in the direction of becoming that.

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