Saturday, May 10, 2014

Perfect strangers

After the weather report yesterday said "no more rain after 7AM" I felt confident heading off to work without a rain jacket. Besides, I had my umbrella in my backpack, or so I thought. I discovered that mistake after the drizzle turned into a steady rain about half way to my station. By the time I got to Clark Street, it was coming down pretty hard. At that point, a man carrying a good sized umbrella offered to share it with me.

Quite honestly, I feel a little uncomfortable when people offer me help. Being a stubborn sort, I always like to feel that I can take care of things pretty well by myself thank you very much, besides I don't like to see people being inconvenienced on my account. That's rather silly because when you think about it, allowing people to help you when they offer to do so, is also doing them a favor, as their act of kindness gives them a welcome chance to feel good about themselves. Being not a little vain, I also contemplated how silly I would look, getting drenched while walking beside the man with the umbrella, so I obliged and took his offer.

The next task was what to talk about while in the close company of a perfect stranger for the next five minutes. "So, how was your week?" I said. He smiled and said the obligatory: "it was good, how was yours?" I actually was prepared for that question because the night before my son had played the best baseball game of his life, and I just had to tell someone about it. So I did. Turned out, he had a six year old boy of his own and was very interested in learning about our little league program. We had a very pleasant conversation and by the time we got to the station, both of us dripping wet, we had become fast friends. I like to think both of us benefited from the encounter; for me it set a positive tone for what would otherwise have been a stressful day at work. Later that day when a colleague said to me: "I have some bad news for you" I just laughed it off. The news wasn't really that bad but on another day my reaction would have been much different.

In the past few weeks, I've found myself on several occasions engaged in conversation with strangers. There was the time when our train was experiencing several delays, not at all unusual, and my seatmate, a young Asian man, kept making comments to me about the slow ride. Being in the middle of a book, at first I was a little annoyed, but I realized this guy was not going to be ignored. Ultimately, he ended up being much more interesting than the book. He was from Nanjing, China, and perhaps not a little surprised that his American seatmate had not only heard of the place, but also knew about the unspeakable events that took place in that tragic city in the thirties. He told me all about his life in a foreign country, his wife and family back home, and his homesickness. I gave him some tips on off-the-beaten-path Chicago that he might be interested in to help ease his time here before he returned home. We became so involved in our conversation that he almost missed his stop. Then there was the older man with his son and daughter-in-law, all of them in Cubs regalia head to toe, coming from Wrigley Field on the day of that ballpark's 100th anniversary. I knew the game was not over because there was not a W or L flag flying above the scoreboard but could tell from their demeanor that it was not looking good for the home team. Curious about the game I asked the father about the gory details, which led to a fifteen minute conversation where we both exchanged our life stories. In the end it didn't even bother him when I confessed to being a White Sox fan.

Just this past week, sitting behind me were a couple of out-of-towners who kept expressing their concern about missing their station. I turned around and assured them they were headed in the right direction, which again lead to a protracted conversation, this time comparing Chicago with their home town, Houston.

Normally I have so many items on my plate: things to ponder, books to read, my own little life to lead, that my normal reaction is to keep to myself, content that the world will revolve just fine without me jumping in and "fixing" things. That's not to say I don't normally engage in the expected acts of courtesy. The other day as I was content in my seat reading my book, a pregnant woman got on the train and stood next to me. Much as I wanted to sit and read, I dutifully placed the bookmark and shut the book, got up and offered the woman my seat. Much to my surprise, she said: "No thanks I'm fine." "Are you sure?" I replied. She nodded and I sat back down, deprived of being able to perform my good deed for the day. Well at least I thought I'd be able to get back to my book. But then I began to feel a little uncomfortable, not because of the woman, she made her choice and despite her condition appeared to be in extremely good shape. No, it occurred to me that there would be passengers who got on the train later and would have missed my gesture. What would they think when they saw me, a man in reasonably good shape, sitting down while a pregnant woman stood with her distended belly practically in my lap? It didn't help that the gentleman sitting beside me was about 90 years old, what would happen if he got up and offered the lady his seat? What to do? I couldn't offer her my seat again, she'd see right through me. Fortunately the old man did not get up and a man seated behind me later offered the woman his seat and she thankfully declined. My honor at least, if not my self-satisfaction was spared.

I think little unexpected moments, those brief encounters with perfect strangers, do much to enliven one's life. I can't help but think how much I'd be missing if I drove to work. Encounters with people in their cars are entirely different; it's true that on occasion motorists are courteous to others, but the anonymity of being inside a vehicle prevents the gratification that positive face-to-face encounters provide. Of course that anonymity also enables some people to engage in the most egregious forms of behavior committed upon their fellow human beings. No wonder they call it road rage.

Coming home yesterday evening I got off at my stop and on the platform was a half-blind old woman who was shall we say, a little off. She was incoherently asking an old man a question and he ignored her. Then she turned to me. I thought she was asking for money and I politely declined, but it turned out she was asking if I could help her down the stairs, which I gladly did. She then asked me to help her out the door, which I also did. Then she asked me to help her cross the street which would take me in different direction than I was headed. I was going to do that as well but she proceeded ahead of me and almost walked into a moving car. After a long day and in pain because of my ankle which I had twisted earlier, I desperately wanted to get home as quickly as possible, but I remembered the encounter with my new friend earlier that morning. The woman wanted me to take her to a community center where they had a soup kitchen. She said it was just a few steps from there, but those steps got farther and farther away every step I took. She asked me my name and a little about my life and offered me a dollar for my troubles which I declined. I wasn't sure where this journey would end up but we eventually got to the community center. When we got there they told the woman that the soup kitchen was closed but she forced her way in and given her persuasive nature, I have no doubt she convinced them to get her something to eat. She asked me to come in with her but at that point I told her I had to get home to my wife and family. Grateful, she thanked me, then we hugged each other and said goodbye.

At that point I was several blocks off course on my much longed for journey home but a strange thing happened, my sore ankle suddenly felt much better.

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