It’s New Years Day and it’s been an orgy of football at our house (“The one day I get to monopolize the TV all day!” says my husband gleefully.). After watching for a while (and mostly munching on the delicious Chex mix that Patrick makes to go with the New Year’s football), I escape to my study for a break. Surfing the internet, I come across a lovely video segment that hit me just the right way to start off the New Year. The segment portrays a photographer, Richard Renaldi, who finds strangers on the street and poses them in warm embraces. The strangers appear baffled and uncomfortable at first, but eventually, Renaldi captures something between them and in the process, several of them describe how this made them feel. One younger man, Brian, a poetry teacher, who is depicted with his arms around Reiko, a 95-year old woman, says “I felt like I cared for her…it broke down a lot of barriers”. Another woman says after the process, “We are probably missing so much about the people all around us”.
In my last post, I wrote about my grandmother and her ability to talk to just about anyone. However, what the Renaldi video made me think of immediately was her son, my Dad. My father is a retired University Department chair. He was a very powerful person during his long career. However, like his mom, my Dad has an innate ability to connect with strangers from all walks of life. One of my earliest memories from when we lived in LA when I was a child, is driving to Westwood with my Dad in his white convertible, and having him pick up the newspaper from the guy that sold them in a stand on the curb. A robust Irish fellow, his name was Blackie. What I remember was not just small talk, they were friends. Although Blackie had once been a stranger, my Dad had crossed the “stranger barrier” and made seeing Blackie a joyous part of his daily routine. And the feeling was mutual; I could see it on Blackie’s face.
Fast forward to a trip to Eastern Europe with my family when I was a teenager in the early 1980’s. As this was before the fall of the Iron Curtain, it was not the easiest trip. At one point, we got thrown off a train in Czechoslovakia because the local officials decided our papers “weren’t right” (until, after several hours being held in a small room in a train station, a “contribution” to them by my dad fixed that), but that is another story. In Warsaw, my dad decided to hire a cabbie to take us around. The cabbie, became not only a local guide but a friend to our family. He ate meals with us and taught us about the city and the local culture. This seemed pretty ordinary to me until we picked up a colleague of my Dad’s for dinner one night. This reknowned physician was horrified at the familiarity between our family and the cabbie: “Don’t treat him this way, “ she huffed, “He will get used to it and become spoiled”. After we left her off at her residence, we laughed at her pomposity. I don’t recall exactly what my Dad said to us, but it was clear to us kids that it was she who was spoiled, she who was missing out with her false sense of barriers and ideas about who mattered and who did not.
Now that my Dad is retired, he “talks to strangers” all day long as he does his errands around Ann Arbor. Soon these folks become woven into his life like the guy at the Coney Island that he buys chicken-lemon-rice soup from when anyone in our family is sick, the waiter at Denny’s whom he got close to while taking my kids out for lunch, and the man who works at the lot where he parks for UM football games. I think what my Dad gets from these interactions is similar to what the people in the video clip described; both parties walk away feeling warm and energized.
As kids we are all admonished “not to talk to strangers” and for good reason. But as we get older, we have better radar about who we can interact with, so that should not be an impediment. I suspect the barriers are strong because we tend to buttress them with a sense of our differences (age, race, class, gender, whatever) rather than commonality (most of us just want to be loved). So while we are all taught “not to talk to strangers” as kids, maybe a healthy and positive way to age is to make a point of connecting with strangers during our daily routines. While we may have to make ourselves a little vulnerable to cross our long-taught barriers, let’s not miss the people all around us.