This post is part of a project to publish a photo and an imperfect 1,500(ish) word post every day for 100 days in a row. To see all previous stories from this project, go here.
Today is day 1 of try 2
I have one of those faces, or my aura is super welcoming… or something. Strangers like to talk to me. They often tell me their deepest secrets – or at least things that aren’t really appropriate to tell people you’ve just met. I don’t often know when that shared moment is going to happen, but when it does I look at it like a gift. A glimpse into someone’s life and a world I wouldn’t have known otherwise.
These stories aren’t really connected, just a few stories about my moments with strangers.
The Three M’s
I was on the way to a getaway weekend with a group of girlfriends from Phoenix. I was driving to Sedona with my friend Hillary. We were having a great time and stopped at a gas station in the middle of nowhere for a bathroom break and to get snacks. I used the bathroom first and was paying for my drink while Hillary took her turn in the one-toilet bathroom.
The cashier was an older woman, probably in her late sixties or so, and had the look of someone who’d lived a lot of life. Her skin was tough and weathered, she was missing a couple of teeth and the gravelly voice of a lifelong smoker was hard to miss as we chatted. She asked where I was headed. I told her it was a weekend with my girlfriends in the mountains, taking some time to have a break from our kids and other responsibilities. A chance to bond for a couple of days and really connect without distractions.
She nodded and said, “I think that’s great. A good group of women around you is the best way to live your life. They’re the people who’ll help you when you’re down and cheer for you when you’re up.”
I agreed with her saying something to the effect of, “Men are nothing but trouble anyway.”
Her eyes lit up and she said, “that’s why I’ve given them up! I call them my three M’s! Men, Marlboros and Meth- they’ll all destroy your life.”
How could I disagree with such important truths?
“Good for you!” I responded. “How’s that working out for you?”
“Well, I’ve kept masturbation, wine and weed, so I’m a happy lady!” she said.
At some point in this brief back-and-forth Hillary had exited the restroom and overheard our conversation.
“Amber! I can’t take you anywhere!”
All I could do was shrug and say, “she started it!”
I was just talking. I didn’t use any magical powers or anything! (Not that I have any magical powers to use.)
I do love talking to strangers though. I enjoy it more when it’s an actual conversation with something interesting and with some depth. It’s more interesting to hear a story about someone’s life than to chat about the weather.1 I like to learn about the books people are reading, their deep, dark family secrets, or their favorite place to vacation.
As an extrovert I consciously try not to overwhelm people and nine times out of 10 I’ll gravitate towards the introvert I don’t know at a party because they usually have more interesting stories… if you can get them to trust you enough to share them.
On my recent cross-country trip I made a lot of friends with strangers, which is easy when you have both an adorable puppy and a tiny kitten on a leash. I learned about so many people’s animals and where they were from and what brought them to wherever we were at. But the van is similarly a great conversation starter.
At a state park in Maine, where I camped for a night, I had a long conversation with the park ranger as I checked in. She told me all about her van project, her dogs, her volunteer work with a local rescue and her failed marriage. The next day as I checked out she provided me with a bunch of secret recommendations for free places to camp in the local area.
“I don’t usually share these with people, but I like you,” she told me.
Maybe that’s part of the secret of talking to strangers. Making the time to listen to what they have to say?
It’s one of those personality things that I’m pretty sure I get genetically though. As a kid I remember my Dad talking to everyone. It didn’t matter where we went, or what we were doing, he would make friends wherever we were. It was inevitable. He was also an extrovert- the type of extrovert that would give me a run for my money.
He had a way of talking to people that made them feel seen. It’s hard to tease out what is real from what is a child’s memory, but I’ve had a few interactions with adults who knew him as adults who’ve confirmed my memories.
He worked in customer service for a company that installed computer systems for libraries. He’d travel to their location, help set up the hardware and (probably?) train the librarians on using the system. This work took him all over the country and even a few places outside of the country. One of his coworkers told me during his viewing that after the surgery to remove the brain tumor he was really as good at his job was prior to his surgery for about a year. Then he started to decline again. He was still trying to work and they were letting him as much as he was able.2
He told me something to the effect of, “His customers loved him. They would call just to catch up with him and let him know what was going on in their lives. They weren’t really calling for technical help at that point because he couldn’t help them. They just wanted to talk to Bob, and Bob being Bob, he would talk to them for hours.”
A Chance Meeting
Several years ago I traveled to a WordPress conference in Niagara on the Lake in Canada. I was the keynote speaker at the conference and after my talk I was approached by a woman who shook my hand, complimented my talk and said, “this is going to sound odd, but are you related to Bob Pechin by any chance?”
I told her that actually, I was related to several Bob Pechins. My dad, his dad and my great-grandfather.
“I”m a librarian at a nearby library,” she said. “I run the website currently, which is why I’m here, but I’ve been at the library for years. Your dad, I think, was our point of contact for our library system.”
I confirmed that it would have been my dad.
“We were all so sad when he got sick. He was such a wonderful man. I got to spend a lot of time with him years ago when he came out to install our original system. He was always so great to talk to and had such interesting stories.” She started to choke up a bit and her eyes filled with tears, “I am so sorry for your loss. You must have been so young.”
Birds of a Feather
At another WordPress event I met a woman while working on learning how to pick locks. We were chatting while trying to open the row of padlocks that increased in difficulty at a vendor table when suddenly she put down her lock and asked, “Do people just tell you things? Do you have strangers who just pour out their heart or tell you their deepest darkest secrets?”
I must have looked shocked.
She continued, “I ask because I want to tell you about something that I’ve never talked to anyone about. I don’t know why. But I think that probably happens to you a lot.”
I confirmed that it did happen and that it didn’t seem to happen to other people as often as it happened to me.
She paused and looked at me thoughtfully, “It happens to me too. But I’ve never felt the pull to do the same to someone else. I just wanted you to know that I see you and I know the burden of hearing people can be heavy sometimes.”
She never did tell me her secret, instead saying, “I think I needed to remember it because it’s time for me to work through it.”
We hugged and I’ve never seen her again.
The thing is that hearing the stories of strangers hasn’t ever felt heavy. It feels like connection which makes everything else feel lighter.
A Chance to Help
Sometimes it’s not a shared story that’s spoken, but instead it’s a tension that I recognize, the sort of tension that I’m pretty sure is related to shared trauma.
This summer my youngest two kids and I went camping in the nearby mountains. We’d set up camp the night before and after a good camping breakfast and a short hike we were just relaxing and hanging out at the campsite playing cards.
The spot next to us, that had been empty the previous night, was apparently reserved for this night. A large truck towing a teardrop camper was trying to back into the site. Understandably backing up a single-axle trailer is a bitch. We watched and listened for about 20 minutes as the man driving became more and more frustrated. The woman standing behind the trailer trying to direct him was apparently not doing a good enough job of backing him up. He never yelled, but the tone of his voice was terse and familiar. Her responses were meek and careful. The “walking on eggshells” voice is also one I recognize. It’s the voice you use when you’re doing everything you can to keep a situation out of your control from exploding. but this attempt to control a temper that isn’t yours is often futile.
My kids felt it too. “He’s not yelling but he’s making me afraid for her,” one of them said. The other agreed. I hate that they know this voice. We all lived with it for too long.
They finally managed to get the trailer parked to his satisfaction and were attempting to set up the awning on the trailer. This also didn’t go according to plan. We could feel his frustration building as his voice got more tense and his words shorter and more terse. They finally gave up and left for a hike. I’m sure this was her suggestion so he could cool off.
When they returned they pulled out an octagonal screened dining popup. Once again things weren’t going smoothly. The more frustrated he became the more soothing her voice sounded. It was like he was an angry bear who she was trying to hypnotize into not eating her.
“I don’t know if offering to help will make the situation better or worse,” I said to my kids.
“Please go help, I’m worried for her safety,” came the immediate response.
I knew my safety wasn’t a concern. I’m also aware that the way I’m telling this story has a lot of assumptions on my part. Just know that I come by these assumptions honestly. I do hope I’m wrong though.
I walked over to their site and said, “Hey neighbors! Looks like you’re struggling. Would an extra set of hands help?”
An other person to be frustrated with, rather than at, released some of the tension at their campsite. We chatted about where they were from and where they were headed. I tried to commiserate at the magical creatures that come and tangle your Christmas lights while they’re in storage, mess up your awnings on your camper while it’s in storage and somehow, against the laws of physics create the mess that was this “easy to set up” dining popup. My goal was to shift the frustration to the situation rather than at each other.
After about 20 minutes of the three of us wrestling with the pop up we figured out the problem and got it to work. Relief washed over the woman’s face as she thanked me profusely for helping.
“Can I give you a hug?” she asked, tearing up.
“Sure! I’m a hugger too!” I responded.
As she hugged me tightly she whispered in my ear, “thank you so much for helping. You may have saved my marriage tonight.”
I whispered back, “I’ve been in a similar marriage. If this is enough to ruin your marriage, consider it might not be worth saving.”
She hugged me even tighter, thanking me again.
I don’t know if that moment will stick, but I hope it’s one of many moments that added together will give her the courage to choose to save herself.
- Although the older I get the more interesting the weather seems to be.
- His company and co-workers were fantastic during this time.