The Not So Secret Lives of Strangers

People feel they can talk to me, about anything, at anytime.

By ‘people’ I actually mean strangers.  It happens all too often, and without warning.  One minute I’m squeezing tomatoes at the grocery store, and then the next I’m enduring a tirade from a disgruntled shopper regarding the quality of the broccoli heads and how declining produce standards are a symbol for the downfall of America.  I’m too taken aback to offer more than a few clucking sounds of sympathy while I sidle away in an inconspicuous fashion.

I cannot claim to understand why this happens to me so frequently.  I don’t actively seek contact with these folks who feel that in me they have finally found the person who will validate their world view.   Although I consider myself the friendly sort, I do not look for conversation with strangers when going about my daily tasks.

It makes no difference, however.   They’re looking for me.

I was once pricing dog food at the grocery store when a very tall man strode up to me, spun me around and embraced me.  “Here’s where they hide the tall people,” he announced in a booming voice.  I am a tall woman, nearly six feet in height, but this man loomed over me, easily topping my own stature by half a foot or more.   Both my body and mind froze for a split instant, but thankfully he quickly released me.  He remained by my side for a few moments, hoping to bond over the trials of the long legged in a world designed for shorter people.  I quickly removed myself and headed for the check-out stand, no longer caring if my shopping was finished.  Weeks later, I spied this same man with his wife and children at a school function.  He approached me and asked with total sincerity, “Have we met before?  You look familiar.”  I nearly reminded him of our bizarre interaction that occurred between the rawhide chews and the Purina dog chow, but then I thought better of it.  Instead, I looked him straight in the eye and lied.  “No, no we haven’t.”

Please understand that I enjoy meeting new people.  I love to expand my circle of friends, but  I feel new relationships should unfold in a leisurely, organic, and hopefully non-intimidating fashion.   Once that groundwork of trust is established, it seems natural to share opinions, air grievances, or seek each other out when in need of a listening ear.  However, I don’t understand the intense over share that I often receive from people I haven’t even met.  It’s odd to me that anyone could want to spill their secrets and woes to someone whose name they do not know.

I’m sure other people find themselves in like circumstances, but it seems few have them with the same alarming regularity that I encounter.  I walk my dog and an angry man stops me to explain why I should never hire a certain contractor who failed to meet his expectations.  I attempt to say that I have no needs in that regard, but he insists that I must listen, because “You never know.”  I pop into Wal-mart and a young mother starts showing me pictures of her infant.  Never mind that the actual baby is with her, snuggled deep in a child carrier; she must share her photos.  I’m sunning myself at the pool while my children swim when a total stranger decides to share the tribulations of her messy divorce.  I know nothing of her life, yet she desperately wants to hear my advice on how to proceed with her court filings.  I’m browsing an antique store when I’m cornered by a chatty soul who makes me an unwilling audience to their angry complaints regarding the injustice of the world in general.

It’s unsettling, to say the least.

It is uncomfortable to be suddenly cast as counselor and confessor to people I’ve never met before.  Don’t they realize that I want to shop quickly and get home?  Can’t they understand that I would prefer to attend to my own business – not solve a needy stranger’s domestic crisis?  Do they live such fragmented lives that the only person they can find to absorb their thoughts, their frustrations, and their concerns is an uninvolved bystander?

The answers are no, no, and possibly yes.

It is entirely plausible that there are many people who don’t have a voice, and who simply don’t feel heard.  Perhaps they only want someone to listen to their thoughts, or to merely acknowledge that they have something to say.  In all truth, what does it cost me to listen to them?  Nothing of great measure, only a brief moment of my time.

With that in mind, I can be more open to these random encounters.  Despite my discomfort at times, I don’t mind – much.   (Okay, I did mind being hugged by a total stranger.  Physical boundaries should not be crossed in such an alarming fashion.)  Perhaps I can allow the possibility that I might be in that person’s path for a reason.  They might need the tolerance of someone who doesn’t know them or their past mistakes.  They might need the healthy catharsis of a good rant, or the cool detachment of an unbiased point of view.  My very disinterest in their life could possibly free them up to say words they wouldn’t speak to someone who knows them.

Or they could be just a little bonkers.  It’s hard to say, honestly.

Either way, they know where to find me.

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I’ll be grocery shopping later, if you need someone to talk to….

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