Seeing the World

I am standing in line at the Austin airport, trying to score a snack that isn’t junk food. Behind the counter, a young man in a hurry snatches up a tray and promptly drops it. Fruit slices spiral everywhere and the platter crashes to the ground. The young man flushes deeply, then drops to his knees to begin the citrus cleanup.

The man in front of me is about my age, clad in a beige cashmere coat. He looks rich and he looks important and I’ve never seen him before in my life. But, for some reason, that doesn’t stop me from talking to him about the fruit spill we both just witnessed.

“The first job I had,” I tell him, “was as a waitress. I was just out of high school and thrilled to have a job. The trouble was, I was a miserable waitress. I got fired after a week on the job.”

The man nods. “My first job was as a busboy in the Catskills,” he says. “Never worked so hard in my life. But man, those people gave great tips.”

The line progresses and somebody gives me a salad or something else bright green. We both move on.

“I just met the most interesting man in the food line,” I tell my husband, when I get back to him and our suitcases. “He used to be a busboy in the Catskills.”

My husband nods. He is used to me doling out this kind of haphazard information on a daily basis.

I just wish I had more to tell him. If I’d spent more time in that food line, I tell myself, I’d have much more to say. I would have known where the interesting man lives, how big his family is, whether he’s on a diet, what he thinks of Obamacare, what he’s doing for the holidays.

Looking back, I could tell you about other instant best friends I’ve made in movie lines, at book signings, at cocktail parties, on planes. So what if I never saw any of them again? We were close once.

I know where I got this trait — from my mother. Going shopping with her took forever and we rarely bought anything. That’s because Mother was too busy talking to the saleswomen, the other women trying on dresses, anybody who crossed her field of vision. Oh, no, not another conversation, I would wail inwardly and cross my teenage eyes. Oh, God, not another one. Here she goes again.

As an adult with the same penchant for conversation with approachable strangers, I have two friends who are even worse than I am. Take my Cousin Maria. She can’t walk two steps without striking up a long, emotional conversation that would shame a soap opera. Maria and I once stayed at a B&B in East Texas and, by the time I stumbled into the kitchen for breakfast, Maria had already heard about the state of the owner’s marriage (disappointing; her husband was emotionally distant) and her health (dire and going to get worse).

“You know how empathic I am?” I mentioned to my husband after the trip. “Well, Maria is 10 times more so. She’s a walking confession booth.”

Then there’s my friend, Suellen Crano. She and I went shopping this summer and I am here to report, she’s like a portable mother to the world. All the young saleswomen waiting on us got advice about life, politics, feminism, fashion, and families from her. I was shocked that we also managed to score some purchases along the way. Who had the time?

Tell me this is trivial, tell me this is nosy, tell me this is intrusive — I don’t really care. I’m not sure any of us could change ourselves even if we wanted to.

We are all just making our way through this life. We are trying to see this world, trying to take it in, trying to understand it — one person, one story, at a time.

(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about what you keep when you have your great-grandmother’s china


10 comments… add one
  • Cindy A Link

    Makes life more interesting, doesn’t it? I’ve had enough travel encounters that I don’t want to risk missing the next fascinating stranger!

  • I always enjoy it when someone strikes up a conversation with me, but I almost never start one myself.

  • Guilty as charged. It drives my hubby nuts. I didn’t realize, though, how genetic it is until I realized one of my nieces does this too. Watching her connect at random, in public, as a small child was illuminating.

  • Sheryl Link

    I find that people frequently like to tell me their problems. I guess they sense I’m the compassionate type.

  • I often wonder if this “trying to understand” comes from being older or whether the world is simply crazier than it was when we were young.

  • bonehead Link

    People appear to be engaged with life to different degrees, some are the walking confessional/mother and others psychopathic/narcissist. There’s a lot of folks in between those examples. I could imagine a conversation between you and Eleanor Roosevelt in a long line somewhere. I think it would make a great play. “Happiness is not a goal…it’s a by-product of a life well lived.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

  • we live by telling each other stories, I think — long ones, short ones, told to friends and told to strangers. we live by telling each other stories — and listening to them.

  • Craig Smith Link

    Whenever I was out with my dad, who never saw a stranger, I would get this look- my I’m dying here look.
    Now when I am out wearing his genes I catch myself babbling to the cashier at the HEB and turning I see someone dying there behind me

  • I’ve always struck up conversations with strangers. But this trait serves me well as a travel writer. I meet some very interesting characters.

  • Merr Link

    I relate…having been on both the receiving and giving ends!

Leave a Comment