Discover more from Practice Space
No. 16 - On Talking With Strangers
You Should Try It Sometime
Eleven months ago, an old man told me that he missed his daughter.
“She’s forty-three now,” he said, “and she works at one of the banks near here. But she won’t have anything to do with me. My wife saw to that, all right.”
As he spoke, tears coursed freely on his cheeks. He had been reigning in those tears for a long, long time, it looked like.
He finished his story, then let go of my hand, which he’d been in the process of shaking goodbye. We both sensed this would be the only time we’d ever encounter each other; the worlds we lived in just weren’t known to mix. I opened my mouth to bid him farewell, but before the words escaped my mouth, he gripped my elbow, tighter than he’d gripped my hand.
He had seen my wedding band.
“Be careful around women, son,” he said. “I loved my wife to death, and she still ruined my life. That b*tch stole my little girl from me.”
When my therapist had told me to approach random strangers and attempt to have a conversation, as a way to treat my “avoidant personality”, I expected that nobody in their right mind would want to talk to me. After all, most people are more interested in the life pouring into their ears than the one happening in front of their eyes, and I was no different.
Who knows, my therapist had replied. Lots of people have stories to tell and nobody in their lives they can tell them to.
I wouldn’t be so easily convinced. A rebuttal was on the tip of my tongue: I wanted to tell him I could bet 100 lei that every single person I’d approach would be either a) uninterested, or b) uninteresting. But I clamped my mouth shut, putting faith in his judgment like I’d done many times before, and went in search of conversation.
The day I met the old man, I’d nearly given up. I’d tried my hand with an antiquarian, who proved much more interested in his lunch and newspaper than in answering the questions of a neophyte like me, and with a guy I’d called to clean my couch. The couch guy seemed eager enough to chat, but his communication style consisted mostly of noncommittal grunts and showing me pictures of his dog.
On the day in question, my mission was the furthest thing from my mind. I was neither looking, nor in the mood to converse. I was tired, itching to get back home from work, and hungry. The kind of hungry that wouldn’t take “Wait” for an answer.
So I decided to take a slight detour and stopped at PROFI, a corner mini-market my wife and I loved for its cheap, but hearty burgers and hot dogs.
I’d been there just a few days before, since that’s were we did a lot of our shopping. So if its inside were demolished, its shelves full of snacks replaced with rubble and its air thickened anew with dust, surely I would have noticed it then, right?
Yet there it was, exactly as I just described. The wires in the ceiling were pulled all the way to the ground, like strings of Plah-Doh. There was no doubt about it. The place was deserted.
But deserted doesn’t always mean empty.
In my stupor, I considered that maybe the glass was playing tricks on me. I wanted to get a better look inside. So I stepped in, and as soon as leather shoe met mini-market floor, an old man with skin the color of burned-up parchment popped up. I don’t know where he’d been hiding.
“Are you the press?”, were the first words he said to me. He was small and skinny, and looked somehow dry. Like all the water had been wrung out of his body.
Confusion must have shown on my face, because he reconsidered his approach.
“What do you want?”, he asked, less brusquely this time.
I told him I was on a quest for food, and asked what had happened to the store. Apparently, a wire had been damaged pretty badly. If, by accident, it had caught fire, the whole building would have gone up with it. So the owners found themselves in need of replacing the whole installation with stronger, better insulated wiring, and since the place was already a construction site, they embraced the opportunity to make a few upgrades to the kitchen as well. On the whole, I’d be left without my food de l'âme for three whole weeks.
I declared my quest a failure and prepared to leave the old man to his work, which was, presumably, the reason he was there. But once he’d started talking, no amount of my protests was potent enough to stop him. He finished the story of the faulty wire and began to tell me another, about the other stores he’d worked at, and how much better they were at handling their business. By this time, I really wanted to know what exactly his business was. So I asked him.
“I’m a security guard,” he said. Then, apropos of nothing, he asked, “Want to come inside?”
Did I want to go inside a dilapidated store after a strange old man whose teeth, if they had been less crooked, wouldn’t look out of place as headstones in a rural cemetery?
You bet your asses that I did.
I lowered my head and stepped inside the dimly lit carcass of the store, and of the first breath I took in there, all I can say is this: it felt like I’d inhaled more dust than air. I looked around that barren expanse of grey, at all the places where shelves full of snacks, pastries, and beverages used to be. I’d never much enjoyed post-apocalyptic fiction, but I was starting to understand its appeal. The whole place was hauntingly empty, as if the ghosts of all the enticing food that used to line its shelves still hung in the air, contributing to its heaviness. In its way, it was poetic.
And still the old man talked. To prove his identity beyond a reasonable doubt, he rummaged inside a battered shoulder back and pulled out a blue shirt bearing the insignia of some security firm. Then he showed me the mattress he slept on, devoid of any covers, and after that he pointed up, at the gaping hole through which all the wires had been pulled down and now hung, trying to pinpoint the faulty wire for me. For whatever reason, it was very important to him that I knew exactly where that troublesome wire was. How did he know so much about this place anyway, I wondered, since he must have only been here a day or two at most? What an odd old man.
Still, inspired by the ever-flowing river of his words, I found myself in the mood to talk as well.
So I put this question before him. “Let’s say three guys walk into the store right now, three big young bucks, and they want to steal all these wires. What are you going to do?”
He was much shorter and scrawnier than me, not to mention seemingly ancient. Clearly, sheer physicality was not what had drawn him to this line of work, so I was curious what else there was to him.
The old man smiled deviously, as if he’d been waiting for this very question. As he smiled, I saw that one of his front teeth had a hole clean through it.
“Oh, but I’m armed, you see. I didn’t come here empty-handed. What do you think I am, some kind of fool?”
He went back to his bag then, and drew out—the way a knight or a samurai might do—this huge-ass screwdriver. I swear: it was as long as a kitchen knife.
He got into position, then he started simulating swings, and thrusts, and pointing the tip of the screwdriver at various parts of my body in slick, effective movements. Showing me all the ways he could incapacitate me, if he so desired. The side of the neck, the eyes, the armpits. Something in the way he moved, the grace or ease of it perhaps, betrayed experience. He’d used these moves before, of this I was certain.
“You’ve done all this before, haven’t you?”
“Oh, yes, many times. I used to fight a lot. One time, I got into a fight with three guys. They came at me all at the same time, and I still whooped their asses. But I was much younger then, kind of like you.”
I suppressed a smile at this. In what way was he “kind of like me”? I couldn’t fight three men at the same time, unless you count getting my ass kicked as fighting.
Then, out of the blue again, he asked me if I wanted to see the fridge room. “It’s back there, right next to the offices”, he said in response to the face I made, as if to reassure me that all was fine.
The whole time I’d been there I’d experienced a vague feeling of having stumbled into a strange, unstable world—as if the floor beneath my feet was struggling to stay real. If at first this was sort of exciting, now the full, almost psychedelic weirdness of the whole incident came into view. In what world was it okay for a security guard to give a total stranger access to a room filled with the store’s important documents and its computers?
I wondered, briefly, if it was some sort of trap. But, after all, I’d been given no reason to doubt the old man. So I decided to repay his honesty with trust, and followed him further in.
Truth be told, the sight wasn’t all that interesting. The fridge room looked like a miniature warehouse, while the “offices” were just a room the size of a cupboard where two desks sat next to each other, each of them crowned with an old-ish computer, and it looked more like the kind of room where you’d pop in for a quick lunch away from prying eyes than a room where any kind of serious work was done.
I was anxious to be out of that room, for multiple reasons. For one thing, the walls looked oppressive, as if they’d threaten to constrict and crush the unlucky accountant who happened to be there longer than they would have liked.
But more importantly, the trip to the store was meant to be a quick one. I was still hungry, in fact ravenously so, and had managed to do no shopping. Still, I regretted nothing. It felt good spending time with this talkative old man. This geezer hailing from a side of the world I’d barely glimpsed before, the side of the world where people couldn’t afford a stable bed to sleep in, much less to patch the gaping holes in their teeth.
Even though I couldn’t claim to understand him much, I could feel like I was making this man feel better. Without meaning to, and without much effort on my part, I’d given him a gift. The gift of being seen.
Dang it. My therapist would have won our bet.
On our return to the large room with the crumbling walls, the old man went straight for his bag and pulled something out of it. Given previous experience, I expected it to be another screwdriver-knife or some such repurposed implement. But it was a small math copybook, the store’s logo on the front cover.
“I picked up four of these on a discount. I want you to have this one,” he said, handing it to me.
I thanked him, taking the copybook and sliding it inside my shiny leather shoulder-bag. I should have had him write something on the first page, but I did not think of that then. I didn’t even think to ask for his name.
My stomach started complaining again, so I pulled out my phone to check the time. It had been twenty-five minutes since I’d first entered the store. On top of being hungry, I was starting to really feel the heat, and I found myself craving an ice cold beer.
I started walking towards the door, mumbling apologies to the old man, trying to explain that I still needed to do my shopping. He followed me, and as the soles of my shoes touched the blacktop outside, I got an idea. I turned towards him.
“Hey, do you drink beer?”
He said yes, and that between bottles and cans he preferred cans. But he didn’t drink on the job, for fear of the bosses finding out. The place was riddled with security cameras, and it seemed these existed as much to detect thieves as to spot misbehaving employees.
“Tell you what, though” he said. “Go to the store next door, get me whatever you want, and then meet me on that corner over there”, and he stopped to point it out (this old man loved pointing things out), “by the traffic light. There’s a spot there the cameras don’t reach.”
So that’s what I did. I went next door, to the more expensive Mega Image I usually avoided, and picked up some random stuff to eat. Then, from the fridge, I chose two beers—a bottle and a can, both green.
After I handed him the can, we shook hands. Then, gripping my elbow tight, he told me the story of how he lost his daughter.
I don’t know how his life changed after meeting me that day, or if it did at all. I never saw him again, and even if I did, I probably wouldn’t recognize him. My country is littered with dry old men breaking their backs to earn their bed and beer, and the sad truth is, after a while, they all begin to look the same.
But even so, I get the feeling that this meeting left an impression on both of us. As I walked away, his last words echoed in my ears. “Vorba dulce mult aduce”. That’s an old Romanian saying, whose ad litteram translation would be something like “A sweet tongue attracts great things for its owner”, and which really means that kind words are always rewarded.
What I learned from this encounter wasn’t, I suppose, what my therapist had wanted me to. He’d assigned me the task of talking with strangers to get me out of my comfort zone and raise my confidence. In other words, I was supposed to enter the life of another person for purely selfish reasons, in order to discover what an awesome person I am.
Instead, I met this wonderful old man who gifted me a copybook and a damn good story, and I saw how rewarding it can be just to listen. Far from the active go-getter I was sent to become, I settled for being the passive member of an audience of one. And that’s exactly what this man had appreciated most: the fact that for twenty-five minutes, I’d given him the spotlight.
My therapist might have won our hypothetical bet, but on this subject, I think he missed the point entirely.
That’s it. If you liked what you just read, could you let me know by clicking on the 💙 button below?
P.S. Have you ever met a memorable stranger? If so, care to tell me about it?
Practice Space is free to read, but your support means a lot! By becoming a subscriber, you’ll receive new issues every other Friday and help support my work.