Strangers Tell Me Things

Strangers tell me all kinds of things. A few share misinformed opinions, which I freely ignore. Some tell me something interesting, and I pay attention. If they begin telling a story, the coin drops, and I become an ethnographer. I listen carefully, noting their demographic data and the circumstances of the interaction. I look for clues about kinship, social status, and power, and mentally piece their story into the larger fabric of our society. These brief, personal oral histories are fascinating glimpses into the depth and breadth of humanity that bubbles just below the surface. I love almost all of them. Some narratives are poignant and uncomfortably intimate. Some are very funny. All of them catch me completely by surprise. Below are a few examples.

When I was working a retail job and putting myself through college, a creepy, ancient guy told me ALL about losing his virginity to his high school teacher, relishing my discomfort. This particular narrative was interesting for the way Very Old Man used it in an attempt to assert power. He was older, a man, and a customer, so he believed he had a captive audience. And he did. I couldn't not listen. I was both horrified and transfixed. I had no idea that kind of stuff went on in the nineteen-teens.

After a long ride with my Trophy Husband, I was buying decongestant at a store across town. A pharmacist I had never met told me about her grandson, and how his mother, her daughter, had committed suicide a few years ago. It was heartbreaking.

On a foggy ride early this spring, I pulled over to watch a coyote. A wildlife photographer joined me and told me about this hilariously subversive letter he wrote to try to keep a state wildlife biologist he liked a lot from being promoted to elsewhere.

The most startling example to date happened last week. There's spring road construction in the state park I ride through. I rolled up to a quiet intersection where a big, burly construction guy was flagging occasional traffic.

I stopped and asked about the work schedule. We discussed cycling logistics through the mess and chatted about the local trails. He lamented that he doesn't have time to get enough exercise. Conceding my privilege, I mentioned that I am lucky to be a writer and stay-home mom. He went on to say that he is also a writer and gave me a card listing his website.

He said he writes from a conservative perspective, and I learned later that he meant conservative Christian. I told him that I am the exact opposite. He was very surprised that I'm a liberal. I got ready to ride off before we got sucked into a political debate. Then he offered to share a poem he had been working on that morning. Astonished, I stopped. 

He pulled a crumpled envelope out of an inside pocket and read aloud. I had the impression of articulate phrasing, proper grammar, and deep appreciation for nature and god. He had seen the beauty of an eagle against the blue sky. The sentiment was lovely, and I thanked him. I did not tell him I'm an atheist. I rode off, musing again about how interesting and surprising people are.

How many other construction workers keep art in their pockets? I've driven or ridden past hundreds of guys like this, and I never would have guessed any of them were poets. It takes a great deal of courage to write in public. I would think it takes even greater courage to do so openly as a male construction worker, and to share poetry with random strangers on bikes. I spent six years as a project coordinator for a commercial building contractor, and no one I met in that industry, no clients, architects, subcontractors, tradesmen...ever read me a poem. Jokes, yes. Sexism, constantly. No poetry ever. Even if some were poets, the culture of the industry at the time would have prevented them from disclosing that. 

I've since read a few of the construction guy's poems online. My initial impression was correct: proper grammar, articulate phrasing, and lots of nature and god. Even if we can't agree on politics or religion, we can at least agree on our mutual appreciation of nature. 

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

-Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot