Some people cannot talk to complete strangers. They cannot joke with them as if they are that uncle that always told the funniest stories but at whom your mother frowned with her sternest expression.
I’ve never had that problem. Sometimes I find it easier to talk to a crowded room full of strangers than I do a cozy setting with lifelong friends and family. I look at it as a blessing, though those same friends and family may think it a curse—they roll their eyes and let out long sighs whenever they realize that I have zeroed in on the next person or group of people with whom I have not yet shared a laugh.
Recently, my wife and I and some friends just returned from a seven-day cruise of the Western Caribbean, stopping at Cozumel, Belize, Roatan Island in Honduras, and Grand Cayman. This was my environment: a ship full of over 3,000 (twice the numbers of people that lived in the town where I graduated Huntsville) that didn’t have anywhere to flee.
And I have found in my lifetime that the easiest place to talk to people can only be the elevator. Tight. Cramped. Often crowded. Usually filled with people that want to get from Point-A to Point-B as quickly as possible and without having to invest too much in conversation.
Then I come into the picture. To the delight of many people (I actually never ate there while on the ship), the ship had a burrito bar where they would make it your way…and with the ingredients of your choice. No self-respecting burrito would be complete without refried beans.
At one point, Chrissi and I got on the elevator on the third deck and needed to get up to the eighth as quickly as possible—we took the stairs most times so we could burn off all the food we were eating. We stepped onto a crowded elevator filled with seven other people. A slow smile crept across my face. Out of the corner of my eye, I believe I saw my wife grimace, but I am certain that I heard her groan. She probably says to herself each time we get into a packed elevator, “Not again.”
I’m never going to see these people again, I tell myself. Though I have discovered during my time on this planet that is not always the case. Anyway, an opportunity to talk to total strangers had presented itself, and I was not one to waste such a chance.
Smiling, I looked around the car and asked, “Have you been to the burrito bar? It looks pretty good.” Some of the people nodded, a couple answered in the affirmative.
Okay. That comment primed them and got them ready for the zinger: “Sorry. But they had some pretty good refried beans. I hope no one minds that I had a double helping.”
A couple of my fellow passengers looked a little nervous, and a few even laughed out loud. The rest glanced quickly back and forth between my wife and I, wondering to themselves, I imagine, if I was being serious. I just grinned. My wife groaned. A couple more people chuckled.
But they were all smiling when we stepped off the elevator at our deck. And that was the goal. To get people, complete strangers, to laugh and experience a shared moment. Or maybe I’m just odd and socially awkward.
Another time we got onto the elevator, crowded with people, I was wearing a backpack and couldn’t turn around without wiping everyone out. So here I am looking toward the back of the elevator while everyone else was looking at the doors as usual. Here was another opportunity.
I grinned—and I’m sure Chrissi was already groaning internally; in fact, she may have started grumbling as soon as the elevator doors opened. So, I said, “Whenever I get into a crowded elevator, I like to face the back because it makes people uncomfortable.”
A few snickers. “Is this making anyone uncomfortable?”
One gentleman smiled and snorted. “It’s making me uncomfortable, but that’s okay.” Again, when we got off on our deck, everyone was smiling.
There are no such things as strangers. Everyone I see is just a friend I haven’t met yet. You should hear about New York taxi cab drivers, where I get in the front seat in order to converse with them. I cannot recall a single trip in an elevator with passengers other than myself where I did not speak to them. It’s just my nature, I guess.