Have you ever been on the bus or train or plane and there is this one guy that talks to everyone? He doesn’t seem to have a clue that you just want to be left alone. You’re sitting there in your seat, telling yourself over and over in your head while you hunch over and put your face against the window, “If I don’t make eye contact, he won’t talk to me. Don’t make eye contact. Look away.”
You pull the collar of your coat up over your ears, hoping it hides your face. Then all of a sudden you hear, “I like looking at the scenery too. So many people today are glued to their phones and miss everything.” You’re cussing under your breath because he sat in the empty seat in front of you.
Well, that was probably me. My son and daughter hated going to the grocery store with me when they were young children—come to think of it, they hate it even more in their late teens and early twenties. We would come home and they would complain to their mother, “Does Daddy know everyone.” And they would say the last word with this exasperated sigh. Oh, the agony.
We would tell them that I did not actually know everyone…I just never meet a stranger. And my parents told me this was something I have possessed my whole life. We used to live in Iceland, and when we would come back to the States, it would usually be on overnight flights that seemed to take forever. Of course, anything longer than an episode of Speed Racer was forever to a twelve-year-old.
My parents would go to sleep. Turbulence or someone walking by would wake them up. They would look around, and my seat would inevitably be empty. To find me they would look up or down the aisle for the overhead lights that were on and listen for the voices. It seems I had a habit of roaming the aisles until I found someone awake and an empty seat. I would plop myself down and start a conversation.
And as an adult, I still haven’t learned not to talk to strangers. On a business trip to NYC a few years ago, I decided to take a couple extra days and tour the sights. Unfortunately, on the day I was to leave, I thought I was heading toward the Astoria Blvd/31st Street station in order to catch the bus to La Guardia airport for my flight home.
Wouldn’t you know it…I took the wrong train and ended up in Brooklyn. After a brief moment of confusion, I learned of a bus that went from the next station straight to the airport. Yes. I hopped off and stood in line to get on the bus. When I got on, I immediately headed to the back.
Soon after, a man and two women entered the bus and sat in the back with me up on the very back row. One of the ladies had a big pizza in her hands. Naturally, I had to say something. “All right. You brought lunch for everyone.” She smiled. She laughed. And promptly told me, NO. Two other people sat across from me, and another woman sat beside me. The seats at the back faced each other with the windows behind us.
The woman with the pizza had been up visiting her brother (the man) and sister-in-law (the other woman) in Harlem. She wanted to bring some pizza from the old neighborhood and planned to eat it in the airport. I joked with them. We talked about the history of Harlem and how I needed to visit. I admitted that the only thing I knew about Harlem was the Apollo Theater. After visiting with them, I will make a trip up there on the next trip. By the time we arrived at the airport, she had offered to share her pizza with me.
During my travels I met a man who not only flips houses, but also entire trailer parks. After the flight, I told him I was sorry if I talked too much. He brushed it aside and said he never talked on a plane before and enjoyed it. I met a woman that runs a non-profit in Africa whose mission is to fund education in the DR Congo. Check it out at Future Hope Africa. They run the only tutoring center in the city of Bukavu. I met a woman who started her own recruiting firm in Portland, Maine. A man who runs a real estate management firm in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I met a young man who just graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
And it’s not just airplane and busses where I meet strangers. My wife and I recently returned from a 7-day cruise of the western Caribbean. When we arrived at the port, getting ready to board the ship, people filled the terminal, milling about and waiting or carrying their luggage. We went with another couple, and the husband said, “Look at all the friends JC hasn’t met yet.”
Yes…I’m that guy.