Monday, August 19, 2013

Strangers Like Me, in Places We don't Know


Earlier this summer, I spent three days in Florida for work. I didn't travel with any of my coworkers, & upon arrival, I knew only two people, sort of. I was a speaker at a convention for Jewish men, so for most of the event, I was the only woman in the room, & the youngest, to boot. I traveled alone, I stayed alone, I ate alone. Except I wasn't really alone at all.

I shared a cab from the hotel to the airport with an older gentleman named Harvey, a pediatrician from California. The conversation was surprisingly easy as we talked about social media, generational divides, & the future of Reform Judaism, & when our taxi pulled up to his gate, he tried to hand me $12 for the ride & wished me safe travels & a happy day.

My flight delayed, I shared a seat on the floor outside the airport bathrooms with a middle-aged guy named Scott, both of us clamoring for the electrical outlets that were prime real estate in our crowded terminal. We laughed about having no shame when it comes to technology, & when he made a call to a flight attendant friend, he asked her about the timing of my flight, too. He showed me pictures of his kids & told me a bit about his business & his penchant for befriending strangers. Me, too, Scott, me, too. As his flight began to board, he wished me good luck in the hopes that mine would take off soon.

Hours later, my flight was still grounded, & when my phone's battery ran low, I sought another outlet. I found one near a table in the food court, sitting next to a tanned young man about my age. He asked, "Are you on the Newark flight, too?" & together we lamented the general unreliability of air travel. Still, we both admitted, we were lucky to be coming home from such beautiful destinations - him from Puerto Rio & me from Fort Lauderdale. We talked about traveling alone, taking the next day off work, & needing a vacation to recover from our vacations, & when we thought our flight was boarding, we abandoned our post & accepted our partially charged phones in exchange for excitement about a flight that might take off. When it turned out to be a false alarm, we'd lost our spots to other travelers desperate for a charge. Displaced, we parted ways with a wave as he got in line for a burger & I opted for Chinese.

When our plane finally boarded, then took off, then landed, I began to feel hopeful that I'd catch the 9:30 train home from the airport. But when a flight attendant came on over the loudspeaker to tell us we'd be taxiing near the gate for 15 minutes, everyone on board let out a collective groan of frustration. The man sitting next to me, traveling with a painted canvas as his piece of carry-on "luggage," announced loudly that his flight out of Newark was delayed by three hours, too; I told him of my own recent travel debacle, & when other passengers overheard our conversation, they chimed in to express their horror - & their gratitude that as annoying as our current situation might have been, it still wasn't that bad. As we deplaned, he turned back to me: "Thanks for the perspective. Enjoy being home."

Strangers, man.

Look, things aren't always good. In fact, sometimes, things are total shit. Sometimes you break down in tears on the dirty airport carpet & do a full-scale messy cry because it feels like you're never going to get home or change out of your sweaty airport clothes or sleep in a bed instead of on a patch of threadbare carpet festering with other people's shoe-germs. Sometimes you contemplate flying sans luggage to Boston just so you can take an hours-long Amtrak back to New Jersey, simply because the idea of spending the night in an airport is too much to bear & you just want to keep moving, to anywhere. Sometimes traveling chips away at your faith in humanity because, man, it kind of sucks.

But sometimes people surprise you, & sometimes you find that if you calm down & stop being an asshole & try to roll with it, it just... doesn't suck that much, really.

When we're kids, we're taught that strangers are bad & scary - & of course certainly they sometimes are - but when you're all alone, miles from the place you want to be with no idea when or how you'll get back, who else are you going to rely on? In times like these, it's the little interactions with total strangers that pick you back up & put you back together & make everything feel bearable. These fleeting interactions with people we know nothing about, people we'll never see again, people who have no idea they had any impact on you - they matter.

Be nice to strangers. You never know whose day you've made - or who's blogging about you!

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