Talking To Strangers

My deepest conversations are often with total strangers.

Navigating Penn Station demanded my full attention, so I wasn’t wearing headphones when I stepped onto the crowded Amtrak heading from New York to Washington D.C.

To my surprise, there was only one empty seat in my car. An elderly, white-haired woman was sitting in the aisle next to an open window seat. Her head was tilted down to read a blue-covered fantasy novel, so I couldn’t see her eyes. I could only see her navy jacket, enhanced by the kind of jewelry that takes a lifetime to collect.

“Excuse me. Is anybody sitting in the seat next to you?”

She looked up with a snarl, and said: “Umm… is the train full?”

I got the message. Her leather bag occupied the window seat beside her, and a turquoise suitcase that was half her size monopolized the legroom. I simply glanced towards the open seat that was about to be mine. Then, I offered to put her suitcase in the storage compartment above.

Before I could touch the bag, she protested, “It’s heavy.”

I smiled and said, “That won’t be a problem.” I lowered the handle of her luggage, picked it up, and lifted it into the storage compartment above her seat. As expected, it was lighter than the handkerchief in her lap. 

My battle was only halfway done. I needed to engage her in conversation. Otherwise, the journey would be miserable. Even as I sat down, I could sense the anguish in her tired, bloodshot eyes. After five minutes of small talk, just as we left an underwater tunnel and ascended onto the bright New Jersey meadowlands, she opened up. For the rest of the trip, she would speak, and I would listen.

She told me about the unexpected death of her husband two or three years ago, the loss of her daughter to cancer, and how she moved to Connecticut at 80 years old to help her 56-year-old daughter (she had four remaining) find a job. Then, she told me her beloved cat died once she arrived in the Northeast — the cat who helped her through those unexpected deaths. Now, that cat is gone, too.

Though she has her church, her bridge club, and her daughters, her life has a hole.

“I’m missing the one thing we need most in life: companionship.”

I snapped back into reality and extended my right hand. She extended hers, and finally, we shook hands. She had strong fingers for such a frail woman. Her knuckles were the size of New York City skyscrapers, but her burly hands were balanced by pink nail polish, three silver rings, and another gold one.

She was in good shape for an 80-year-old. Or, so, I thought.

As our hands parted ways, she turned to me and said, “I’m sorry about my nose.”

“What do you mean?”

“I fell a couple of weeks ago, and now I have this loud blemish on my face. I can’t believe you have to see me like this.” I raised my eyebrows in a high arch and told her I hadn’t noticed. I was telling the truth, but she heard it as a white lie.

Comforted by the security of the moment, she spoke again. “My daughters say I’m lost, so I’m seeing a therapist.”

To fill the hole of companionship, her therapist suggested she try online dating. After her initial skepticism, you’d expect from a great-grandmother from rural North Carolina, she did.

At first, she was unsuccessful. “I don’t like guys with beer bellies or baseball hats,” she said.

But then, she met a man named Casper. They exchanged messages about theatre and the opera and agreed to rendezvous at a highway-side Starbucks halfway between where they each lived in the Northeast. 

“Well… how do you like him?”

“He was short, but I liked everything else about him. He’s 5’7,” and I’m 5’7”, so I don’t know how I feel about that. But I knew things would go well when he arrived in a suit and tie. We got along famously

“We agreed to meet a second time in Parsipanny, New Jersey, and now, we’re going to spend the next four days in Philadelphia. We’ll see how things go. His wife died seven years ago, so he’s looking for somebody like me.”

Moved by her candor, I rested my head against the leather seat behind me and had a flash of insight: long-term friendships are lovely, but they’re often restricted by the chains of precedent. Over time, we develop norms. Like hikers on a steep mountain range, we stick to the well-worn paths of conversation. That’s why it’s hard to have deep conversations with family or keep childhood friendships alive when your interests evolve.

But in a first time meeting like this one, you can speak from the heart. You can talk about love, grief, death, despair, and everything in between.