The Familiar Stranger

The Familiar Stranger

It’s strange to me that we humans can experience these connections with people and yet bury ourselves away, tucked in little pockets that is the now the normal structure of society. Many of us have shared moments with other human beings.  We all have our own interactions.  It could be that moment you slowed down, let the car turn onto the street in front of you and they waved a“Thanks,” and you nodded a “You’re welcome.”  It could be that time the crazy man yelled an unexplainable pattern of words, and flapped his arms around like a bird, and you turned and looked at another innocent stranger standing by and shared a “Well he’s crazy, isn’t he?” shrug of the shoulders and raise of the eye brows.  Maybe a pedestrian walks into a pole because he or she is too busy texting, and you see it and so does someone else, and you both get to laugh together at the same incident.

It can go further, these moments we share with people.  I ran into an older man from Australia at a coffee cart once.  We had a wonderful conversation and we exchanged email addresses.  Flash forward to today when I opened up my mailbox and received a postcard all the way from Down Under.  Another friendship started abruptly when a visitor was getting breakfast in Salt Lake City.  I tend to get breakfast alone to enjoy my eggs and sausage and prepare for the day.  We had a short exchange that took on heavier topics than one would think possible in the five minutes we had together.  He talked about that moment you come home and recap the day with a significant other, the moment he missed the most.  I, on the other hand, found myself confessing, “I just have all of this energy in this ocean I’m swimming in…Just no island to swim to yet.”  He eventually found me via social media though I thought we may never see each other or speak with each other again.  He gave me a phone call and we talked for four hours about our upbringing.  At the end of the day, he told me that when I walked in and sat down alone for breakfast, he felt like the sun was rising.

Imagine that, someone feeling a sunrise when you enter the room.

It was one of the most wonderful things I had ever heard that was used to describe an experience with me.  Imagine if I never knew that I felt like a sunrise to someone.  Imagine if I felt that the room was indifferent to my presence. Just imagine!

I can take this further. And I will.  How about that moment that grows into something intimate, something worth sacrificing for, something that keeps you awake at night and yet is still the only thing you want to dream about? Once a man, no he was only a boy, had approached me in a hotel lobby.  We were young, and I was a bit too young to be traveling and in a hotel on my own, but there I was reading alone in the lobby.  He asked where I was from, where my mom was from.  We talked about my parents.  When the night started to get late, I told him I had better turn in and start packing for my flight the next day. We were in Mexico.  He told me he didn't want to stop talking yet.  And I didn't want to stop either, so I let him ride the elevator up with me.

I had only kissed two men by that time in my life.  He must have felt my uneasiness because he sat on the floor and continued to talk to me while I folded my clothes on the bed and patted them nicely into my suitcase.  We continued talking about parents. He looked me in the eye and told me a secret about his father and his lips shook because the words coming out of his mouth were so heavy.  Before the tears could come, he whispered to me, “The sun will rise soon.” Then he stood up, took my hand, and we took the elevator downstairs.  We walked through the streets in Mexico: him in the clothes he had on the night before, and me in my thin, cotton pajamas.  

Once we were in the park and it was still dark, the sun started to rise.  We still didn’t have a view, so we climbed up onto the base of a statue.  We sat side by side.  I thought about kissing him then, but I didn't. I was too young to know that that moment would pass and that I would never get it back.  

When we returned to the hotel, he went back to his own room and I finished packing.  When I came back down to the lobby with my suitcase, ready for the airport and the next country, I looked for him but he was nowhere to be found.

When my cab pulled up, I heard my name.  He had rushed down to the lobby and out the front doors.  He wrapped his arms around me.  We lingered there for a moment.  We didn’t dare kiss.  I stepped into the cab, and it drove off.  I turned around and saw through the rear window that he was standing there watching me fade away to a place where he could only know me in his memories.  

Suddenly, I realized I hadn’t kissed him.  I realized I might never see him again.  I realized everything, I grew up a little, and I panicked.  Why I hadn't I lingered there for longer?  Why hadn't I promised I would see him again? Why hadn't I kissed him?

When I got to the airport, he had written me an email.  It was a cluster of words that had been in a rush to get to me.  I read it and knew he had felt the panic too.  We had let go of each other so easily.  How were we supposed to know to hold on?  He’s still the stranger I will never forget.

Later on, after I had learned to never let go of something good, I met my first serious boyfriend. The first thing I had ever said to my ex-boyfriend was, “I bet you can’t actually ride that thing. I bet you just sit next to it to look cool. For show.”  He smiled and I dared him to do a few tricks on his skateboard.  Who knew my random poke at a stranger would lead to a three-year-long relationship?

One last connection to bring up to argue my call to action: When I ran away from home. I ended up meeting a boy who would train with me for the next six months.  After that, we would see each other three, maybe four times in the next seven years.  But he would call me every day the year my parents split up.  He would call me no matter where I traveled to.  I remember phone calls at the laundromats in NYC, the day I realized I had been cheated on, on my way to the bar in Los Angeles, the day I was flying out to Costa Rica to live on a farm… And I would answer when he called when the love of his life left the country, when he graduated from college, when he got his first job, when he had the worst one night stand imaginable, when shit hit the fan, when the love of his life moved back to his city again… 

He’s the best friend I’ve ever had.  And I’ve seen him maybe three times in the last six or seven years.  How about that?

So back to the beginning of this post, back to my incredible disbelief: How can we experience these connections with people, how can we feel the magic, and yet let so many opportunities pass us by?  How many conversations, laughs, jokes, lessons, romances, friendships have we walked past because… it’s “weird” to talk to the people who surround us?

Have you ever heard of the “Familiar stranger”?  The familiar stranger was identified by Stanley Milgram, famous for his experiment on obedience and authority. The familiar stranger is an individual "who is recognized from regular activities, but with whom one does not interact."  This individual is an interesting component in our social network. They are “Somebody who is seen observed repetitively, but with whom one does not otherwise communicate.  . . It is a visual but not verbal relationship in which both parties maintain anonymity."  They’re not totally alien to you, but they’re not friends…they’re not even acquaintances.

(Yes, this is me citing wikipedia because easy.)

Seriously though, think about it. 

I do.  I see some of the same people on my walk to work.  Some of the same people at the gym.  Some of the same people when I breakfast alone.  Some of the same people when I go grocery shopping in my neighborhood.

The writer in me is tortured by these people.  These familiar faces with unfamiliar thoughts behind those faces. I need to know what they’re thinking, what troubles them, what makes them laugh.  I can only breathe life into them with my own imagination for so long. . . Well actually I can keep on writing their backstory, drawing out their futures forever.  However, the truth is credible, real, and most likely just as enchanting than fiction, if not more so, in its own raw way.

There’s a man who called out, ‘Nice legs” to me while on my way to work.  The next time, I stopped and talked to him.  His name is Mike, and he has to go to the hospital every week and get his blood drawn from him. It makes him weak and he says he never feels very good these days.  He's in a wheel chair.

There’s a girl who works at a store in the City Creek mall. She is from California and having a hard time fitting in here in Utah.  She misses home, but she’s trying to make things work here because this is where her boyfriend’s new job is.

There’s a man who lived off of 18k a year in New York City, limiting his spending to food, water, and shelter.  He was following the dream and now owns his own company with his brothers in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City.

There’s a young man at my gym who does push-ups with his legs in the air and swings and spins and flips from the rings hanging from the ceiling.  Today, I told him that he was amazing and asked what he was training for. I learned his name and also that he specializes in aerial arts and works for a circus.

I met a girl who is going to France to study, something she thought she could only dream about doing.  The love of her life, however, is in the U.S.  And now, though she has the the man of her dreams and the opportunity of a lifetime, she feels stuck.

So, within reason and safety, I ask my readers today to put away the teachings we’ve received since grade school of not talking to strangers.  Do talk to strangers.  Ask what you are most curious about.  Tell them they have a lovely smile or ask about the book they’re reading if you really care to know.  Maybe they think you’re a creep and go on their way.  Maybe they give you the title of their book and dip their nose back into their pages (hey, maybe it's a damn good book).  Maybe that’s it.  But if you approach this one with no expectations, you have nothing to lose…and all of the magic in the world to gain.


Maybe if you let a coworker that you didn’t know very well sleep on your couch a couple of those times in need, you might learn about how much he loves to ride his bike.  You might eat dinner with them and talk about what God is to you or if he is anything at all.  Maybe you wake up and your new friend and short-lived guest is already gone and all you have left of him is a thank you from him in the form of a sketch of yourself - a peek into how a stranger may see you from across the table - and the beginning of a new friendship.

Do not miss the opportunity to learn that you’re not alone, that everyone has hopes, dreams, fears, and can get bogged down from the day-to-day tasks. Make the familiar stranger a bit more familiar.  And if you do that, if you can do that… Maybe I’ll soon find the courage to ask a certain particular and familiar stranger to come out and eat breakfast with me on one of these fine spring mornings.  

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