A few days ago, I pulled into a parking space at a metered spot in an outdoor shopping mall in California. As I was trying to pay, a woman walked up to me and said, “Oh, don’t worry about paying. Someone told me they don’t monitor these spaces.”
I thanked her and thought that was the end of the conversation.
A few minutes later, I knew everything about her life.
She had just sold her home in one of the beach towns in Southern California and is staying with a friend in Rancho Cucamonga until she moves to Oklahoma where her sister lives. She told me how much the buyer paid for her beachside home and how much she paid for her new home in Oklahoma, the amount of her new mortgage, and shared her happiness over being able to retire earlier.
She loves her teaching career but doesn’t want to do it forever, and moving to Oklahoma and having a more manageable mortgage will allow her to retire sooner. Now it’s exciting for her to plan her future because she will have so many more options. Our conversation went on so long, I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if she had invited me to lunch to continue chatting.
As I was listening to her tell me all of these personal details, I was thinking, “Why are you telling me this? We don’t even know each other?” Then, I thought, “Don’t tell Sara, Annie, Doug, or any of my friends because they will roll their eyes and say, “Well, of course, you made friends with a stranger! Why are we not surprised?”
Then, Doug would go into his story about how I have an unusual knack for making friends in public restrooms.
You see, several years ago, while we were waiting for our luggage at the baggage claim at the Salt Lake City airport, I went into the restroom and accidentally made a friend.
She said, “Are you from Salt Lake?”
“No, I’m from Washington, D.C.,” I said.
“It’s a long shot,” she said, “but any chance you ever knew my sister Claire?” Then she told me all about her sister.
Well, as luck would have it. I did know her sister! She was the intern coordinator that picked me up at National Airport when I went to D.C. for the first time as a congressional intern.
Naturally, that led to a conversation and by the time we left the bathroom, we were like old friends. As we walked out, she stopped and gave me a big hug.
I saw Doug standing by the baggage chute shaking his head.
“How does that always happen?” He asked.
He swears men never talk in bathrooms. He says it’s almost verboten. So, he finds this bathroom friendliness baffling.
One morning while I was walking in Northern Virginia, a woman pulled up next to me in her SUV, and said, “Hey, you look like someone that would be fun to walk with. Mind if I join you?”
I was surprised, but, I said yes.
“I live just around the corner. I’ll run home and change my clothes,” she said.
I approached her driveway and she invited me into her home. I naively followed her inside. (After all, she was a mom in an SUV in a residential neighborhood. How dangerous could she be?) She scampered up the stairs to change her clothes, leaving me standing in her living room, which was more like a carefully curated art gallery than a normal living room.
“Make yourself at home. I have art everywhere — on all three floors. Feel free to check it out. Cold water bottles are in the fridge!”
After a few minutes, she came bounding down the steps, and off we went on our walk.
Over the pandemic, I went shopping and one of the salesladies struck up a conversation with me about everything she’d been through during the pandemic.
She hadn’t been able to see her parents, and then, her mother suddenly died! She was so heartbroken as she explained how crushing it was for her dad, and how hard it was for her to accept that her mother was gone and that she hadn’t been able to see her because of the pandemic. I listened and sympathized.
Then, later, she gave me a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates with a note about how much she appreciated being able to share her loss with me and how I felt like a friend to her.
I told Sara and Annie, and they said, “Well, of course, she did! Who else has these kinds of things happen to them?”
I was at a hair salon recently — now admittedly, women often over-share in salons — but I learned everything about a woman I’d never met — her mommy makeover, her rough bout with COVID, and how everything smells like garbage to her now. Every morsel of food smells like it came out of a smelly garbage can. I learned about her kids, her husband, a recent flood in their house, and more.
When I got home and told Doug all about this terrible tale, he shook his head (a common gesture) and said, “You learned all that while you were getting your haircut?” He swears men never talk to each other in barbershops.
Maybe I can blame (or credit) my parents for this gift of gab if I can even call it that.
The saying that “there are no strangers, just friends we haven’t met yet.,” applied to them.
My dad once met some dancers from New Zealand who were in town for a folk dance festival. By the end of their conversation, he had invited them all over for a barbecue.
He once went on a fishing trip and stayed in a rustic lodge in the Tetons and met a man from Washington, D.C. who was shocked that my dad was a milkman. “You mean, you leave milk on doorsteps?” He couldn’t believe that there were small towns that still had milkmen, and he wondered what that must be like to just walk out on your porch and get your cold milk and dairy products. My dad decided to surprise him by finding out his room number and leaving cold milk products on his doorstep for him to find early that morning. Voila. Instant friends.
To my kids, friends, and husband who tease me about this becoming-friends-with-strangers- thing, remember this wise adage: every good friend was once a stranger. Think on that for a minute, and maybe you too will start coming out of public restrooms, hair salons, and retail outlets with new friends.