To Smile At Strangers

It was a languid sunny day in early September—Vermont’s mountains were on fire in all their seasonal autumn glory—and I was sitting on the metal bench at a bus stop in Burlington, plugged into my headphones and a romance novel. An old man approached me and I looked up as he asked whether this was the stop for the bus to Montpelier. I replied politely that it was, putting on the mask of distance that we’re taught to wear with strangers. The old man set next to me as I returned to the world inside my headphones, lost in my head. A minute later I heard someone speaking to me, and when I turned around I realized it was the old man on the bench next to me. “How’s your day going, miss?” he asked brightly, and I was a little surprised for a couple reasons although it may seem a mundane question.

On one hand, nobody had ever called me ‘miss’ before, and on the other, although I commuted on the bus everyday I had never thought to talk to the other commuters who I sat next to so often. I couldn’t even tell you what so many of these other commuters looked like, they were just suits and blank faces, meaningless bodies taking up space on the bus around me just as I’m sure I was to them. But this old man had broken through that glaze, penetrated the wall that seems to separate individuals like a pebble thrown on the water ripples the surface. As I replied that my day was actually pretty wonderful, how was his? He began to take shape as a person, and a slightly bizarre and wonderful one at that. He had a full grey beard, and bright blue eyes beneath bushy eyebrows. He wore loose-fitting cotton, and most interesting of all, he had bare-feet, shoeless on the cement. He explained to me that he was having a really lovely day, pretty brilliant in fact, and wasn’t it a good fall? And it had been a good summer too, hadn’t it? So beautiful! I remarked that yes, it had, still so taken aback by this stranger who was so outgoing and so polite, because it is such a rare occasion that we happen upon these people in our lives. We had a short conversation, waiting for the bus. It was mostly dominated by him, but together we made a few small-world connections. As the bus pulled up, grinding across the cement, and pulled to a halt in front of our bench I stood up. He shook my hand and declared “Have a good life!” and we quietly parted ways, returning to our separate lives. As the bus sped down the interstate a few minutes later I was still a little shocked, so pleasantly surprised by this mundane but beautiful interaction—I realized that I hadn’t even learned his name. We often forget how these small moments can be so touching, when we break through society’s ban on speaking to the strangers around us. These are the people who we bump elbows with on the subway or knock knees with on the train—perhaps we are all not so different as we may think. Though it is far too easy to become sucked into the voids of our own lives, our individual bubbles, it is such a sweet surprise to be hit with a wake-up call to get up and smell the flowers. I’ve got to wonder, why people are so apt to be watching their feet as they walk around, staring at the dirt and grub of the street, when we’ve got this great big beautiful sky right over all of our heads. Every once in a while, we remember that it’s up there, we remember to pick up our heads out of the sand and take a peek at the birds and the bees and the other strange people we inhabit this world with. This is my resolve to smile at more strangers, because you never know whose world you might touch.

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