The five lessons I learned from strangers

This morning I crossed paths with the elderly Indian gentleman I see most mornings on my way to work. We went through our usual routine: I smile and say good morning, and he smiles back, performs an elegant flourish with his hand, and responds, “and a very good day to you.”

Not only is his greeting unique, the fact that I willingly interact with a stranger is itself exceedingly rare. Whenever I hear that Will Rogers quote, “A stranger is just a friend I haven’t met yet,” I think, “That simple-minded Okie clearly didn’t live in New York.” I figured that out the first year I lived here.

1.) What the “blind” guy taught me
I had only been living in New York for a couple of weeks when, on the way to dinner with some friends, I noticed a man at a corner loudly asking for directions: “Can anyone tell me how to get to Times Square?” He was wearing sunglasses and looked disoriented; considering it was already dark out, I assumed he was blind. Dismayed by the callousness of New Yorkers I went up to him and, gently grabbing his arm, turned him around and said, “It’s in that direction.”

“I would love to suck your ass,” he responded. I recoiled in shock, and as I hurried away he turned to me and pleaded, “Forgive me!” I carefully washed my hands several times at the restaurant but I still had to skip dinner.

Lesson: don’t approach strangers.

2.) What the pumpkin-headed drunk taught me
You probably won’t believe this, but for most of the ’90s there was nothing to do in Williamsburg, and instead we all went barhopping in the East Village, which was not yet overrun with frat-boy douches.Waiting for the L train late at night with a lot of other drunk young people was not as fun as it sounds, but it could be worse, such as when the middle-aged, cheap-suited, red-faced, pumpkin-headed drunk stumbled towards me in Union Square and slurred, “You and me, we’re no different.” He was clearly trashed, so I just walked away. But he followed me. “You and I, we’re alike.” “I don’t think so,” I said. “Yeah, we’re the same, you and me.” That seemed to be as much as he could express. He kept this up through the full length of the platform until the train arrived.

I still don’t understand what point he was trying to make, unless it was that we both have large heads, in which case he was absolutely correct.

Lesson: don’t engage strangers.

3.) What the topless woman taught me
I’m walking around University Place when I see a very large topless woman standing on a stoop. The two men ahead of me turn to look at her and she starts screaming at the top of her lungs.


It’s too late for me to turn around, so I’m forced to walk past her. I take a deep breath and pass by without looking. After I’m safely past I hear her say, “That’s right, buddy, minding your business, just like I am.” I breathe out.

Lesson: mind your own business.

4.) What the former Subway employee taught me
A young guy sat next to me on the train and started talking without any prelude. “I got fired from my job last week.” I waited for him to ask me for money, but instead he said, “Wanna know why?” I didn’t respond, which he mistook for a sign of eager interest.

“I was working at Subway, you know, the sandwich chain? And then I got this sore on my arm, and my manager told me I had to get it checked out.” I was surprised by Subway’s scrupulousness, but I kept that to myself. “So I went to the doctor and he gave me these antibiotics, but the sore wasn’t going away, and the manager says that I can’t be making sandwiches with a sore like that, and he let me go. The sore’s gone away now, but now I gotta find a new job.”

I wished him luck and got off at the next stop.

Lesson: it doesn’t matter what you do, strangers will still invade your personal space.

5.) What the park shouter taught me
One night in my first winter here I learned probably the most important lesson about strangers in New York. I was walking through a park when a woman started shouting something in my direction. Putting to work what I had learned so far, I ignored her and pressed on. Suddenly, I slipped on the ice and fell on my ass.

“I told you it was slippery!” she yelled.

Lesson: stop generalizing strangers.

And a very good day to you.

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