Why I Always Talk to Strangers

It’s OK to venture — publicly, eyes open and common sense intact — into someone else’s world, and to let them enter yours

"Can I interest any of you ladies in the very special breakfast?"

We were at a diner in Burnham, Pennsylvania — oilcloth on the tables, griddle grease in the air — and the "ladies" included my partner and me, our 13-year-old daughter and one of her friends. We'd spent a long weekend at a nearby farm, city-dwellers happily mucking in the sheep pen and tossing grain to the chickens, and now we were catching one last small-town meal on the way back to Philadelphia.

But it was clear from the way our questioner — who had a kitchen-stained apron and a voice deep as mulch — stood his bulky ground that we were not going to slide away without at least one "very special breakfast.

"It's not so much the ingredients — it's eggs and potatoes and pancakes — but the presentation," our chef promised. Too risky for me: I eat only well-scrambled eggs with no trace of yolky wetness. Sasha prefers pancakes, and her friend was leaning toward the lunch side of the menu. That left Elissa. "Um … OK," she agreed.

The chef, who also seemed to be the diner's owner and, on that morning, its sole wait staff, scribbled the rest of our order with a smile.

When I was a kid, my parents told me not to traffic with strangers. Don't get in Chevrolets with them. Don't take their unwrapped apples or their proffered handfuls of butterscotch candy. Don't ever, ever go inside their houses. In fact, don't even talk to them.

Now that I'm a parent, I'm chilled by accounts of children who vanish, sometimes permanently, after breaching those cautions. Even though I know the risk of someone leaping from the bushes to harm my kid is infinitesimal — that kids in America are in far more danger from people they know, including coaches, clergy and relatives — the prospect still haunts me. We, too, instructed our daughter about "stranger danger," with a 21st-century emphasis on private parts, "bad touch" and never keeping secrets.

And yet, one part of the proscription feels wrong. I talk to strangers all the time: on the street corner, on the commuter train, in line at Starbucks, in the elevator at the eye doctor's office.

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When I was 23, strangers peopled my path across the country as I drove alone from Philadelphia to Portland, Oregon. At a youth hostel on the Pennsylvania/Ohio border, the middle-aged son of the hostel's owner reached for my hand and proposed marriage (I declined). In Columbus, a student from Ohio State, whom I'd met ten minutes earlier, took me out for a beer and recited Yeats from memory: "... the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun." And in Durango, Colorado, I met a sign-language interpreter from New York and agreed to give him a ride. We talked — about gay rights, about living with disabilities — all the way to the Grand Canyon, where we hugged good-bye under a double rainbow.

Some brushes with strangers are indelible: The Australian student who looked me in the eye and asked what I'd really gotten from my college education. The young woman, grasping at wet bags of groceries on a rainy Sunday afternoon, who accepted our offer of a ride home and handed over her just-purchased apricots in gratitude. The clerk at the bagel store who grew teary when she heard that my partner had survived — all body parts intact — the 2013 Boston Marathon.

Or the man who came to a full stop on the sidewalk of West 56th Street in Manhattan one rainy evening this spring. Elissa and I were trundling up the block with our wheeled bags. "Are you my guests?" he asked.

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We weren't. But we were intrigued enough to stop and chat. Turned out that he ran an Airbnb out of his apartment — he gestured to a cluster of four-story buildings — and told us about the art garden he'd created in the courtyard behind them. Would we like to see it? Right now?

Well, sure. And so we followed this stranger into a hallway whose walls were jammed with paintings, collages and mosaics by himself and his friends — some of them naïve, some inventive and beautiful — and then out the back door into a space we'd never have imagined from the ordinary, brownstone front of the block.

There were arcs of tiny lights, a table "set" with faces formed of shells and rocks. Jagged pieces of plywood painted with quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., Japanese fans spread wide as raptor wings. Birdbaths and chairs and dish-ware and fountains, broken glass remade into glittering mosaics. We'd fallen through the rabbit hole; I expected to see the Red Queen at any moment. But no, just this gregarious artist-stranger-guy waxing enthusiastically about the provenance of every found object in his eclectic, astonishing collection.

We stayed. We talked. We lost track of time a little bit, just as we did on that other day in the Burnham diner. The "very special breakfast," delivered with a flourish by our aproned host, turned out to be a poached egg nestled in a canoe of shredded, crisped potatoes, alongside a short stack of pancakes sandwiched with whipped cream and strawberries. He'd fanned one plump berry as a garnish. Then he sat down to watch us eat.

After five minutes of conversation, it was clear that Chef stood proudly on the far-right edge of the political spectrum, that he thought people in cities (um, that would be us) were either bleeding-heart liberals or welfare-sucking parasites. But he was also an culinary artist, a grandfather and a farmer: eager to describe how he'd perfected the shredded-potato basket, worried about his 15-year-old grandson who didn't want to inherit the pig farm, skeptical of power and those who seemed to have more and more of it. On that — as well as on the excellence of pancakes paired with sweet cream and fresh berries — we could agree.

The moment people open their mouths, they complicate themselves. Talk for ten minutes and feel your stereotypes unclasp. I'm not saying you should sleep with strangers. Or get into their Jettas and ride away. It's still prudent to decline an offer of unwrapped butterscotch candies. But it's OK, more than OK, to venture — publicly, eyes open and common sense intact — into someone else's world, and to let them enter yours.

On that cool spring night in New York, by the time we'd finished ooh'ing and ahh'ing the surrealist garden of West 56th Street, the rain was steady, and our guide's name was in my cell phone. We thanked him for showing us his creation. He said it was too bad we couldn't come back the following week, when his friend from Haiti would be playing drums out there. "You know, it's true what Jesus said, about loving your neighbor as yourself," he told us. "But no one knows what he said right after that." Our new friend, no longer quite so strange, leaned forward conspiratorially. "Jesus said … it ain't gonna be easy."

Tags: memoirs