On the G train heading home to my son’s place in Brooklyn Saturday night, I committed a cardinal sin. I spoke to a stranger. Well really, he started it. I was reading the playbill from the show we’d just seen, curious over why Toni Collette was the only actor to have this disclaimer after her name: “appearing with the support of Actors’ Equity Association.”
“Surely she’s not the only union member in this play,” I said to Patrick.
A gentleman sitting across the car politely offered that because she is from Australia, the same rules do not apply. Hence she is granted a courtesy. He was very courteous in answering my question. I asked if he’d seen the play. He had. I asked if he liked it. He did. I asked if he is in the theater. He is. It went from there. We got off at the same stop, he went his way, I went mine. It’s not like I asked for his phone number or anything.
Patrick laughed. “You’re the only person I know who strikes up conversations with people on the subway, Mom.”
Imagine my satisfaction then, when the next morning comes a headline in the New York Times: “Your life will be happier if you talk to strangers.” No kidding. Chalk up another high-priced study that they should have just paid me for. I should start a new business called, “Just Pay Jean.” I could have told these fools, that based on years of empirical data gleaned from miles of pedestrian, vehicular, air, train and elevator travel, that common courtesy (increasingly uncommon these days) does indeed make for happier campers.
Case in point: a few weeks ago, when the winter of our arctic discontent still held us by the cashmere short hairs, I was riding in the glass elevator at the airport parking garage. Long past sunset, freezing cold, miserably tired, all I could think of was getting home to my warm bed. I’m snarly. On the quick zip up two floors, I hear voices above me, loud, profane, obnoxious. I’m rolling my eyes, wondering, “who are these jokers?” Door opens. Six people, two women and a bunch of saggy, baggy teenagers with cell phones and backwards ball caps, were ganged up in front of the door, ready to spring into the elevator. Instead, the tall, skinny kid in front jumps back.
“Oh! You scared me!” he said, almost knocking down his old lady.
“Well I know I look bad,” I said dryly. “But I don’t look that bad.”
Peals of laughter. The two mommas and the teens fell out, busting a gut. Set ‘em up, I knock ‘em down. They were laughing and apologizing at the same time for their unruly kids who almost stampeded me, then inadvertently insulted me and then laughed at me! But truth is, we were all laughing. This made my night. So much so, I talked about this random act of elevator humanity for two days.
Maybe you had to be there. Maybe it’s a small thing, but maybe not. As it turns out, verified now by sociological research, the results of which were kept in a sealed envelope by Pricewaterhouse Coopers until last Sunday when they were published in the New York Times, even the slightest acknowledgement, a glance, a “good morning,” a mere nod of the head as you pass a stranger on the sidewalk, validates their very existence. Apparently this goes a long way towards “easing their existential angst.” Come on, people! Can’t we all just give a nod?
My mom came by this naturally. She had a way of connecting with folks, that in an instant, could make their day a little better. I observed this all of my life; from the time I was a little girl traipsing along behind her when we’d go downtown to pay the bills, long after I’d become a grown woman, picking her up at the airport even into her 80s, where often I’d find her saying goodbye to some new found friend, usually a handsome man. My mother was an ambassador of good will. And a narcissist as well, because she would replay these encounters for days, letting me know how much these strangers had enjoyed their brief interlude with her. (Do you see a pattern here?) Legendary in her own mind as she was, my mother’s view of humanity came from a bedrock core of decency, an unspoken yet thoroughly engrained humility and acceptance of the fact that we are all in this together. My mother Beverly, was the person who often recited the Sam Walter Foss poem, “House By the Side of the Road.”
“But I turn not away from their smiles and tears, both parts of an infinite plan…
Let me live in a house by the side of the road, and be a friend to man.”
I was never so aware of this human conditioning than when I was on the road alone in the summer of 2011. Two months, 22 states, 139 cities and nearly 9,000 miles, there was nobody on that long journey except me and my dog and a cast of characters from coast-to-coast. I described the feeling from these shutter-speed interactions as abundant benevolence. I tell you now that this changed my life. When a person is completely on their own, free from external props which attempt to signal who we are, we can find out what we’re really made of. You gotta represent, dude. It doesn’t matter what street you live on, how big your house is, who you run around with, it’s just you. Sometimes I would go for days without talking to another human being, save for the toll booth attendant, the kid at the drive-up, the custodian at the rest stop. A nod, a laugh, a chat, it made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I suppose one could say that my travels were “supported by the Human Kindness Association.” Courtesies granted.
I’ve often wished that there was some magical way to visualize, or even better, capture the powerful energy from these exchanges of stranger decency. If you could cap and trade, like methane gas, fortunes could be made and this good will vapor just might save the world.