I, too, believe in the kindness of strangers.
I’m not doing too well lately, waking up in the middle of the night and listening to those irrational, terrified voices: your life is a mess.
When I reach a point this low I find myself telling the gods, my invisible friends, whoever is listening, “I don’t think I can do this alone, I need help.” And the astonishing thing is that I always do get help, although it’s not always in the form one may expect. This time, it came in an unwitting consensus between family and friends that they should support my latest, arguably crazy scheme. It came from my mom telling me, “You could go to Siberia to work in a mine, and I wouldn’t worry about you.” It came in the form of an email from Mr. Hotness, catching up on the past several months wherein we were out of contact, that gave me both closure and hope for both of us.
And it came, this afternoon, from a man I assume works as the supervisor at 83 Bryant, an enormous, elaborately trimmed, prewar brick apartment building I pass every day on my way to work. This man is heavyset, with an unlined, full face and a full head of short grey-white hair. He stands in the building’s driveway many a morning, setting out sprinklers or talking to delivery and repair people. One morning a couple months ago he complimented my freshly-dyed hair as I passed. Breaking the fourth wall in Buffalo is normal; if you walk, you will probably be spoken to by one stranger per four blocks. So I thought nothing of it.
Two days ago, he interrupted a conversation with a delivery person as I passed, holding up a hand and saying, “Wait, I can’t talk right now, I need to watch her face.” I did not stop walking to allow him to do so, but, like Steve Martin rewarding Tina Fey with “five minutes of uninterrupted eye contact” in Baby Mama, the statement gave me a surprisingly effective impression of having just had pretty satisfying sex.
This afternoon he followed a greeting with, “I just have to say something, is that all right?”
I stopped, reluctantly, several feet from him, one foot poised behind me for quick flight.
“You are the most beautiful person I have ever seen,” he said, throwing up his hands as though he just couldn’t keep this to himself anymore. “You have the most incredible face, and your look, even your walk… you are too big for Buffalo. And you know what, unique. I thought it when I saw your hair a few months ago, but then when you changed it, I thought, you can carry it off. The color and the cut, you don’t do what other people do. The way you carry yourself, everything. You’re just- you’re just really a gorgeous person.”
I stuttered and stammered my way through this, wobbling on one foot, thanked him, and walked my way. The truth? I was teary eyed for the rest of the block. Maybe he is just a lonely, horny building supervisor, but his words hit me like a sledgehammer. He had so little motive- he knew I wasn’t going to throw my arms around him and call him baby for making that speech.
I’m not telling this story because I think I am the most beautiful person in the universe. I tell it because it was exactly what I needed. Sometimes when someone breaks that fourth wall it feels like the gods whispering in my ear. These are the times when a stranger interrupts your regularly scheduled program to say, “Hey, listen up.” I’m talking about the homeless man making eye contact with me when I put change in his cup, silently telling me to be grateful for what I have. The child grinning at me from the shopping cart at the other end of the aisle, reminding me life is good. Or the guy setting out sprinklers, who tells you without knowing he needed to, “Throw those shoulders back, girl, you can do this.”
You can navigate the conflicts at work. You can enjoy the company of your mom and brother. You can trust them to make their way even if you can’t lead them, Moses-like, to the promised land. You can love and be loved. You can find the strength to change what you can, the patience to live with what you can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Go on, all you have to do is walk.