Strangers I Miss

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The other day, I was driving through an alley when I saw an absolutely stunning old car parked outside an open garage. Don’t remember the model, but it was from the ‘20s. A tiny silver convertible with red tires, and the hood ornament was a guy thumbing his nose. I pulled up next to it and put on my mask so I could safely hang halfway out the window and gawk.
After a moment two guys came out of the garage and we talked for a bit and they were so proud and pleased at how much I liked the car and I told them that seeing it had made my day and I could tell that my saying that made theirs.

It was a really nice interaction but it made me sad.
I miss strangers. Not as much as I miss my family and friends, but I miss them. I miss the moments of connection between people who are probably never going to see each other again. I miss when a face in the crowd becomes a person.

Strangers I Miss 

I’m super shy. It’s a real problem. But only with people I’m going to actually try to know, like at a party or a convention or a new job. People I’ll never see again are mostly a breeze. Wish I could harness that carefree charisma and use it when it would be useful, but so far I cannot. Here are my favorite people whose opinions I don’t have to care about:


Strangers you have silent conversations with

I was once on a train and the guy in the row next to mine took his teeth out and cleaned them loudly and the woman across from me caught my eye and we stared at each other trying desperately not to laugh and I felt as close with her as I have with some people I lived with.

There was once a confrontation in front of a grocery store between an elderly security guard and a young guy who seemed like maybe he was on a whole lot of meth. He was about an inch from the security guard’s face growling that he was going to kill him. I stopped and tried to figure out what to do; it seemed like any sudden movement might set him off. There were two men also standing there, and the three of us stared at each other, each silently asking the others what we should do, each certain someone else should act. I like to think we would have eventually reached an agreement but then a large man came around the corner, saw instantly what was happening, and aggressively yelled for the guy to stand down. The methy guy instantly slunk off with his tail between his legs. The two men and I didn’t make eye contact after that, which was also sort of a conversation.

 

Strangers in elevators


I once got into an elevator and there was a tween girl saying to her mom, “No it’s a myth! It’s not true!” while her mom chuckled and shook her head. They stopped talking when I got in and I managed to stay silent for roughly eight seconds before announcing that I would go insane if I never found out what it was that was possibly a myth. Turned out the kid was positive that it was a myth that coffee made people more awake. Her mom was pretty happy to have someone back her up.

 

I used to work a lot of temp jobs. I used to hate a lot of temp jobs, so I’d always ask for the short-term ones; that way I had less time to hate it. So I rode up a lot of different elevators, early in the morning, with a lot of bleary-eyed people who also appeared to be hating life. And if I knew I was only there for one day, and the elevator was crowded enough, and no one was talking, I’d usually do something to at least make their day a little weirder. My favorite was to say loudly and wistfully, “Why don’t people sing in elevators anymore? Remember the old days, when everyone sang on elevators?” It never got to the point where people sang, but I swear to you, there was always at least one dude who went with it, who dead-pan reminisced about all the singing people used to do on elevators. You can’t imagine what a spring that puts in one’s step, making a whole elevator full of people wonder if actually people really did used to sing in elevators.

 


Strangers you join with in an emergency

I go for walks a lot. Often in the early evening when it’s not too hot. One night I was out for a walk on one of the main streets in town when I heard a screech of tires behind me, followed by a crash. I turned and saw a car had run into the low wall that ran along the median strip. No one else seemed to be involved in the crash, and no one in the car was moving, so I started walking back to make sure the driver wasn’t hurt, and hadn’t had a heart attack or something. I took a semester-long first aid class twenty-five years ago and remember almost none of it except that it’s important to see if people are hurt.

There was a small group of guys standing on the corner debating whether to go see what was up, and I encouraged them to come along.
The driver was a teenager who wasn’t moving because he was so freaked out about what his dad was going to do.

The guys pushed the car across the lanes to the curb while I stood in the road and stopped traffic, and then I talked the kid down while a few of them popped the hood to see what the damage was. Eventually it was determined that everything was ok and the kid wasn’t hurt. Two of the guys said they’d wait with him until his dad came, and the rest of us left.
We all said goodbye to one another and then, as I was walking away, one of the guys near me said, “Or we could form a club that just walks around looking for people to help.” We all laughed but also it was exactly how we all felt. Even though we hadn’t done anything major, it felt so good to work together to be helpful. 

 

 

Strangers in a mosh pit

The reason women as short as me can go into mosh pits and not get seriously hurt is that there are always people who look out for small women in mosh pits. One time someone accidentally punched me in the mouth and right as the fist connected, there was a hand on my collar yanking me away. I am grateful to these strangers, because being in mosh pits is wonderful.
(Side note: When I first became a punk rocker they were called “slam pits” and it’s very difficult for me to say “mosh pit” but I try because I know it’s the correct term now. But I’m a bit old and cantankerous about it).

 

 

Strangers who work at clubs

I went to a show with a friend a while back. I don’t go to shows very often anymore but I used to a lot, often with her. It was at a club neither of us had ever been to, and the guy at the door looked at our IDs and gave us bracelets, and then he hugged me and waved us in. Once we were inside she said, “Doormen always hug you! Why do doormen always hug you?” And I’d never thought about it and I have no idea, but it’s true. And it’s never creepy or anything, just nice and sort of older-brother-ish. I like it that doormen hug me, for whatever reason.

 


Strangers who remind you of your mom

I have a rule that I think everyone should live by: Always have a funeral-appropriate outfit in your closet, ready to go. It’s depressing, but it’s a lot more depressing to go shopping for a funeral outfit when a loved one has died.
My grandmom passed away when I was twenty-five, and the only dress I had that could possibly work was a long-sleeved sweater dress, and it was June.
I went to a department store and felt totally overwhelmed. The only salesclerk nearby was a grumpy lady acting impatient with everyone. So I wandered, gathering dresses that were probably not right, until I saw a shopper who reminded me of my mom. Didn’t look anything like her, just reminded me of her. You know. So I went up and asked her if the dress I was holding was okay for a funeral, and before I could blink she had put me in a dressing room and was handing me clothes over the door. We found the perfect dress in no time. She was so nice, and didn’t seem to think it weird at all that I’d asked her for help.

Also, many many people in grocery stores. Some of them remind me of my Dad. But it’s the same.

 

 
Strangers who ask for help

Once when I was at a gas station in Las Vegas, a guy came up to me. He was around my age (mid-20s, I think, at the time?) and was dressed like punk boys dress when they’re a little older and don’t need to be in spikes all the time. He needed to get home to Bakersfield and didn’t have gas money. He was super embarrassed. He said he only needed like ten bucks.
I got him gas and also some bottles of water. He was obviously probably someone I’d be friends with if we’d grown up near each other, so why not. Yes, he might have been scamming me, but scamming me how? Even if the reason he needed gas wasn’t what he said, he still needed it. Or maybe he had plenty of money and just liked to trick people into buying him stuff, but I gave him like ten bucks tops. I’d rather stupidly lose the money than risk not helping a guy who needed help.
Also he was pretty cute.

Years ago I wrote at the same Starbucks as L.A. legend Dennis Woodruff, and he was always asking me to help him with his computer. I don’t know if he counts as a stranger because I knew who he was but he was definitely strange.

 

Strangers who want to save your soul

Okay, I mostly don’t miss strangers who want to save my soul, not at all. Mostly they’re horrible. But back when I had lots of bumper stickers loudly proclaiming my atheism, I’d occasionally meet someone who was genuinely confused and worried, and we’d have a respectful conversation. And that was really sweet. They honestly cared and didn’t want me to not be okay and I was usually able to convince them that I was okay. One guy parked next to mine at a store because he’d never (to his knowledge) met a real atheist and he wanted to know about it. He kept his car between us the whole time, either so as to not freak me out or because he was scared of atheists, and we talked for more than half an hour about the nature of belief, and it was great.

Not usually. But sometimes.


Strangers who tell you your skirt is all tucked up in the back, or whatever

There are heroes walking among us. Like the hero lady who once practically tackled me as I walked out of a restroom with the back of my dress tucked tidily into my underwear.
Always be that lady.

 

Strangers who give romantic advice in the bathroom

I was once at a club and a girl was crying and several other women  and I spent a good long while explaining why the jerk wasn’t worth it and then we all hugged.


Strangers who hug you because they can tell you’re trying not to cry (but it’s not creepy)

I sometimes get frustrated at the doctor. I have a chronic condition that’s hard to treat, and I sometimes have to fight to get the care I need. Once at the doctor’s office I was leaving, having been told I was going to have to wait weeks to see a specialist, and I was getting onto an elevator and trying not to cry and there was a woman there with her teenage son and she looked at me and after a moment said, “Excuse me, would you like a hug?” and yes I would very much like a hug and it made me feel so much better.

 

Strangers at the movie theatre 

Seriously, nothing makes me enjoy an adventure movie more than when everyone gasps at the same time and then we all laugh because we all gasped at the same time. Or when you’ve been waiting for a movie forever and you go on the first night and stand in line and finally get into the theatre and everyone’s buzzing with excitement and it’s like you’re all seeing a movie together because you’re all so excited about the same thing.

 Once in a movie theatre there was a trailer for the movie “Torque” and after there was silence and then some guy said loudly “more like dork” and we all roared and it’s been sixteen years and David (my husband) and I still make callbacks to it all the time.

Another time we went to see a movie on Christmas day and before the movie this old man who was sitting towards the front, who was definitely not Clint Eastwood or Kirk Douglas but had that sort of demeanor, stood up and made a speech about one year ending and another being about to begin and it was the kind of thing that could have been absolutely agonizing but seriously I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone with that much charisma (and I’ve known professional magicians!) and it was wonderful.

 

Strangers after an earthquake

I have somehow been in coffee shops three times during (quite small) earthquakes and it’s wonderful how everyone will look up from their computers and take out their earbuds and ask everyone else, “Was that an earthquake? Did you feel that? Did you feel an earthquake?” and it’s like all of a sudden, we stop being a room full of strangers and become a community of people who are excited because that might have been an earthquake.

 

Strangers you travel with

There’s something great about sitting down next to someone on a plane and knowing you’re going to be with them for a few hours and then never again. Last time I was on a plane a man spent 45 minutes practicing his sales pitch on me. It was for a new piece of software he was developing, and he was on his way to try to sell it to some big company, and luckily I find software development very interesting. I’m pretty sure I would have gotten the sales pitch either way.


The first time I went to London, when I was 22, I sat next to a nice middle-aged British man who spent a lot of time explaining the currency to me and telling me what museums weren’t worth the time. He was worried about a young woman visiting a foreign country alone, so he gave me — this is so sweet — he gave me his wife’s name and phone number! Because if he’d given me his own it might have seemed like he was hitting on me. I never called her, but it was nice to have it.

 

It is important though to remember that strangers are not always exactly strangers. Once when I lived in Vegas (I lived in Las Vegas for like a year and a half in the early ‘00s; I just needed a break from L.A. for a while) I was flying to L.A. for the weekend. There was a young guy on the same plane, and he had spiky blond hair very similar to mine at the time, and I guess we smiled at each other or something. When I was going back on Sunday, he was there at the gate, and we greeted each other like old friends. Because it’s fun to recognize someone. Also, it turned out, because he needed to tell SOMEONE about his weekend, IMMEDIATELY. A month before he’d met a guy who was visiting Vegas from L.A., and they had a wonderfully fun, crazy romantic, four days together. When the guy went back home, they’d spent every night on the phone. Then my guy flew to L.A. for a much-anticipated visit and learned that his new boyfriend was not at all out of the closet. Also he had a girlfriend, who was away for the weekend. They had to go feed her cats, the kid told me bitterly. Then he described her weird apartment. And I knew. I knew exactly who she was. Without a doubt. She wasn’t a close friend or anything, but I’d been to her place.
I kept quiet about it, had a long talk with him about how emotionally difficult and unhealthy it could be to be out of the closet and date someone still in, and flew home and agonized over what to do, and decided finally to keep my mouth shut because seriously, I could be wrong, even though I’m certain I wasn’t. And the kid had mentioned that they’d been safe, because that was the kind of conversation we’d had. I heard not long after that that she’d broken up with her boyfriend. I didn’t hear why. I hope he’s out of the closet now.

 

Strangers who hand you babies

I look like a person who is good with babies. I am handed a baby at least once or twice a year by a random person who needs someone to hold their baby for a minute. Luckily, I am a person who is very good with babies.

 

Strangers who are little kids

I’m also good with kids. Like, really really good with kids. I was a preschool teacher for a while in my youth, and have been a nanny several times, and I like kids, and kids recognize me as someone who gets them. So I find kids lost in stores a lot. Or cheer up kids who are crying. Also I gently reprimand kids who are misbehaving, often using only facial expressions, and they always obey. I sometimes find myself reading to kids in bookstores with no idea at all how it happened.


One time I was driving down a side street and some little kids were playing with a ball and it went into the street and one of the kids ran after it and I stopped and reminded him that he knew perfectly well he wasn’t allowed to run into the street and he was very chastened and promising politely not to ever do it again and the car behind me honked and the kid turned and yelled, “Shut the fuck up! Can’t you see she’s talking to me, asshole?” and then went back to calling me “ma’am.”

 

Strangers who take your hand

I see a lot of plays, or I did. Sometimes dozens in a year. Many of them are great, most are good, some are horrible. There was one play a few years ago so bad it was painful. It was supposed to be a comedy, and it was, well, it was failing at that and also at most other things. There was an elderly gay gentleman to my left, and we were both sighing and groaning and, eventually, muttering things like “oh no…” Finally there was a point where two characters started discussing (in a way I promise you was not self-aware) how awful it is to be stuck watching a bad play and it was so hard to not burst out laughing and this man next to me, this complete stranger, grabbed my hand in horror and while I don’t believe in mental telepathy, we definitely communicated whole paragraphs to each other without saying a word or even looking at each other.

I saw the movie “Lincoln” in a packed theater one Christmas day. There was an old woman sitting next to me and when Mary Todd starts talking about the pain of having a child die, this old woman started weeping quietly. I had tissues and gently handed her one, and she took my hand and held on as if for dear life. We held hands for a long time. She left during the credits, before I did. She patted my hand and smiled at me, and left.

 

 

 

Author: Sarah McKinley Oakes

Sarah McKinley Oakes is an L.A.-area writer, nanny, and library clerk. Her other blog is RemainsofLA.com, where she writes up old restaurants but barely mentions the food.

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