Saturday, November 22, 2014

When you cross paths with a stranger

The scene: Downtown London, lunchtime. The temperature has plunged below zero and wisps of snow blow in ever-changing patterns across the cracked pavement under a steel-grey sky. I'm heading back to the office after running a quick errand.

For the first time this season I'm wearing my coat and woolies, but as tightly as I've drawn my scarf around my neck, it isn't good enough, and I can feel the first shivers of winter tiptoe their way over my neck and down my back as I stand alone on the street corner and wait for the pedestrian light to turn.

I shake it off and pull my coat in tighter. The cold doesn't go away. The light still hasn't changed.

Soon enough, I'm startled out of my seasonal reverie by a small voice coming from somewhere behind me.

"Hi, I'm Annie."

I turn quickly around and see a silver-haired woman in a worn-at-the-edges ski jacket walking an old bike on the sidewalk. She's standing just close enough to me that I wonder if she's ever seen Seinfeld's bit about close-talkers. But she seems to have a kind face, with equally kind eyes, so I don't feel remotely worried. Just curious. So I answer her.

"Hi Annie. I like your bike."

And I do. It's an old bike, its best days behind it. It's been painted bright pink. That wasn't its original color, though, as betrayed by the spray paint overrun on the rims, tire sidewalls, seat post and handlebars. But for some reason her beaten down machine speaks to me. It's the kind of cruiser bike the ladies in the town where I grew up used to ride - to the bakery, to the community centre, wherever - and they never locked them up. Just left them, fenders, baskets, springy-wide white vinyl seats and all, leaning on the outside of the store or the front lawn or the sidewalk. And they were always there when they got back.

"Thank you. What's your name?"

I'm taken aback for a second, not quite sure how to answer her. My don't-divulge-too-much-to-strangers gene immediately dictates I either duck and run, or come up with some fake nom-de-plume. My curiosity dips a bit as my suspicion spikes by an equal amount. I look around to see if she has a partner nearby ready to pick my pocket. Nothing. I look back at her face. Still kind. Still smiling. She just wants to talk. I tuck my suspicion away for good.

"Hi Annie. I'm Carmi. Nice to meet you."

This opens the floodgates, as in the relatively few seconds we have while the lights overhead beep and count themselves down, she proceeds to share where she's been that morning - the mission, a bar I've never heard of, and the corner of Richmond and Dundas where the folks waiting for social services like to hang out - and where she's going. The Beer Store.

She asks me if I know someone named Donald. I don't, but she tells me about their last date, anyway, and, with a wink, how I really don't want to know what they did afterward.

I find myself alternately enjoying this admittedly bizarre moment and wishing I could somehow fix whatever it is that compels someone to drink on a weekday morning and then wander the streets on a badly spray-painted pink bicycle before drinking some more.

And yet, she seemed happy. Content, even, to wander and chat. She wasn't stinking drunk - more pleasantly buzzed than anything else, and even then I wasn't absolutely sure - and she wasn't remotely rude. More like a social gadfly who makes everyone around her think a little harder about their own lot in life. Makes others wonder about the choices they made this morning, and years ago.

She didn't ask for money. Didn't ask me for anything beyond my name. Simply wanted to have a conversation on a cold street corner with a complete stranger. Simply wanted to share a snippet of her day. Simply wanted to connect.

Soon enough, the light changed and she began to wrap up her story. Yet even as she started to walk her old pink bike across the street and away from me, she continued to speak, that kind face with the kind eyes not allowing me to simply walk away.

I haven't seen Annie or her pink bike in the couple of weeks since our paths first crossed, yet of all the people I've seen downtown since I started working again in the core, she stands out as the most memorable, the one I wonder what happened to.

Whoever she is or wherever she ended up, I hope her journey since has been a safe one. And I hope more strangers in the big city have the courage to share bits and pieces of themselves, if only for a few seconds. Our modern existence may dictate keeping our heads down and eyes diverted as we do everything in our power to avoid surreptitious human contact. But in those few cold seconds on a downtown London street corner, I learned it doesn't necessarily need to be that way.

Enjoy the bike, Annie. And thanks for the impromptu lesson in humanity.

Your turn: The time you had a chat with a complete stranger. And...go!


Tabor said...

Unfortunate. She probably has mental issues beyond the use of alcohol and drugs. I have encountered many them in my city. Most end up asking for money as they are living on the edge. It is such a sad reflection of our society.

Kalei's Best Friend said...

I had a different experience... While waiting my turn to be waited on, I heard a woman in front of me who was wondering aloud where a certain store was... I offered my 2 cents and she was quite surprised that a stranger would offer help... her words: "thanks" and then said to herself 'wow no one ever offers help'...I've noticed people are in too much of a hurry to notice the so called small stuff... the small stuff is what's important.

Sleepypete said...

Annie seems nice.

Mine is with a random stranger in a games shop. I have to admit, I thought she was a colleague who'd just left the team, which is why I said hello.

One long(ish) conversation later (with her parents outside the shop looking a bit toe-tappy) and I have a new friend on Steam who I still chat with today.

She's a good girl too, seems to laugh at the jokes, asks the old guy for advice and lets me natter too.

Gilly's Camera said...

I,m over in Canada at the moment (other side Carmi!), and today at a bookstore had a random and quite lovely conversation with a woman from the UK. Within a few moments we had shared very similar histories....our hopes for the coming few years....then we left. I think encouraged by meeting with each other today.....