Have you talked to a stranger today?

photo-1He stood on the edges of the crowded café of Barnes & Noble. His eyes wandered around looking carefully for a spot to sit. I looked up at the older man and wondered to myself, what was his story? Why was he here?

Nobody seemed to be moving from their tables. Everyone was focused on their own life, on their own apparent reality. Sidetracked by computer screens, books, people, conversations, and coffee. Everyone living in their own little world next to everyone else’s own little world. Not with each other, but next to each other.

I just sat at my little table in the corner. My favorite spot. My table was tucked away and provided the perfect amount of window light and the ever-so-lucky open outlet. Comfort on the fringes of the greater society.

Looking at the man still standing there, three thoughts entered my mind. 1.) I like this corner table spot that I am sitting at and I want to sit here until the end of the afternoon. 2.) I should get up and let this older man take my space. It would make him happy. And 3.) I was sitting alone at a table for two, maybe I should invite him to sit with me.

It was one of those built up feelings you get when you are anxious, excited, and are pushed just a little bit outside of your comfort zone by your thoughts. You want to take action but something is holding you back. Why could I not get up off of the chair to walk over to this man? As my brain fought within itself, a woman in the middle of the café got up to leave and the old man now had a place to sit. Relief. Or so I thought.

My intent had then changed from finding this man a seat, to a genuine interest in him, his interactions with others, and the way in which he set up his table for two. He picked out a special chair from the neighboring table to set up across from him. He sat at his table alone, pulled out a magazine and occasionally peered up as if he was looking for the person who was to sit in the special seat.

You could say that I enjoy people watching and I would certainly agree with you. But I think that it is much more than that. For me, it is more than casually watching people, seeing what they are wearing or who they are with. It is more so about observing their interactions with humanity and with the environment in which they are living.

For me people watching is about wondering what the world would be like if all of the separate lives that we live were lived together. If we didn’t live in a world where it was weird or awkward to go to a coffee shop or restaurant and sit down with a complete stranger. I wonder what a connected world would look like. A world truly connected through personal interactions, not through social media. What would a world of breaking our socially constructed norms look like?

I knew that at some point I wanted to walk over and ask this man a question. Show an interest in a random person I will never see again. Become socially aware and involved in the greater world around me. Live with people instead of next to them. I wondered if I would get the courage to stand up out of my seat and go over to him. To say hello and to ask about life. To show that maybe we do not have to live independent lives in our own little worlds.

I was not sure what would get me out of the chair and try this social experiment. Literally as this thought entered into my head, the answer appeared at my table.

“How are you doing today?” asked a man who I am assuming was the manager.

“I’m doing well, thank you.” I responded.

“Will you be joining us for coffee or cookies today?”

I sat there slightly confused wondering if maybe they were having some sort of special event in the store. I answered with a hesitant no and he responded with more of a demanding response.

“I ask that you please pack up your things and move to the chairs over there. We are very busy today”. He pointed to the awkward chairs by the magazines with no tables that nobody ever wants to sit in.

I am assuming that my lack of coffee cup initiated him approaching me. I was slightly annoyed as I began packing up my things because I had certainly spent my money there before on numerous occasions, just not today.

Nevertheless, I knew that this was my sign. I did not know what would get me up out of the chair until this man literally came over to me and told me to get up. I knew where I was headed next.

I fixed my eyes on the older man still sitting alone in the middle of the café and walked right over to him. I said, “Hello sir, how are you doing today?” The man looked up with a smile on his face and responded with a generic answer of something in the category of “good.” I asked him if he minded if I asked him a question and he said sure.

I asked the man, “If you could give one piece of advice to another person on how to live their life, what would it be?” His glance turned from my face to the magazine on the table in front of him. I knew that he was thinking. After a few seconds he turned his glance back up to me and said, “I know it isn’t easy, but my advice is to figure out what you want and get it.”I asked him if he had been able to do this in his life. His response was that he had not, but it was advice that he has given his daughter.

My question lead to a short conversation about life, school, Pittsburgh, football, reading, where my question had come from, and how I wished to write a book someday. During our conversation a woman had come and sat down with him. I said goodbye and he wished me well.

Stepping out of my comfort zone is something that I have not done for a while. It is something that I believe is vital to our growth and is vital to helping us determine our purpose for being alive. This is only my first encounter of many to come in my attempts to not live next to people, but live with them. I look forward to my next encounter and can only hope that the experience is as rewarding as my encounter with the man at Barnes & Noble.



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