The Stranger Friend

Have you ever been in a really crowded place and all you could think was ‘so long as no one talks to me, I’ll be okay.’ I do this often. In New York, basically everywhere is crowded and escaping people is only done in the solace of your bedroom, and some aren’t even that lucky. I often use the tactics of loud headphones, avoiding eye contact, and looking as though I am feeling any emotion but happy. I would say this works fifty percent of the time. Some people really don’t care. Typically, I am polite and make conversation, but the whole time in my head I am screaming “LEAVE ME THE EFF ALONE, damn…” 

Currently, I am writing this from one of the most crowded places one can find in any city: The DMV. *DUN DUN DUN* If you have seen the movie depiction of a DMV- then you know exactly what surrounds me. The wait time is an estimated 4 hours, everyone is grumpy, and it smells of something I can’t quite place. I’m pretty sure this kid next to me did something in his diaper, but who I am to say for sure. It’s an anxious ball of energy just wanting to be, literally, anywhere else. 

I spent two hours here yesterday with no luck of getting what I came for. I had to get to therapy by 4pm, so I had to leave before my number was called. I left angry and on the verge of yelling at a stranger- not in typical Sarah fashion. I was mostly angry because I knew I would have to do it all over again. I would have to wait in the long lines and sit with the smell and “waste” two-three more hours of my life. I was definitely in the ‘nobody talk to me or I’ll scream’ mood. 

I thought about those two hours on my thirty minute train ride to therapy. I thought about how that sucked and how none of it was urgent and I will try again tomorrow. I calmed my nerves by breathing and just felt glad that the moment was over and I was on my way to talk about my feelings. Bonus because if I had any leftover feelings from the moment, I knew someone who could help. (She did help, as always. #ilovetherapy)

So, for my return to the DMV this morning I set a different intention. Instead of wasting time, I wanted to utilize the time that lay ahead of me. I was prepared in my head to be there for 5 hours (better to think it will be much longer than to think it will be much shorter). I then thought about what I would like to get done in 5 hours and what was possible. Hello Sarah, you have a blog to write. Five hours of uninterrupted writing will help the time breeze by.

Right off the bat the line was long and I waited 40 mins just to get a number to be seen. I couldn’t exactly write while I was standing in line, so that 40 mins had a lot of scroll time. Instagram kept telling me I was all caught up… so rude. Then, there was a chatty person in front of me. “Can I ask you a question? Do you have a number? Should I already have one? You were here yesterday? How long was the wait? Do you have a pen?” On and on and on. At first I was back to the “LEAVE ME THE EFF ALONE, damn…” mentality. I smiled politely and answered their questions between scrolls. Then I started thinking about the five hours ahead of me and I wondered why I didn’t want to talk to someone who was just as bored as I was. I then put my phone down and tried to keep the conversation going.

They asked me where was I from, what I do, the usuals from strangers. The not-so-usual from strangers occurs when you tell them you’re a social worker and used to be a child and family therapist. For those of you not in this line of work, it is extremely common for people to hear this and think that they can just get a free therapy session. Often I am stand-offish when this happens and imaginarily cover my ears and say “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you! Nanananana.” *sticks tongue out* In this moment though, I thought, well sh*t, I’ve got time. Hit me. They proceed to tell me about their son who is 5. He just started kindergarten which was so exciting for the family. His class did a scavenger hunt the first day and it was really nice for the family and their son to orient to a new surrounding. However, the last week or so things have been hard. He has trouble sleeping which in turn causes him to be tired in the morning. They said “it is just a battle. Sometimes I can’t handle it. And then you’ve got these moms who brag about their kid going to bed at 7:30pm and I just wonder why he won’t do the same.”  I was amazed at this person just telling me their struggles, so openly and honestly. At one point they whisper “sometimes I just want to give him ambien… I mean I never would, but gosh it is tempting some days”. I pictured this kid, with assistance from the many pictures they showed me, just laying in bed fighting sleep wondering why his parents get to stay up so late, but he can’t.

“So, do you have any tips? Should I, like, take him to a therapist?” Again, said at a whisper.

I took a deep breathe, wondering how to breach the topic of “yo, I don’t know your kids life” in a graceful way. 

But then they just kept talking. 

They talked about their own troubles with sleep and how their anxiety keeps them up with their racing thoughts. How sometimes they need to listen to sleep stories, and take ambien, and need a warm bath before they can go to bed. “Maybe it just runs in the family,” they sighed.

As they are talking, I am so fascinated by their story. I find myself wanting to know more. Not because I am feeling like their therapist at this point, but because it is two people in this place that feels so rushed and hectic, slowing down. The loud speaker is intrusive in the conversation, continually calling out numbers. “B545 AT COUNTER 14.” And then here we are, two total strangers, connecting and passing the time together. I told them about my own life. How I just moved back after living in Alaska and giving them tips if they ever go there. My reasons for getting into social work and how ‘I don’t have a family yet, but I hope to one day.’

“Would you look at that, we’re almost to the front of the line. Thank you for chatting with me, Sarah, it was a really nice way to pass the time. I really appreciate you listening, I know you do it all day for work, but it was nice to just have someone to talk to. And good luck with everything.”

As we wrapped up our conversation I thought about how nice of a time I had in that line all because I decided to challenge my thoughts of ‘avoid, avoid, avoid’ to ‘lets just see where this conversation goes’. I think back to all the times I avoided people and what they had to say and the many connections I overlook on a daily basis. This is not to say that I am going to start talking to every stranger I meet, heck I may not even change my ways at all; it did remind of how simple it can be to just do one thing differently and how that will impact you in any moment.

I have now since left the DMV and am writing in the comfort of my own home and as I was leaving I thought about how I felt yesterday compared to today. Today I was smiling when I left. I utilized my time there, got what I needed, and was even able to gather a whole post just from a single morning. If I hadn’t talked to them, if I just put my headphones in, I don’t think things would be extremely different. I would’ve written about some other thing I’ve experienced, I would’ve gotten my license, had the same lunch, still gone for a run, taken a shower, picked out the same clothes. It just would’ve been one less connection I made in the world.

Then again, I don’t really know, we never do. Perhaps, if I didn’t talk to them I would have become angry again and then decided to leave and just deal with it a different day, then not to run and so on. We just never know how one thing impacts another. I think that is something I am trying to recognize more of. Perhaps tonight when my stranger friend goes home they think about how I told them I’ve met a lot of kids that have trouble sleeping and how they aren’t alone and this thought makes them feel less anxious for just a moment. See the impacts are invisible most times, but I think they are there and I think they all stem from each connection we make. And again, maybe they don’t do this at all, but isn’t it cool that it’s a possibility? That maybe just maybe I impacted their life, as much as they influenced mine. A whole blog post of material, ya know?

I guess I would like to urge you to maybe take your headphones out one day in a crowded place. Maybe start a conversation or don’t write off the stranger trying to start one with you. I think we are all just a little lonely some days and a stranger is just as good as anyone to listen. Heck, you might even make a stranger friend out of it.

A[wo]men

“Can i ask you a question?”

No-

You can ask me a million questions,

fill my head with a million conversations.

Become a stranger friend.

-How to make connections

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