New Castle News

Lisa Madras

September 3, 2012

Lisa Madras: If you’re a ‘Sidewalk Stranger’ beware — I’m lookin’ for you

NEW CASTLE — Do you have what it takes to chat up a sidewalk stranger?

I love the term “sidewalk stranger,” but I can't take credit for thinking it up. I was reading an article online last week when I came across the phrase that's sure to become an excessively overused part of my imagination. Sidewalk strangers. I always knew who they were, but hadn't given them a name.

They're some of my favorite people. Back in the day when I was still young and naive and certain that writing poetry made me cool, I scribbled out a piece I called "Little Lives" after an encounter with a particularly noteworthy sidewalk stranger. I'm not sure if I can pin my fascination with these people to that one particular event, but it seems logical, so I'll go with it.

I'd never met anyone quite like the man I talked to that day. He was older, obviously very, very poor — homeless maybe, but I'll never know. I loved that he was dirty and unkempt, but he talked like a Rhodes scholar, and he wore a red beret that seemed like it had a story to tell. He was walking past my porch, and stopped for no more than a few minutes, talked about nothing important, and then went on his way.

It struck me that this guy only existed in my world for a total of about five minutes. It struck me more that I existed in his for only the same. For no real good reason, I suddenly became noticeably less egotistic. I knew my story. Now I wanted to know everyone else's.

This chance encounter happened nearly 20 years ago, when people still spoke to each other in passing. At some point since then, it's become the unspoken rule that when encountering another person on the subway or in the doctor's office, we bury our face in a magazine or frantically check our schedule on our smart phone. Whatever it takes, but oh dear lawrd, avoid human contact at any possible cost!

That's right people, I didn't get the memo. I'm the person who slyly assesses you out of the corner of my eye to see what you're wearing or what you might be carrying that I can use to start up a conversation over. If I find nothing discernible, I'll unabashedly tell you about my aching feet or ask you if you heard the weather report for the weekend — anything that you and I might have in common (or not) so that we can become a part of each other's worlds for the next five minutes.

You see, this is a treat for me. I get to live in my world every single day. I'd like to have a taste of yours for a moment. You might have something to share with me that I've never heard before. You might make me think, or laugh, or — prize of all prizes! — FEEL something. I don't have to put on any pretenses for you, nor you for me. We can tell each other as much or as little as we want to. None of it matters, because we're probably never going to see each other again. There's such a freedom in that. Your existence inspires me.

So the next time you're in line waiting for coffee or concert tickets, and you're stuck next to me, or someone like me, please take a moment to give me the time of day. I'm going to take a little piece of you with me, and it won't hurt a bit — just please put down the cell phone for a few minutes.  

Let's share something more than physical space, and take a teeny, tiny chance on humanity.

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Lisa Madras
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