On talking to strangers

Posted on December 21, 2010


Another recycled piece. This one is from 2004.

Ahasverus. Better known as "The Wandering Jew." You'll want to know that later on.

I don’t think of myself as being a particularly unfriendly man.

I’ve been known to give strangers the time of day, directions to the CN Tower, and, on occasion, permission to sit at my table in a crowded eatery.

On the other hand, I’m not overly sociable either. While perfectly capable of carrying on a pleasant conversation in the appropriate circumstances, I won’t go out of my way to initiate one. I am terrible at “mixers,” and (most damning of all) I feel no pressing need to respond to every solicitation on the street.

The problem is, I appear to have some quality that causes other people to confide in me, even though I’m a perfect stranger (or at least as perfect a stranger as I can manage).

It worried me, then, to recently find myself on the subway without the buffer of a book, while across the aisle a man with a largish cardboard box kept smiling at me. To postpone the inevitable, I read all the advertisements on the walls and carefully pondered a puzzling piece of graffiti (“Don Pardo call home”).

When I finished with those and had moved on to checking the floor for religious tracts, political pamphlets, or those annoying little ads that fall out of magazines and newspapers, I became aware of a presence standing over me. With resignation I looked up. In one quick move, my friendly stranger deposited his package in my lap: a large, economy-sized box of Italian cookies.

Lady fingers, to be precise.

Or at least that’s what the box said. Personally, I figured they were a movement-sensitive bomb that he’d armed as he handed it to me.

“Uh…,” I said trying to hand them back without actually moving the box, “No, that’s okay.”

“I want you to have them.”

“But why?”

He looked me calmly in the eye. “Because. I want you to have them.”

He was grinning, probably enjoying my discomfort. There didn’t seem to be anything crazy about him though, and, much to my relief, he immediately sat down again.

More importantly, he didn’t immediately get off the train nor did he move far down the car, so I began to reconsider my initial idea of a bomb.

They were probably poisoned.

At this point I began to suspect that I was possibly being a tad paranoid and started to remember encounters from times past.

I hadn’t always been this restrained. In the late sixties and early seventies, Ian and I frequently organized sing-a-longs on the Airport Express or the Hamilton GO bus. I talked to anyone and everyone, often getting happily sidetracked for hours. I investigated people doing interesting things, regularly visited the hobos under the Sherbourne Street bridge, and engaged in serious philosophical discussions with complete strangers in restaurants.

Back then it seemed the world was populated by any number of fascinating people; a wonderland of infinite adventure.

But in the late seventies or early eighties things began to change. While it had once been safe to assume that people were, by and large, sane (even if they were singing, whistling, or occasionally muttering to themselves in surprise or disgust), suddenly it seemed that the city had been infiltrated by hordes of crazy people.

Street poets can be vicious.

There was that night I stopped to listen to a woman reading poetry out loud at the corner of Avenue Road and Bloor, only to have her attack me with her book. And then there was that gentle young man I struck up a conversation with one day and who ended up staying three weeks with my wife and I in our small studio apartment in order to escape laser-gun-toting Italians sent by the Pope kill him. (He could also predict earthquakes.) Even eye contact had become risky. Just glancing at some loud-spoken man in a pub could result in that most puerile of all exchanges: “What are you looking at, bub? You think you’re better than me?” (to which there is only ever one honest answer — and I, unfortunately, have been cursed with honesty.)

As a result, I was completely unready for this spontaneous act of kindness on a westbound subway train.

It brought to mind the last time I had acted impetuously myself.

It was about three years ago. I was standing in line at the Second Cup on the corner of John and Queen West. Behind me was a young woman who, in both looks and movements, reminded me strongly of Samantha. I got my coffee, sat down and read for about half an hour. As I was leaving I noticed that she was still there, sitting at a table near the front door.

Admittedly, not many chauffeurs look like this.

Now it happens that back in 1982 I witnessed what to me was the single most gallant gesture I had ever seen. Sam was driving us down Jarvis Street one night when suddenly a well-dressed man began waving frantically from the sidewalk. My wife stopped the car and I rolled down my window. “I just had to tell you,” he said, “that you’ve got the prettiest chauffeur I’ve ever seen.”

That kind, unknown man gave my wife a present that would last for years, and his generosity so impressed me that I determined to pass it along, should exactly the right opportunity ever come up. It seemed that here, at a coffee shop some thirteen years later, with a woman so much like the one I loved, that the right opportunity had finally arrived.

I ran across the street, bought a bouquet of flowers and gave them to her saying, “You are very beautiful.” I then walked away so she’d know it wasn’t a pick-up.

I mourned the loss of that spontaneity. Where once I had looked upon the world with innocence and curiosity, now I was nothing more than a world-weary cynic who viewed a gift of Italian cookies as an act of terrorism.

We had reached my stop, Bathurst, and I felt ashamed that I hadn’t responded with more grace. As I stood up, however, I saw my benefactor already at the door. It was like being given a second chance.

We got off the train together and I told him how much I appreciated the gift. We began to talk; me with a stiff dignity born of chagrin, he with an attitude that seemed almost awe-struck.

On the escalator he said, “You know, I am really honoured to meet you.”

“?” I thought.

“Do you mind if I ask how old you were during the crucifixions?”

The what?

“You mean, the Roman crucifixions?” I said.

“Yes. How old were you then?”

“You mean the crucifixions two thousand years ago?”


Okay, so I’m not a young kid anymore, but I’m only 51 and friends say that in the right light I can still pass for 50.

I looked at him more closely. He wasn’t kidding. God, what legendary ancient did he think I was? Ahasverus, the Wandering Jew? John, the Beloved Disciple?

Keith Richards?

I answered as neutrally as possible.

“Actually, I didn’t have anything to do with the crucifixions.” Illogically I suddenly felt like a war criminal denying the charges.

“Still,” he insisted, looking like an eight-year-old girl meeting Posh Spice in person, “You must have been quite an age even back then.”

“Well, like I said, I didn’t really get involved.” (No, your honour, I had nothing to do with the Nazis and besides, I was somewhere else at the time.)

We parted company on the street, he in one direction, I in another, but before he left he shook my hand while telling me once again how honoured he was.


Walk softly and carry a big book.

Now I carry a copy of Walton’s The Complete Angler at all times. It is entertaining without being compelling, and when necessary I can open it to almost any page and become engrossed in its quiet narrative. Most especially, however, its final line strikes me as peculiarly appropriate:

“Study to be quiet.”

I agree.

Quietly, of course.