Don't you love when a cool stranger just drops into your life for that one moment of coolness? Even if you never see them again, as Dylan would say, you remember them. Sometimes they don't even have to say a word; there's just something about them. Today I had one such cool stranger tell me a wonderful Russian toast: "When you die, may you be buried in a coffin made from an oak tree than was grown from an acorn I will plant tomorrow." That is one long-winded wish for long life, haha! I love it. There's been any number of one-time strangers in my life, so I thought it would be fun to tell some of their stories. They may seem important only to me but here they are:
When I was very little, I was accidentally left at Kmart. I was too small to push the store's door open when my mom went ahead of me with a gaggle of other kids, so I turned and pushed it open, very slowly, with my back. Too late; I watched Mom load the kids up in the car and drive away. I stood there on the curb, thinking she'd come back but she didn't. The security guard came out and gently questioned me. I was trying to be brave and not cry but it was hard. He brought me inside and took me to the submarine sandwich station (Kmart had those back then) and let me sit behind the counter. They had to wait the half hour for Mom to get back to our house before they could even call her so I was plied with a made-to-order sandwich and a Slurpee. It took another hour for Mom to come get me and I milked it for as much booty as I could get. My arms were loaded with candy and caramel corn as we walked out. It was awesome. I never forgot that security guard and I never saw him again.
When I was a freshman in college, I went into Chicago with my friend and we toured the Water Towers, a high end shopping mall. As I was riding down the escalator, I watched the glass elevator across the way descend at the same time. A man was inside and it looked as if he was watching me. We both were so intent on whether the other one really WAS watching or not, we stared all the way to the ground floor. When I stepped off the escalator, I grinned and waved. He laughed and waved back. I never forgot it. Don't know why; it was just a moment ingrained forever.
At the age of eighteen, I'd not been able to leave the campus to go home for Thanksgiving. It was Friday, the day after. I wandered around the deserted town and went into one of the few shops open. It was a little boutique with one employee behind the counter, looking sullen. I started talking with her and found out that she had asked for the weekend off to see her brother, who was home on leave for a few days only and she'd not seen him for years. Her boss denied it and she had to work. I was the only customer to come in that day. I ran down to the local flower shop, bought a white rose and brought it back to her. "I hope you see him soon and that next Thanksgiving is the best one you've ever had," I said. She looked at me like I was crazy, then laughed and shuffled around under the counter until she found a gift for me: a little beaded bracelet. It was a strange and marvelous moment of holiday. I never saw her again. She quit and moved away.
I took fencing in college. I was the only girl in the class and the rest of the students were all members of the football team. You can imagine how humorous that was. We saw a demonstration by a visiting fencing master. He was scary as hell but fascinating and he annihilated his opponent effortlessly. I saw his eyes and it made me think of the old story about the two samurais who faced off against each other for a few minutes but neither one drew their blades. The battle was decided by their eyes. I never forgot his.
When I went to see the movie Schindler's List, I had one of the most intense experiences in a movie theater that had nothing to do with what was on the screen. The movie was finished, the lights had come back up and everybody was shuffling out, water-logged and drained. There was one elderly woman, exquisitely dressed, who had stopped in the middle of the aisle to simply sob uncontrollably. Her husband stood over her, his face awash in sympathy, his hand on her back, but there was no consoling her. Something beautiful happened; everybody who walked past put their hand on her shoulder, very briefly, before moving on. I watched as at least a dozen people did this. When I drew near, I put my hand on her shoulder too, then moved on and out through the lobby into the night air. I never saw her again, but we were all forever linked in that moment.
The first time I went to see La Boheme in the City: I knew the music, knew the tragic story, thought I was prepared for it. But nothing prepares you for that magnificent opera when you're there in the Met. It eats you alive. Afterward, I was standing in the parking garage while my then-husband went in search of a valet. I was unable to talk, unable to even think of anything but that music. I wasn't even sobbing. My eyes were simply pouring water, raccooning my makeup and soaking the collar of my coat. As I stood there, I became aware of being watched. When I looked up, there was an elderly couple, very dapper, with their arms around each other, watching me intently, ear wide grins on their delighted faces. I could practically hear it in their heads: Virgin! Virgin! They could tell it was the first time I'd ever seen La Boheme and they were absolutely thrilled about my misery. It was great.
The stranger I accidentally called on 9/11, whose name I never knew.
About ten years ago, I was in a consignment shop, digging through the used books, when I overheard a bitter old man griping about his life. As I eavesdropped, I heard him describe his storming the beach at Normandy on DDay in WWII. He told his friend that no one gave a damn about that anymore. I went over and knelt at his feet, shook his hand and thanked him. He looked at me like the nut I was, but he let me shake his hand. I walked out and burst into tears, unable to even wrap my brain around everything he went through. Never, ever forgot him, sitting in his wheelchair, his grizzled old face so haunted and angry.
I was in Paris a long time ago, sitting outside in a little park near the Louvre. A little boy was running in and out of the hedges, singing in french and playing peek-a-boo with me. It took every ounce of will power I had not to jump up and run through the hedges with him but I controlled myself and stayed seated. I'll never forget his impish grin and silver bell of a laugh.
When my mom was in the hospital, I was down in the PT room, watching her do her physical therapy when I noticed a young man sitting in a wheelchair by himself. He looked awful: thin, purplish, almost hairless and his eyes were two black holes in his face. He was miserable. I couldn't stand it so I went over and silently took his hand and laid my cheek against the top of his head. We stayed like that for about five minutes, not talking at all. Not a word. Then I kissed him on both cheeks and went out. Mom was done with therapy. That gaunt young man still sits in my dreams sometimes.
There's something uniquely precious about transitory encounters, how they come into your life like a spring shower and somehow stay forever in your memory. They're irreplaceable, irresistible and necessary in some unknown way. My memory would have patches of drought without their fleeting existence and it doesn't really matter why. I love them, one and all, and am happy to pull them out for a rainy evening of reminiscing. Delicious, trickling, refreshing moments of memory. Strange and exquisite.