We don’t have to worry about making an impression or searching in vain for something we have in common. We simply accept the fact that connecting with another human, even for just a few minutes, will always be more meaningful than comparing a long list of accomplishments, the size of our house or our connections with what we deem powerful people.
I was reminded of this last Friday on the subway in New York City.
I was lucky enough to have a seat on the crowded train, but that seat was very, very small. My thigh was wedged up against that of the man next to me. Societal rules dictated that I ignore the contact, but apparently he didn’t abide by those rules and immediately engaged in conversation.
In a thick Hispanic accent, he asked if I lived in the city. When I told him no, he told me he didn’t he either. He had grown up in the Bronx, but he now lived in Kellogg, Michigan. He wanted to know where I do live. When I told him, he asked whether I lived near the ocean and if the winters are bad. apparently, he still hasn’t recovered from the one he experienced in Michigan.
He and his wife applauded as my daughter and her friend broke into song, and he told me that his cousin had started the children’s chorus in New York City. He gave me tips about navigating the subway system, and he shared his excitement at being back in “his city.”
At one point during our conversation, his wife urgently grabbed his arm and started speaking rapidly in Spanish.
“She wants to know if you are Polish,” he explained to me.
His wife gave me a brilliant smile, and I felt some sense of guilt asking “why?”
“Because you look like her good friend who is Polish,” he said. “Your features are the same.’
I glanced back at his wife who was still beaming and shook my head. “Not Polish,” I answered.
She nodded in understanding as the train grinded to a stop – our stop.
“Have a good life,” the man said as I stood to leave.
“You too,” I said.
That ended a generally unmemorable conversation, and I know I’ll never recognize the man if I ever see him again. He was just a random person on a train with whom I happened to share a moment in time.
Yet, ironically, I’ll never forget him because he gave me a little piece of himself to me.
He and his wife provided my daughter with an audience and applause in New York City. His wife seemed to think I must be a good person because I reminded her of a dear friend. Most importantly, the man took an interest in me not because society required that of him but because he recognized the importance of humanity. And because of that, I gave a little piece of myself to him.
I couldn’t ask for more.
He, a random stranger on a subway train, taught me how much total strangers can bring into our lives and how much sharing those encounters can bring into the lives of others. I’m looking forward to many more conversations with strangers.