Parents teach their children not to talk with strangers. I’m not sure if my parents ignored that lesson in safety or if I refused to hear it, but somehow I grew to love introducing myself to new people and learning who they are – the thrill of saying our first shared words and watching conversation unravel; the fulfillment of attaching a name to a face; the joy of finding commonalities with previously mysterious stranger – it’s a beautiful concept to be welcomed into a stranger’s life, into their story, if only for the ten minutes we share on a city bus.
My hands rested in my pockets and my feet shuffled to the beat of Miel San Marcos, my favorite Latin American praise band. The wind blazed through 3rd and Pike, rustling my hair and widening my smile, as the 17 arrived. I breathed it in one more time: the busy people, fast cars, and roaring buses—forcing their way through crowds and traffic, ignoring lights, ignoring the wind, ignoring each other; the smell of stale smoke and a whiff of weed from the gangsters and homeless delinquents; the unrelenting wind, barreling through tall buildings and into my cold lungs. I took in the sweet elements of my imperfect city and stepped into the bus, sitting down in a familiar green seat.
Other riders shoved through the crowd, unaware of the people around them, and made their way to their own green seats, selecting the place of least conflict or conversation. But I smiled at them as they marched up those first steps and made their way through the narrow aisle. I smiled eagerly, awaiting someone, anyone, who would reciprocate my desire to befriend a stranger.
“Hola,” he said to me. My head turned toward two gentlemen and I smiled at them.
“Hola.” I turned off the music on my ipod and wrapped up my earbuds.
“She speaks Spanish!” he said to his friend while letting out a hearty chuckle.
How many times can a smile grow? I wondered; mine grew again. He overestimated my ability to speak his language, but I didn’t tell him my secret. I met Mario and Alberto that morning. Mario asked me for a hundred dollars and Alberto just shook his head.
“He’s joking,” said Alberto.
“I know,” I assured him, smiling again. “So, what do you guys do?”
They told me about being fishermen and how work was hard to come by. Mario asked for a hundred dollars one more time. I told him I didn’t even have 50¢, so then we talked about family. They told me about brothers and sisters and family in Mexico and El Salvador; and they told me how they missed their families, but Seattle was their home.
Mario mumbled something in Spanish to Alberto, their eyes glancing at me, then back to each other. Alberto told me Mario thought I had nice eyes.
“Thank you,” I told him. We turned the corner and they reached their stop.
“Nice to meet you, muchacha. It was good to talk with you,” said Mario.
“Nice to talk with you too.” I waved to the strangers who became my friends between Pike St. and Westlake Ave.
I met Shawnti on the 41 while laughing at the ridiculousness of those who complained about overcrowding. If only they could see public transportation in Japan or India, we agreed. I met Kris on the 347 — a conversation that started with overcrowding and ended with, “see you next Tuesday,” was filled with dreams of travel and a mutual desire to know and experience culture in a way that changes us. I met Mark somewhere on 3rd while waiting for the 511. We went out to coffee together and he told me about his family and his old life before living on the streets.
The treasure of getting to know these people is great. Months or a year after talking with them in one instance, I still remember. I remember the way they made me smile and the way we connected over our short conversation. But not everyone seems to think this form of conversing is so wonderful.
Hundreds of people commute to and from Seattle every day by bus, yet every day I observe the same scene at the Mountlake Terrace Park and Ride: lonely riders, eyes viewing books or eyelids, and a still silence except for the rumble of the engine. Riders develop a routine. After finding a familiar spot in the parking garage, they walk down the steps to the platform, saunter to the end of the line, set down their bags and wait. Everyone shuffles when a bus arrives, scurrying onto the bus or shortening the line of people that is still waiting. Once on the bus, there is a sea of familiar faces, but the familiar faces are nothing more than that. They are rarely friends, coworkers or even acquaintances. They are merely recognizable faces. Each of these persons catches the same bus downtown every day, and most often ride with the same people every day as they venture to their various office buildings; however, very few take the time to get to know the people they sit next to every day.
Maybe I should blame my extroverted tendencies, but it is odd to me that a person could spend so much time with another person yet not know their name or a single thing about them. The average bus ride downtown is thirty minutes, on a good day. If there is rain or traffic it’s a little longer. If two people spent one week chatting on their thirty-minute bus ride, they would spend two and a half hours learning about each other that week. Discounting vacation days, it would be about 130 hours a year. If the average person works forty years at the same job (assuming the other person also works forty years at the same job), these two people, invested in each other, could spend 5,200 hours talking just during the time they ride the bus. It is unrealistic to think these two people would ride the same bus all the time, never miss a day together, and always talk to only each other, but it shows the enormity of the amount of time they have together.
Why then, do people choose to remain silent? We are scared. Of what, exactly? What is there to harm us? We’re afraid our words will be unheard or rejected, afraid the conversation will turn awkward and we’ll be left looking foolish. We’re afraid of the pounding in our chest and the daunting butterflies of talking to the stranger.
But there’s a struggling single mom who needs a person to remind her why she does what she does, or a just-out-of-college businessman who needs encouragement that he doesn’t get from his boss. There’s an elderly woman who needs to be reminded she is beautiful because no one has told her for many years. There are two Hispanic fishermen who need someone to tell their story to. Or maybe that’s you.
Sometimes life is awkward. Sometimes the pounding in your chest doesn’t leave. But everyone needs a chance to tell their story, and many are only waiting for someone to ask.