I was doing some quick shopping yesterday at a large Harris Teeter supermarket in Alexandria, Virginia. My list from my wife included an option—always a doorway to a shopping confidence crisis—between a whole chicken, a small marinated chicken, or two large chicken breasts. I had decided on the marinated bird, but couldn’t find them where they usually were, and was more or less frozen, like the “hosts” in “Westworld” get when Anthony Hopkins wants them quiet, staring where I expected them to be.
“I’m going to buy one of them, the question is, which one?” a jaunty, relaxed voice close behind me said. At that moment I realized I had been staring at turkeys (I wasn’t there to buy one), and I turned around, not startled but curious, to face a broadly smiling, handsome, bearded African-American man about my age, probably a little younger.
“Isn’t it a little early?” I asked, smiling back. Being habitually disorganized, I am typically shopping for everything the day before Thanksgiving.
“Oh, no, not for me!” he said, laughing. And he told me that he was going to cook up one or more turkeys for his church on Sunday. We talked about the ways he cooked his turkeys; he preferred to smoke them. He was also a grilling specialist. He took out his phone and showed me pictures of his specialty, ribs. We talked about his favorite recipes, and his church, his family, and its Thanksgiving plans, as I told him about mine. I mentioned that my wife was our traditional Thanksgiving chef, and that got the discussion turned around to marriage. We both have been married a long time, and he took me by the shoulders and talked intensely about commitment in relationships.
I had a twenty-minute conversation with this delightful stranger, just standing by the meat section. Finally, I announced that I had to finish my assignment, and wished him wonderful holidays. I offered him my hand and introduced myself; he shook it firmly, and gave his name in return. Then we spontaneously hugged each other, which I never do, being from Boston and trained to be reticent in such intimacies, he flashed that terrific smile, and we parted.
My encounter with this exuberant gentleman suddenly made me feel good about life, my community, the country and the human race as I had not for a very long time. I think we’ll be all right. All that had happened was that a stranger just reached out and began a conversation about something two people shared, showing openness, kindness, human interest and trust, and a connection was made. That’s all it takes.
I start conversations with strangers a lot; it was something my father did. He was better at it than I am, and my friend in the Harris Teeter meat section is obviously a grandmaster. But as the holidays approach, and I keep reading these essays about families boycotting each other because of Trump-Clinton divides, it is so obvious that my dad and my turkey buddy are the wise ones. We’re all just human beings together on a short and unpredictable trip: we should just focus on that, and reach out. Why is it so hard?
I was especially touched by the incident because I have been traveling all week, and became progressively depressed and amazed at how assiduously everyone ignores each other these days. I was frequently in groups of ten or more where everyone had their eyes glued to their electronic devices, never looking up, never speaking to anyone, except maybe over the phone. In Tuscon, I ate alone in a restaurant and looked around for another solo diner to ask to join me. I couldn’t spot anyone not staring at a smart phone. The married couple next to me each stared at their own devices, and, I swear, never said two words to each other or had their eyes meet during the whole meal. Creepy.
This can’t be a healthy social development, and we have to work at making our communities communicate again. Are our young losing the ability and the inclination to just reach out and trust a stranger? What kind of world will they live in, if encounters like mine yesterday are regarded as undesirable, or even threatening?
Never mind: yesterday gave me hope. I was reminded that there are a lot of wonderful, interesting, kind, loving people out there, and that they are worth finding and enjoying while we can. The best way to fight cynicism, distrust and acrimony is to just reach out, be the best human being you can be to all, and hope to send a spark of light into the uncertain darkness, even if it glows but a few minutes. I’m convinced—my unexpected friend convinced me. I may never see him again; I probably won’t. In the brief moment we were together, though, he made my life, and perhaps the rest of it, a little bit better.
It all adds up. In the end, isn’t that what being ethical is about?
The episode reminded me of a line from Mary Chase’s comedy, “Harvey.” The TV stations used to play the Jimmy Stewart film version, released in the year I was born, around holiday time in Boston; I doubt few under the age of 30 are familiar with it now. The play stuck with me because when I saw it on Broadway decades ago, the whole cast came to the edge of the stage, called out my name, and began lecturing me. I wanted to crawl under a seat.
No, the play stuck with me because it was a favorite of my dad, who had seen it on Broadway in its original run. There is a moment in the play when Elwood P. Dowd, an eccentric alcoholic who claims that he is accompanied by a six-foot anthropomorphic rabbit named Harvey, explains his life philosophy:
“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be” – she always called me Elwood – “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”
I will, Elwood. Now I just have to practice it