Do you talk to strangers?

Many years ago, during my Paris Review days, I was in the anteroom of some bank, waiting for a colleague to get some money, when I struck up a conversation with someone else similarly tasked. I don’t remember what we talked about, just that we shared the respite and malaise of being powerless because the person who waits is always powerless, and, in my case, the colleague was more like a boss, and in the stranger’s case, well, I don’t know. I’m a fiction writer and am very tempted to make something up, but I will refrain (though the old me would have made up something awesome, passed it off as truth, and then forgotten whom I told what only to find myself laughing and nodding politely when regaled with my own experiences years later).

Anyway, when my boss-colleague came out, the look on his face was unmistakable. He was disgusted! He wanted to know why I’d been talking to a stranger, and was genuinely appalled to find out strangers were my bread and butter. I’m not gonna say anything trite about it being easier to talk to strangers than loved ones (did you see what I just did there?), or that eschewing the casual waterways of humanity is fucked up (did it again!), but I will say that until that moment, it never occurred to me that extroversion could be offensive. Enviable, yes. But offensive? Yes, of course offensive, if coupled with nonchalance and the pretense of confession (I’m pretty sure I’ll say anything to anyone, and still feel like no one knows me). But offensive at the bank? I bring this up because my daughter often cannot understand why I talk to strangers, and because I can’t tell her it’s because I have NO ONE ELSE TO TALK TO, I figured it might be worth interrogating the habit.

So: why do this. Why broker connections all day long? I want to table the obvious (loneliness! human nature! isolation brought on by this hideous pandemic!) and try to find a more compelling reason that maybe has to do with trying to stay alive or know you’re alive. Although I suppose these are all the same thing, really—the tethers and all that.

This is banal.

And yet in light of the siege on the Capitol and the cognitive dissonance necessarily being experienced by all these—nuts? cult members? terrorists?—one has to wonder if maybe we’re really not talking about extroversion vs introversion but globalism vs exceptionalism; panoply vs monopoly, and so on.

I drank the Kool-Aid last night like so many of you. Of us. All that talk about unity and hope. Better days. A new dawn. Amanda Gorman, who lit it up. Be the light! Okay, so what does that mean for a liberal ensconced in a liberal enclave? What does it mean for the more shy and closed-in among us? Do we all need to try a little harder to meet each other halfway at the bank? Are casual exchanges the DNA of a new day? (My inner Gorman riseth.) Well, I don’t know. To be honest, I feel a little hungover here, folks. Strung-out with joy and fear, both. And maybe just a little more chatty than usual.