Stranger interactions

Heading home
On the flight back to NYC, the woman sitting next to me reached for my forearm as we ascended through mild turbulence. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, glancing at me. I smiled and said it was fine. Seconds later, it happened again. I had been thankful when she hadn’t bothered me with any inane small talk or chatter when she sat down next to me. So I was puzzled that she kept wanting to touch me.

Finally, she asked if she could hold my hand. Her eyes were pleading. “Of course,” I said. She gripped me tightly, and it seemed rude not to return her strength. I was happy to help.

Normally I do not like touching random people, or often even close friends. Hands are so dirty, and many times I have to steel myself to shake them during business or social meetings. I hate clammy hands and weak handshakes.

But I was glad this woman felt I was safe to provide comfort. Her request may as well have come from a child – it was primal, survival-focused, fearful. I found it far less intrusive than the mindless, often inappropriately curious babbling of cashiers, waitresses, and almost anyone you encounter in the Midwest. They call it being friendly. I call it self-obsessed.

I diverge sharply from my friends back home on this. One friend in particular is very bothered that he can tell I am merely tolerating such talk from strangers, playing along only as much as I have to in order to avoid hurting their feelings. Technically there is nothing wrong with their blah blah blah, but it’s telling that they don’t care about others enough to read any “I’m just not that into you” social cues. Nope, they really need you to know that their twentysomething son hates changing his sheets and that they have not bought themselves any new shoes in months. I pretend they are unable to decipher these telltale “Thanks for sharing…but not really” signs so that I can respond with compassion (or a reasonable facsimile).

I am not immune from lapsing into self-centered monologues. In the cab home from LaGuardia last night, the driver asked me my preferred route and I told him. My father, to whom I was speaking on my cell phone at the time, remembered this city’s taxi drivers well. “I bet HE has a personality and a half,” Dad muttered sarcastically. He wasn’t wrong.

After finishing my call, for some reason I felt the need to tell the cabbie that I had been gone from New York for 11 days while I waited for my building to get back its power, heat, and hot water.

“Hmmm,” he replied, turning on Classic FM as he eased the cab onto FDR Drive.

I’ll take his genuine disinterest over feigned intrigue any day. I had to laugh at myself. I appreciated his polite honesty. After all, he was there to drive me home, not converse.

What I’m saying in my rambling screed against rambling is this: I’d rather hold your hand.

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