I love talking to strangers. I have a habit of getting into deep, personal conversations with new people, peeling away as many layers as I can to see who they really are, maybe hear their best stories. In my mind, there is something so thrilling about what could be. A nice-looking man at a cocktail party could turn out to be my girlfriend’s future husband, but not if I don’t go meet him and get them talking. That odd-looking fellow, seated at the bar, could be a writer, too, and maybe he’ll say the thing that finally breaks through my writer’s block.
All of this is just an extended flirtation with possibility. In each new encounter, I’m taunting fate: Come on. Show me what you’ve got.
Sometimes my fascination with strangers leads to bizarre, and maybe even dangerous situations. But sometimes, it creates pure magic.
When I was 26, I attended a finance workshop in a suburb of Chicago. I was supposed to stay in my room and study every night, because I had to pass an exam at the end of the week in order to get credit for the program. But I found the material too dry, and I ended up spending most nights at the hotel bar, chatting up whomever was there.
One night, I was polishing off a cheeseburger when an elderly gentleman asked if he could move to the seat next to me.
“I’m not looking to hit on you,” he said. “I’ll even buy you a beer and maybe we can talk.”
I motioned that he was welcome to the chair beside mine.
After an hour, we’d each had two beers. I had learned that he was a retired police officer and he was in town for the birth of his first grandchild. He was over the moon, but a little uncomfortable, he confessed. The baby was mixed—his daughter had married a white guy and he worried about what that would mean for his granddaughter.
Then he got me talking about my plans to go to law school.
“I’d make an excellent lawyer,” I told him.
“No, you wouldn’t,” he said. “Don’t waste your time with that. You could never put a widow out of her home.”
There was an intoxicated young man seated at a bar in a tiny town in Colorado one night, maybe a year ago now. He seemed to have been deemed untouchable, but I wasn’t sure why; it was just obvious that people were avoiding him. He had long, greasy blonde hair, past his shoulders. He was slender and his skin was pale, almost pasty, and covered in freckles. He wore a ratty old white tee-shirt and a pair of cotton shorts with dollar bills printed onto them.
I pulled up a bar stool and struck up a conversation. I asked where he was from and what he’d been up to that day. I realized he was not only drunk, but also on some kind of psychedelic drug, maybe several of them. It was a typical casual exchange, even in spite of all the drugs and alcohol, but then he veered off my usual line of questions:
“Do you know who Laura Dowdy is?” he asked.
“No, doesn’t ring a bell,” I said. “But I’m not from here, though.”
He continued: “I was accused of kidnapping her. But the judge let me off when she admitted that I had taken my hand off her boob.”
“Um… I don’t really know what to say to that,” I replied.
“Well,” he explained, “I asked if you knew her because you look like her. I thought maybe you could be related.”
Later in the night, my girlfriends came to rescue me from the conversation, not realizing that I had no desire to leave. I wanted to hear the man’s whole story. By that point, he had removed his tee-shirt and was explaining a vision he’d had while on peyote one night. In the vision, he’d been sinking into the earth, falling backward, able to finally see the vastness of the universe. He later tattooed the universe across his chest and down his arms, leaving stars to spill out of every shirt he’d ever wear again.
When I told him I needed to leave, he asked if I’d like to take a walk first. I politely declined. He insisted, though: “I feel like we have something here. I feel like we could have a relationship.”
A couple months ago, I stepped into the elevator of my apartment building, wearing a floor-length, cobalt blue dress. An elderly woman was in the elevator already, headed up to the floor above mine. She was probably almost 70, with wavy gray hair perfectly coiffed so that it rested just beneath her ears. She was wearing the same color, a lovely shift dress that revealed her slender but shapely legs. We exchanged that knowing look that women do—cobalt is everywhere this summer.
She pressed and held the “open door” button, which I took to mean that she was waiting for someone else to catch up. I later realized that she had held the elevator to talk to me.
She told me that because of my long blonde hair and my fair skin, my dress was the perfect color for me.
“It’s commanding,” she said. “Powerful. People notice you in it.”
I told her I thought the color was lovely on her, too, and asked if she was a natural blonde.
“Oh, you mean back then,” she laughed. “Yes, I was.”
I complimented her amazing Michael Kors wedge sandals and then felt sheepish in the less-elegant gladiator sandals I was wearing. She must have noticed the change in my expression.
“I bought those same sandals,” she said. “Target, right? Great deal.”
I nodded. Then she changed the subject.
“I just had the most wonderful dinner with the most wonderful man,” she said. “He took me to Pasquini’s. Do you know it, over on Broadway? It’s unassuming, totally unpretentious. But I swear, it’s the best Italian in Denver. Or at least it was tonight.”