“When you interact with a stranger, you’re not in your own head, you’re not on autopilot from here to there. You are present in the moment. And to be present is to feel alive.” I underlined those sentences while reading Kio Stark’s When Strangers Meet on a recent flight home. As an experiment, I decided when the plane landed I would try to talk to as many strangers as I could. I wound up talking to three.
* * *
The first stranger was a man in a suit who moved over so I could pass him on the escalator. Once I saw what he was doing, I stopped.
“But I was clearing a path for you!” he said.
“I know,” I said, “and I suddenly wondered why I was in such a hurry.”
“I always have to think about what country I’m in to know which side I’m supposed to move over to.”
“Do people get over to different sides in different countries?” I asked.
He said they did. We got off the escalator and walked outside together.
“So, like, in Japan, do they get over to the left, like how they drive on the left-hand side?”
“They do. They’re very orderly there, you know. Nice talking to you.”
* * *
The second stranger was driving the parking lot shuttle. He noticed my Ramones t-shirt.
“I saw the Ramones at the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1979,” he said. “Front row. Johnny Ramone spit on me.”
“That’s awesome,” I said. “You want to know where I got this shirt?”
“My wife bought it for me at Target.”
He looked horrified. “Somewhere Johnny Ramone is rolling in his grave.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “He was a good capitalist. He might be okay with it.”
He conceded the point. I sat in the special handicap seat at the front of the shuttle and we talked while he drove and dropped off the other passengers. He told me he’d been a professional musician in Austin his whole life, that he’d played his first gig onstage in 1959, and that driving the shuttle was his first real job. “The way I survived all those years was: I always treated it like a business. My friends and I got this guide to the music business and we studied that book religiously. Started our own publishing company and everything. But things change. I just feel blessed that I got to be there at that time.” He said that the clubs don’t pay anymore because “weekend warriors” — amateur bands who never rehearse — will play for free. “Everybody sounds good after about eight beers.”
He asked me what I did and I told him. He said he was working on a book, trying to figure out publishing. “I know you need a literary agent,” he said. I told him that was true, that publishing was like music: a tough industry to crack.
I asked him if he ever spoke to young musicians about his experiences. “Nah,” he said. “These younger musicians today don’t want to learn anything. They don’t study, so they don’t make anything that’s going to last. There’s a reason the radio only plays stuff from the 70s and the 80s. When I was young, I used to sit front row, you know, sit at the feet of the masters and just watch them, trying to learn. Nobody works on their craft anymore.”
We stopped at my car. I tipped him and he blessed me. “So what’s your book about?”
“Well, it’s about how nothing comes from nowhere, and how the way to be truly great is to study what came before you.”
He smiled and said it sounded pretty good.
* * *
The third and final stranger was running the exit booth in the parking lot. She looked like she’d smoked too many cigarettes in too much sunshine. She was alarmed by the filthy state of my vehicle.
“Boy, they sure didn’t detail this car,” she said.
“No, they didn’t,” I said. “My wife said I should sign up for the wash this time, but I’m too cheap. I suppose I should be embarrassed.”
“Where on earth did they park you?”
“Oh, this is from my driveway,” I said. “I have one of those crepe myrtles next to the garage.”
She nodded and rang me up. “$19.45, purdy.”
I handed her my card.
“You know,” she said, “you drive towards Travis down there, there’s a Shell with a car wash, they’ll fix you up. And if they don’t do a good job, you just come back here and I’ll give you another ticket.”
She didn’t wink, but I think she wanted to.
“You want a water, baby?”
“Yes I do,” I said.
“Here you go, purdy.”
I put the car in gear.
“I’ll try to have it looking better for you next time,” I said.
She laughed, and I felt a little more alive as I drove home to people who aren’t strangers.