A defense of talking to strangers

As a university student, I get it. We ride the bus, walk to work, sit at cafes, all the while plugged into our iPods and smartphones. We sit, blank faced, plugged in and safe from the inquisition of strangers, a social barrier separating us from those dotting old folks or that smelly homeless guy.

With the advent of smartphones, the world is suddenly at our fingertips, connecting us to our friends and family abroad with incredible ease. It’s a pretty great time we are living in to say the least.

All the benefits of technology and social media were made painfully obvious when I forgot my phone one day while out at the local laundromat. I didn’t have my laptop or any device to occupy me beyond  the spinning of dirty laundry. While there, an elderly woman matching the physical description of both the smelly homeless person and the doting senior citizen sat next to me at the solitary folding table.

Without my technological devices to defend me from the probing questions of this old lady, we soon began talking. She took an active interest in what I was studying, why I chose Trent, and where I was born. My own perception of her quickly evolved from passive indifference to keen interest. I was struck by this woman’s kindness and welcoming nature, one that seemed so different from my own generation.

It is beyond me how we got onto the subject of death, but I soon discovered that she was a recent widow who had watched cancer slowly dissolve the man she had loved for 30-some years. She spoke openly about her last day with him at the hospital. He had become so out of sorts from the physical degradation of the sickness, that he cursed her for visiting him, yelling, “Who the fuck are you? Get out of here!” Hurt, this woman returned home in time only to receive a call from the hospital saying that the man had died shortly after her departure.

Two things struck me after hearing this confession. How does one recover from a loved one expelling such hate on their death bed? And why would she share such an intimate and painful memory with someone she had just met? I don’t have an answer for either question, but I have never been so touched by anything before.

Chance encounters don’t have to be life changing moments, but don’t be surprised if the individual you were so desperately trying to avoid only seconds before can teach you something meaningful. iPods and smartphones are great, but nothing will replace the serendipity of a stranger’s story.