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Talking To Strangers

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breaking the law

Talking to strangers should have been written in 2014 but for various reasons, I decided against it.

A recent post written by fellow writer Molly Stevens, who lives in the US, made me re-think that decision slightly.

Well, two posts actually because Molly did an interview with Susan, a beggar on the streets of Portland, Maine in two parts.

Talking to strangers was something we were always cautioned against as children and, with good reason.

However, in adult life, there is very good reason to be a bit more relaxed about the old ‘not talking to strangers rule’ as long as we are sensible and sensitive about it.

in adult life, there is very good reason to be a bit more relaxed about the old 'not talking to strangers rule' Click To Tweet

In my adult life, I have always been intrigued by the idea that we probably very often walk right past some of the most interesting people on the planet and yet we will never know their stories.

The Empty Chair – This lady always used to be around my old town with her husband. He died, forever leaving an empty chair opposite her wherever she went.

We ignore accessible, ordinary people to go home and watch contrived celebrity lives on TV – people who we can almost never get to talk to face to face and who know nothing about us.

We only hear the stories of those with voices strong enough to make it into the media, or who publish books, or who get onto chat shows because they are famous.

Of course, talking to strangers is something we do at bus stops or in hospital waiting rooms all the time but I don’t mean that superficial kind of chat where we skate lightly on the surface of each other’s lives.

I mean connecting with people on a level deeper than, ‘isn’t this weather too hot/cold/wet/dry’ or, ‘why is this clinic running 6 hours behind, do you think we should have brought sleeping bags? Ha Ha Ha Ha.’

I saw these two antique dolls sitting in a box at a pre-auction viewing. I took this picture because the darker one had a disconnected look and it reminded me of how people can be together but alone.

So in my adult life, while being mindful that they may not want a stranger rocking up to them and starting a party, I have made it a habit to talk to strangers, especially ones who appear to be marginalised by society (or by their own choice of course).

And this is exactly what Molly Stevens of Shallow Reflections did when she approached Susan, while on holiday in Portland, Maine.

The result was that Susan got to talk to someone who was genuinely interested in her story and Molly was able to further the campaign on Go Fund Me, to help get Susan a set of dentures.

(Just updating this story in 2021 and I checked to see if the Go Fund Me lik was still active, it was and I was heartened to see that it appears Susan did get the full amount of donations she needed. I say ‘appears’ because I don’t know anything beyond what is on the Go Fund Me page.)

This is how the world spins in 2017 – people can help each other in ways we never imagined possible 20 years ago.

My own story of talking to strangers is quite different to Molly’s.

One summer afternoon in 2014, in a small town just outside London, I found myself with time to kill for a couple of hours.

As I wandered around the hot dusty streets looking in shop windows, I heard the sound of a guitar and harmonica. Someone was playing a Bob Dylan song nearby and I went to look.

There was a busker, surrounded by musical instruments, all of which he played in turn. I had my camera and began taking pictures from a distance.

breaking the law

After awhile, in between songs, I went over to ask if he was ok with me taking pictures.

If he’d said no, I would have deleted them, regardless of the fact that I was legally able to take pictures in a public place – but my feeling is that there is no point in upsetting people for the sake of a picture.

He was fine about it and I asked him if he wanted a coffee – he wanted a cold drink so I went off to get him one.

When I returned, he took a break from playing so we could chat and so I sat down on the pavement with him .

He was a very interesting person and at first, I was thinking I would blog about him –  he was up for that.

But as we talked and got deeper into his life, I realised I could not write most of it down, even anonymously, without compromising aspects of his life that could become problematic for him.

The backlash for me could have been serious so I decided to leave it alone.

We did arrange to meet up again to talk more but even as I walked away, I knew this was not a sensible thing to do.

And I suspect he, maybe after talking to his friends, came to the same conclusion for different reasons. When I tried to contact him on his mobile phone, he was extremely elusive after having been so enthusiastic when we sat talking on the pavement.

It wasn’t a waste of time for me though – I experienced the passing public in a way I never have before.

For the whole time we sat chatting, I was subjected to the both the glares and the friendly smiles that people like this busker get every day while trying to make a bit of cash.

In between our chats, he was happy for me to film him playing music and singing. I remained where I was to get wide angle views from pavement level. I was astounded at what I was seeing in the moments when I wasn’t filming.

There were lovely elderly women coming past smiling at him and coming forward to put coins in his guitar case but there were many hard faced, pinched looking people openly glaring at him (and me!) as if we were the scum of the earth.

Some of the looks were openly hostile to the point where people looked as if they might actually spit on us.

That shocked me to the core and made me realise what marginalised people have to put up with from the mainstream of life.

You can argue all you like about what you have worked for while people ‘like this’ are ‘dole scum’ but we don’t all get the same start in life.

True, some people have a bad start and then fight to claw their way out of it. But other people don’t have the inner resources to do that and remain where they are.

That does not give anyone the right to glare at a man for playing music on the street or indeed me for talking to him.

Sitting beside this scruffy, unkempt man for a couple of hours gave me a glimpse into what life is like when you aren’t considered ‘normal’ by most people and it isn’t very nice.

But my best memory from that day was when two elderly women came past and stood for awhile to listen. When he finished his song, they burst into smiles and gave him a round of applause before throwing coins into his case.

Those are my kind of people. Those are the kind of people who make the world a better place.

Tell me honestly, what does it take to smile at another human being? I’m not saying you need to get into conversation with every person you see but the one thing we can all do to raise a person’s spirit is smile!

Of course we all have to use caution when dealing with strangers, especially ones who may well have a dangerous side to them. And perhaps there are times when even smiling or making eye contact is not  a sensible thing to do.

But the very least we can do in life is never to glare at someone because of what we perceive them to be. When we glare, we are sharing our thoughts and those thoughts may be wrong.

And I will never forget a street beggar I spoke to in a very well-heeled sea-side town in the UK.

We had walked by him several times in an affluent shopping district a couple of years ago.

It was a cold November day coming up to Christmas and he sat on the pavement outside shops glowing with warm lights that did not reach him.

Eventually, I broke away from the group I was with specifically so I could go and ask him if he was hungry.

And you know what? He was. No surprises there.

But I couldn’t get him any food. Want to know why?

He, like the woman in Molly’s story prior to having all her teeth removed to save her life, was suffering with a horrendous dental infection and he was unable to bear eating anything. But he welcomed a hot drink with open arms.

He assured me he would eat later at the homeless shelter where they would give him soup.

I left him sitting on a stone cold pavement in enormous pain. That is how some people live and the when passers by reach out, even for a few minutes to do any little thing to help them feel like they do matter, it’s a million times better than walking by like they don’t exist.

Judgemental glares help no one and they make the barriers between the haves and the have nots much higher.

Many thanks to Molly Stevens for prompting me to re-visit my experiences and share a tiny part of them.

What is your take on talking to strangers on the street when it is safe to do so?

8 thoughts on “Talking To Strangers”

  1. I’m so glad you shared this story, and it reminded me of my own experience with a busker, many years ago, in a time before smart phones and the internet, although I would later share this story on the internet and that would add a small but interesting epilogue.
    It was in the London Underground. I walked by a busker playing a sad, slow tune on a flute. She had a canvas satchel in front of her with only a few coins, nothing bigger than a 20p. I had a pound coin in my pocket and I dropped that on her satchel and went on my way.
    As I looked back I saw her pick up the pound and slip it into her pocket.
    I was mildly furious. She probably made a ton of money and was simply hiding it to make people like me feel sorry for her.
    Then I boarded the train and sat down next to an open window and could hear her playing. She’d switched from a sad tune to a light, happy one, and I realized that might have been because of me. That pound might have been the most money she’d made all day. It made me happy and also guilty for having thought badly of her.
    Years later I shared that story with a busker who told me leaving any large quantity of money on display was a bad idea, something I should have realized.
    Now as I look back on that experience my main feeling is wishing that I’d stopped to talk to that flute player.

    1. Thanks for sharing this Chris – it just goes to show how we struggle with our own judgements of people. But then we are only human and at least some of us do strive to correct faulty judgements. So many people go through life never looking honestly at themselves and their assumptions. I am really pleased to have your busker story here so thanks again for telling it.

    1. Hi Melinda – thanks for stopping by – I can imagine you would be that kind of person who tries to make people smile. And you are right, it makes such a difference. So many people have hidden sadness in their lives and it’s not good adding to it with frowns, glares or even indifference. Unless they are psychos – in which case a smile could be dangerous!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective of talking to street people, Gilly, and for sharing Susan’s story. I wasn’t aware of other people walking by as I talked with Susan, so didn’t see their reactions to her. I’m sure she experiences the glares and aversions along with the occasional person who stops and gives her a donation and a smile. It makes me so sad to see people who don’t have access to dental care and are in pain with poor dentition and it impacts nutrition in such a negative way. You have done a beautiful job giving a voice to those who are rarely heard.

    1. You are more than welcome Molly – your posts were my inspiration to write this. And I agree, not having access to dental care is a terrible thing. And as you show in your story, it can be life threatening. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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