My Adventures in People Watching: Breaking all the Rules by Making Eye Contact and Talking to Strangers

Growing up in Brooklyn, I was taught at a young age not to make eye contact.  My mother would remind my siblings and I, before leaving the house, not to stare at strangers.  Not only because it was rude – which we were told it was – but also because it could get us in trouble.  Look at the wrong person in the wrong way and all sorts of trouble would ensue (which, in hind-sight, is interesting because my mother would make eye contact with and talk to anyone and everyone within hearing range).  This belief was emphasized throughout my schooling.  Teachers would remind students to mind their own business outside of school and to not make eye contact with strangers.

As I got older, I realized how silly that advice was.  First, not looking at the “wrong” (I can only assume they meant people having a bad day, addicted to something, or unstable in some other way) person might set them off just as easily as looking at them.  Second, we should always be aware of our environment and the people in it.  Thus we have to look around.  Third, we miss out on all sorts of interesting things and people by staring at our shoes.

One day, I sat down and realized that I could ignore the world around me, silently observe it, or partake of the wonders on offer.  Granted, there is a time and a place for everything, but, overall, I wanted to be both the person observing the world around me, as well as the one doing something worthy of observation.  My mother didn’t raise an ostrich, although she tried.

At the dinner table, I like to make sure I have something to say when asked, “How was your day?”  I always have an anecdote to relate.  Lately, I’ve had a bit of a rough patch.  I was diagnosed with breast cancer in April of 2016.  The last year was anything but fun, although it had its moments.  I’ve spent my days in a Cancer Center meeting with doctors and getting my treatment.  I’ve encountered all sorts of men and women with different stories, different perspectives.  I’m rather young to have breast cancer (this does not mean I’m young), so most of the people have been a bit older.  Some introverts, some sassy.  It’s been great.  I’ve ease dropped and participated in all sorts of conversations:  cancer, politics, grandchildren, vacations, etc.

One day, I walked into the woman’s dressing room before radiation, and a woman in her 70s pointed at me and asked, “You always go bald?”  The conversations in the room stopped and everyone turned to look at me.  I explained that I wear a hat outside to protect my head from the sun and to keep warm.  The next question was, “Yea, but how long was your hair before you lost it?”  It was halfway down my back.  Tons of questions followed.  These woman felt insecure, so they opted for wigs, scarves, and turbans at all times – even at home and in the dressing rooms.  I told they that was OK.  I also told them that it was OK to go out in public bald.  I pulled out my cell and shared pictures of myself at my niece’s wedding, at a family brunch, and at church.  The women started taking off their scarves and hats, looking at each other.  They were all beautiful.  I hope talking to a stranger helped them realize there were more options than just wigs and hats.  That night at dinner, we discussed the “Go Bald Movement” I had unwittingly started.

Recently, my husband and I were watching the movie Date Night starring Tina Fey and Steve Carrell.  The movie didn’t get the best reviews, but we found ourselves laughing the whole way through.  Apparently, for different reasons.  At the end, my husband turned to me and said, “Can you imagine those things happening in real life?”  “Yes, I can.  I mean, not to that extreme, but it is a comedy.”  He didn’t think I understood what he was saying, and explained that he was talking about us.

I realized then that it would never happen to us.  All of my adventures are without him.  He is a very down to earth person.  He does what he has to do and focuses on the issues at hand.  He also doesn’t end up having conversations about topics he’d rather not have with people he’d rather not be near.  Whereas I live life like Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy.  I look people in the eye and talk to strangers.  I get lost and keep driving until I get to where I need to be.  Last Christmas, my kids and I discovered an abandoned camp because I got lost on the way to a party (we live in a rural area and I don’t need no stinking GPS).  It was December, and we’re still not sure why there was a man walking around the camp with gardening tools at night.  We screamed, I hit the gas and we got the heck out of there.  Of course, he was probably the caretaker, but when we tell the story he was the ghost of an old caretaker who was murdered by campers and is wandering the camp at night seeking revenge.

As a writer, I get all sorts of ideas, just by sitting back and watching the world go by.  In a restaurant in Sorrento, Italy, I witnessed one of the most romantic scenes of my life.  An American woman on a date was stood up.  She waited for over an hour without ordering any food.  Finally, she got up to leave.  With tears in her eyes, she tossed some money on the table, and made a bee-line for the door, head down.  The owner – a rather good looking Italian – intercepted her.  He insisted she stay and have dinner with him.  At first, she was embarrassed, and tried to leave.  He wouldn’t hear of it.  He told her a woman as beautiful as she was should not be alone and whoever the man was who didn’t show up was insane and not worthy of her attention.  He lavished the compliments and the tears turned to laughter.  By the time I left, I believe I saw a couple falling in love.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating talking to strangers, or being that creep on the subway staring a little too intensely at her fellow passengers.  I’m just saying: make the most of every opportunity, and follow your instincts.  You never know what will happen.

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