Despite my most diligent efforts to the contrary, when traveling alone I appear friendly, gentle, kind-hearted, and eager to converse and perhaps make long-term plans with whoever targets me for small talk. This could be because I look like an unaccompanied minor. It could be because I carry a Petal Pink Vera Bradley duffel bag, which, outside of the Southeast, must scream, "Hey! I'm sociable! Let's chat!" Maybe it's a combination of the two, which perhaps gives strangers the impression I'm running away from home.
According to what I'm sure is sound scientific research, if a man approaches a woman and asks her for directions, she is more likely to talk to him. Oh, the pretense! I felt like a saint recently when a confused gentleman asked me if I knew when the next train was due at the NJ Transit New Brunswick station. "8:15!" I replied charitably, and assured him he was indeed on the New York-bound platform. Then, sensing the impending Talk With A Stranger, I turned away and commenced all the faux phone-checking, ticket-shuffling, eyebrow-furrowing avoidance tactics. But, queen of misleading signals that I apparently am, he took my behavior as an invitation to sit next to me and chat.
After a brief version of this conversation, and with no prompting on my part, he told me his entire educational background which involved lots of engineering, computer science, several countries, and an oil rig. And now he is the Venezuelan ambassador to the US. And also a banker. In the banking-oil company. Well, maybe, maybe not, I thought. One thing I ascertained for damn sure was that he did NOT need my helpful directions; he takes the same train every week night! As I attempted to move towards the approaching train, he managed to work in his theory of how "time... it isn't actually REAL!"
I thought, here is where I'm supposed to connect with an interesting stranger whose experiences and points of view are worlds different from my own. I could hear every acting teacher ever harping in my head about the vitality of people-watching, urging me to observe this man's dialect and mannerisms to reprise in a character some day. I'm sure I stood to learn a life lesson at the very least. But I did not wish to. At all. Is it wrong to desire a peaceful train ride? Perhaps my complete disinterest in his life story and bullshit theory was standoffish, but his assumption that I wanted to hear it all in the first place was presumptuous. I don't need to hear crazy from passing strangers; that's what talking to my relatives is for. For true stories of demons, recovered homosexuals, the socialist state of China and the like, I need only have lunch with my grandparents.
I always prefer eavesdropping on strangers instead of interacting with them. Which is exactly what I was doing at the Philadelphia airport when an Auntie Anne's employee approached me, having just finished his shift, and asked where I worked. I answered:
ME- I'm a student. (Defaulted to above-mentioned avoidance behavior.)
HIM- You do not work at airport?
ME- No. (HOW did Vera not tip him off?)
HIM- Where you are from? (Ok, limited English. Good sign. I figured he wanted to practice the few phrases he knew, and that's cool with me. Also, it guaranteed a quick and content-less interchange.)
ME- South Carolina.
HIM- Are you married?
What? And these odd, unsolicited encounters are not limited to public transport hubs in seedy Northeast cities. Once while waiting on an oil change* (before my social reticence set in), a fellow patron and I critically discussed every advertisement in that day's Greenville News. When we landed on Fred Astaire Dance Studio's Discount Ballroom Dancing Lessons, he earnestly suggested we take a class together! Is committing to a six-week course the next step after a harmless conversation about newspaper ads, even if the one proposing it is three times your age? I don't know. I don't know!
Remarkably, my recent twelve-hour stint on a China Town bus from NYC to Greenville, SC, resulted in no such perplexing interactions. The only English I heard during the entire trip was "TEN MINUTES," bellowed by the driver upon careening off I-95 somewhere in Virginia. Groggily I bolted into what I hoped was one of those fancy gas stations with a beer cave. Instead I gazed through bloodshot eyes at a truck stop. Truck stops are part general store, part diner, part strip joint, and part locker room. The only women's bathroom stall was locked and for once I thought better of just popping into the men's. In that moment, however fleeting, I wished for an ally to exchange bewildered glances and forgettable comments with. Instead, I vowed to hold my bladder until the next morning and made a beeline for the bus with four minutes to spare. The man sitting behind me had just purchased a bucket of fried chicken, and the smell reminded me of home.
*Not the oil change when they carded me to settle a bet with the boys in the back, who thought I looked too young to drive.