I was in line at a pharmacy today and as I was beginning my transaction and then was nearly finished, I had the revelation that, though I’d been conversing with her, I had no idea what the clerk looked like. I knew she was a woman from her voice but I didn’t know if she was young or old, pretty or not, black or white, blonde or brunette. Because I hadn’t been bothered to look up, look her in the eye, smile and generally conduct myself like a polite and civilized citizen. I felt shame and tried to make up for it as I thanked her when I left.
I’ve spent a long time in the service industry and I’m well-acquainted with the anonymity that sometimes comes with it. After years and years, there were customers who wouldn’t know my name or anything about me and more often than not, they wouldn’t recognize me outside of that environment, outside of that uniform. There are things I liked about that distance but sometimes I wonder how we go through our lives, conducting our business, often crowded together in too-tight quarters day after day, year after year, and yet we remain strangers.
Our faces on our screens, our own music in our ears, creating bubbles in every way possible. Diminishing our arsenal of senses willingly and deliberately.
I spent most of this past week in Toronto but I also spent a few days in some surrounding small towns. The contrast couldn’t have been more clear to me. In the city, everyone had to be somewhere else, walking was almost always done with clear purpose. To stop on a sidewalk, pausing to look at something, was to disrupt the flow of the city. To drive is to enter battle. Parking is a competitive sport. Time is a precious commodity because while it is finite everywhere, in a large city, like with money, it must be spent more freely. To commit to travel from point A to point B feels more like an investment or a sacrifice than it does a pleasurable endeavour.
In the small towns, to walk quickly is to miss the point. It is to miss what is in front of our faces. The shops, the houses, the cafes. The shopkeepers and waitresses seem to be interested in actually meeting strangers and making them not strangers. We were in a restaurant and the waiter introduced himself and then went through a five minute presentation of the specials. When he was finished, he said there’s just one more thing. What’s my name? The three of us dining looked at each other helplessly. In five minutes, we’d forgotten his name, if we even bothered to hear it in the first place. It was a bit unsettling how dismissive we can be of interactions with people who we don’t consider important to our lives.
My father used to like to introduce himself to cab drivers and bartenders and he always tried to make some kind of connection. I think it came from his sales background. I used to find it both amusing and kind of embarrassing in equal measure but in retrospect, I think he may have been on to something. If it was a bother to some, it would have been only mildly so. And if wasn’t, I do believe he made strangers feel a little bit better about their day. And I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who wouldn’t want to feel a little bit better about their day.