Thursday, December 31, 2009

Befriending Strangers

It's the last day of 2009.  For the last couple of years my resolutions have been strictly exercises in self-discipline.  2008 was the year I abstained from french fries, 2009 I didn't ingest a single carbonated soft drink.  These resolutions have been healthy, but relatively easy for a conservative health nut.  For 2010 I needed something more challenging.

I am an introverted person, but by no means antisocial- I like getting together with friends and engaging in lively conversations, but I am also perfectly comfortable spending hours at  a time just writing or reading.  That's where I'm most comfortable; deep in thought- disengaged from the world.  I started thinking about all of the friends I have and how I owe almost every one of them to an outgoing, natural "connector" (like my wife) who breaks the ice and introduces me to someone- it seems like that first encounter always requires an extrovert to serve as my catalyst to acquaintance.

One really good example is the story of how I met my friend Brandon.  When I had first moved to Arkansas about 2 years ago I would spend at least one evening during the week reading or writing in a nearby Starbucks.  I noticed that every time I went the same guy was there with his venti drink, already claiming one of the 4 nicely upholstered chairs in the room.  The 4 chairs were positioned on opposite sides of the room in pairs, and most of the time if a loner was there sitting in one of them, no one else bothered to sit in the empty one, that close to a stranger.  They would usually endure one of the hard wooden seats and just wait for one of the chair-takers to finish what they were doing and leave.

This venti-drinking regular seemed to live at Starbucks, he was always there before I was and never left before I did.  At first it was no big deal waiting for the other set of chairs to clear, but then a militia-esque regular in a trench coat who seemed like he should be paying rent to the cafe took up residence in one of them.  I had two choices:  make my bum endure the pain of 3 hours in contact with laminated plywood, or suck it up and sit in one of those nice soft chair, arm to arm with a total stranger.

Finally one evening I gritted my teeth, plopped down beside the venti-drinking regular, and began to read.  You'd think we'd say hello or or even introduce ourselves. . . . nope.  We regarded each other with about as much concern as we gave the rest of the furniture in the room.  Sitting there arm-to-arm. . . . .slurping on coffee. . . . reading our books. . . pretending each the other was invisible.

Finally, one evening a perky barista who had made small talk with me before, and apparently knew Venti-man, rounded the bar for her 10-minute break and started talking to both of us.  We still didn't acknowledge one another until she asked us if we knew each other.  All of a sudden we became real live human beings!  For the next several months (until I got married and my priorities changed, and he ended up moving) we didn't read much when we were both at Starbucks.  He told me fascinating stories about his hike of the Appilachian trail and living out of his truck (by choice) and we would spend hours talking about sustainable housing and entrepreneurial dreams.  He turned out to be one of the most interesting people I've ever met, and it's sad to think that we would have probably continued to ignore each other if not for the barista that broke the ice.

So in 2010 I'm going to try to get out of my comfort zone and talk to 2 strangers a week, learn their names and some interesting facts about them, and document my experience here.  I'm not 100% sure of the approach I'll be taking at this point.  In the age of MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter there seem to be plenty of people who would be willing to let me post a picture of them online and write a short bio, but then again it might come across as creepy.  I won't be asking for any contact information, unless maybe they are single and specifically request a plug.  I'll get a better feel for the ground rules I'll follow during my first few encounters and post them here next week.  At least I might get to know some of my neighbors, I've been living in the same apartment for 2 years and only know one other person who lives in this building other than my wife.  That's pretty pitiful.

That's just one of my goals for the year.  For updates on my other main objective, check out Eclectic Scribe .

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