Saturday, June 5, 2010

talking to strangers

If you've read my previous bus stories, cougar? moi? and a better bus ride, you might think I have a policy of not talking to strangers on the bus. Think again.

Usually, talking among bus passengers is a rather perfunctory means to an end -- a way to indicate needs ("Excuse me, I need to get off at the next stop."), get information ("Have we passed Crenshaw?") or defuse tension among a diverse group of people with nothing much in common except their direction of travel.

Several weeks ago, I almost fell into a man's lap when the bus lurched as I was walking to a sideways seat in the senior section. He looked a little worried, so after I managed to sit down I said, "You almost had me on your lap then!" even though I wasn't so sure he spoke English. He smiled and said (with no accent of any kind), "Almost doesn't count!" So I laughed and said, "Close, but no cigar," and settled in for a comfortable ride downtown. When he got off the bus, I felt that his "Have a nice day" was sincere.

Sometimes, of course, real conversations are taking place on the bus -- usually among friends or family groups who have boarded together, but occasionally as the result of a chance remark to a stranger. Thus the encounter described in a better bus ride and many other pleasant visits that have followed chance remarks or requests for information. I rarely initiate these conversations myself, but I treasure the feeling of serendipitous camaraderie they bring.

This past Thursday, the passengers heading west on Venice Boulevard when I boarded the bus included a dead ringer for Buffalo Bill. He wore a large grey leather hat trimmed with darker gray lacings and a luxuriant feather, a knee-length brown leather coat (worn but not shabby), and black Wellington-style leather boots which reached almost to the knee over dark brown cotton trousers. His thick grey hair reached just past his shoulders, and he wore a full beard that covered his collar. Very dark rimless sunglasses and a black satchel with a shoulder strap completed the ensemble.

It was the satchel that finally precipitated our conversation. At first it appeared to be leather, but when I noticed that it was canvas with leather trim and stamped 'Calvin Klein' I couldn't resist saying, "It seems like your bag should say 'Pony Express' on it!" He looked me straight in the eye and said, "I'm a model and an actor and a musician." So of course we got into a discussion about music. I told him I sing in a large chorale, and he shook my hand very politely when he realized we were fellow travelers in more ways than one.

My new friend then told me he'd walked into a Wells Fargo bank and asked them if they were hiring, whereupon they called their security staff to escort him from the premises. We 'tsk-tsk'ed' companionably about their lack of imagination, and he reiterated his qualifications and experience in advertising and show biz. When he got off the bus, we shook hands once again, and I regretted that I hadn't spoken up sooner. Why pass up several minutes of unforgettable, entertaining conversation?

Later I wondered whether he was coming directly from the Wells Fargo experience. If so, I was really glad to have cheered him up a bit.

I also wondered what most corporate institutions and government agencies would do when confronted by a person walking in casually from the 19th century to look for a job.

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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License