At Thursday meeting last week Tim and Meghan talked about how stranger danger is great for kids. We obviously don’t want little kids walking up and talking to every person they meet, getting and giving out personal information. However, a lot of us have got stuck in this stranger danger mindset and never grow out of it. We avoid eye contact with people we don’t know, focus intently on our grocery selections, pump gas quickly and appear very busy at the bank while waiting in line. We find library flyers intensely interesting while waiting to make a photocopy. We also talked about being “creepy” and “weird” at the meeting, especially when it comes to connecting to people for classes, personal connections, experiences.
I’ve gotten pretty good at being “weird” over the past couple of years. Emailing perfect strangers to have coffee with me, meet me in their neighborhood, and come in for a tour, or the good, “I’d like to tell you about what we’re doing” without really identifying who “we” are and what “what” is. And, it’s been wonderful and not at all creepy. In fact, most people are flattered and excited to be singled out, asking to meet over coffee. (On a side note, I did get turned down once by a woman doing a personal experiment. She wanted to see how “certifiably friendly” Cincinnati was. I offered to meet up in a public place and talk about Cincinnati and she declined saying that it wouldn’t be safe. But that’s another story—but come on, I wasn’t asking her to get in my van to help find my lost kitten…)
“You want to talk to me about things I already care about?” is usually the puzzling question, I sometimes get. The answer, “yes.”
“You mean, you want me to come in and teach a class about what I already love to do?”
“You want me to share information about an issue that’s important to me?”
Sure, it’s a strange thing to think about. Meeting people for the sake of getting to know them, with the hopes of helping them meet people who like the stuff they do. But it’s lovely, wonderful, mind boggling, frustrating, connect-the-dots, kind of work. I wasn’t always okay with the idea of just talking to people. In fact, sitting and talking were two of my least favorite things to do as a child. My grandmother would sit in IGA’s parking lot (now Fresh Market on Madison Road) with her van window rolled down talking. We’d go there for provisions, ground beef, milk, eggs, noodles, cheese, coffee creamer, and stay there for hours on end.
Having already finished with grocery shopping, she’d inevitably run into someone she knew—and there we’d be- stranded with the van turned off in a parking lot as she talked. (Or on the off chance she knew the car passing us on the street; she’d stop, put the hazard lights on, put the van in park, windows rolled down). I like to think that my grandmother knew all of these people well. I don’t know that for sure. If she didn’t, you certainly couldn’t tell by the way she’d talk—talk while the milk got warm, and the frozen meats started thawing. At the time it was embarrassing. It was annoying, and it was really hot in the un-air-conditioned jalopy of van; alternatively, it was below freezing in a van whose heat had been turned off as we sat in park in a cold parking lot in January. How much longer? I’d think, and I’d throw myself into the seat—laying down now as she talked, or drawing on the windows with my breath–a form of entertainment I’d inevitably be yelled at for later. After awhile and when I just couldn’t take it anymore, I’d muster up the courage and tap her on the shoulder. “Grandmaaaa….” I’d whisper with more than a hint of impatience in my voice, “Can we go now?” She was crafty, never letting on that she’d heard you. So crafty, that’d you’d begin to doubt that you’d even said anything at all.
Oh, she was good. A few more throwing myself against the seats, a dozen or so more loud drawn out sighs, and she’d turn the key in the ignition, and a cloud of blue smoke with rise up from the exhaust. The sound, and toxic smell of freedom. But the talking, gossiping, did you knows, would continue. The funny thing is, as much as my grandmother talked, she equally complained and fussed right up until someone came to the window. “Oh, what the hell does she want? Hurry, hurry, get in the van.” You’d think we were hurrying away from parking lot used car salesmen the way she’d slid the sliding van door closed and skittered into the front seat. But of course, when someone familiar face would call out “Margaret!” she’d pause, roll down the window, put in her teeth, and there we’d sit, milk getting warmer, meats defrosting. It’s wonderful to think that all my time being trapped in the van surrounded by IGA bags was training for me to be as chatty, inquisitive, and prepared for random conversation as I am today. That in sitting through probably hundreds of parking lot meetings, my grandmother was in fact training me for the work I do today.