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I Talk to People on the Street, and I’m Proud Of It

August 21, 2009

Union SqLately, I’ve been working in Union Square Park. They have free wi-fi, unlike this purist coffee shop, so every morning, I pack my little lunch and park it until my battery runs out. It’s been quite the cure to New York’s endless heat wave. And I’m getting a tan. 

Anyway, yesterday, this guy showed up and started scribbling away in a notebook. He chatted on his phone, he stared in space and chewed on his pen, he scribbled. A couple hours later, he stopped scribbling and started looking at me. I moved my chair to look in the other direction, and he moved to a different table and looked at me. I moved. He moved. And then he started to walk over.

Now, in New York, you just…you don’t do this. There is an unspoken code that mandates the respect of others’ personal space, and only hustlers in Union Square, lost tourists or psychos break it. And since it’s pretty easy to distinguish the first two, this code not only becomes natural, it becomes smart.

But what I want to know is what exactly we think we’re protecting ourselves from. The odds of someone off their rocker pulling me behind a tree and raping me in a park this crowded are slim to none. If anything, they’re just annoying. And the default public reaction–cold silence–has an adverse affect on our level of happiness. I’m sure studies exist that validate the correlation between happiness and social interaction, and if I weren’t leaving for the Hamptons in an hour, I’d find them. But what I can tell you is that my last excursion from the city opened my eyes to the effects of our silence.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, I was on a two month road trip, a philanthropy project, with my sister and our best friend, Steph. From the beginning, Steph made friends with the gas station attendant, while I sat in the back of the car brooding and stressing out about the way we’d organized our coolers. As time went on, I started talking to people  as a means of preserving my sanity, and I became so happy. My stress levels went down. I needed less sleep. And by the end of the trip, I didn’t even care that the car smelled like fish. I came back to the city on a social high, but as I got back into its rhythm, my enthusiasm waned. I wasn’t sure why, and then, one day, I talked the fruit guy. He was trying to convince me to take blueberries, tomatoes, everything I didn’t want. I promised him I’d come back when I did want tomatoes, but he didn’t believe me.

“Come on,” I winked at him, “You’re my favorite fruit guy!”

He laughed and I laughed, and yes, I flirted with the 60 year old fruit man that barely speaks any English. But I smiled all the way across the intersection. The next day, I made small-talk with the guy at yoga, the lady at the gym, even the homeless man that sat on my stoop after the police across the street released him from a 5-minute hold. He was drunk, and every time he told me that the key to a happy life was “Bikers, beer and pandamonium,” I had a little giggle. 

So…back to the guy in Union Square. He walked towards me, and I looked at his doo-rag and his Nike kicks and his saggy shorts, and you know what? I judged him. I did. And it’s something I need to work on. But the reason I’m telling you this is that if I had stopped there, with my New York judgements, I never would have known that this man was a psychology student. He was working on a paper and needed the definition for “Rational Emotive Therapy.” He kept calling me “doll” and, yeah, I was annoyed he interrupted my work to ask me this. But I googled it for him, and he looked so pleased, and I was pretty satisfied with myself. Later, he came up and asked me to proof read his paper, and when I finished my own, I sat at his table for 15 minutes, while he read his essay out loud because I couldn’t read his hand writing. I taught him the basics of thesis, how to prove his argument, how to write academically rather than colloquially. And you know what? I didn’t die. I didn’t lose my job because I took 15 minutes to talk to someone. And, hopefully, he gets a little better grade.

Take from this what you will, but I really hope that next time you walk down the street, you just look someone in the eye and say hi. Ask the guy at Walgreens how he’s doing. It won’t kill and, in my experience, karma will pay you back.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. yogibenji permalink
    August 21, 2009 10:01 pm

    Great story! Its very hard living in New York with those invisible walls between people. It seems to me a reflection of a larger epidemic of disconnection and unease in our world. But its such a feeling to break through! I once did the cancan with a random woman on Prince street to the tune of New York New York, and felt great!

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