In Truth or Consequences and in Santa Fe, I find it normal to strike up conversations with strangers, and to say hello on the street to people in passing, whether or not we’re acquainted. No one seems to think it odd. I’ve never had a rebuff, nor have I been offended when someone randomly started talking to me.
A few years ago I was sitting in the now-closed and much-missed Little Sprout juice bar in Truth or Consequences when a man in a white terrycloth bathrobe came in and asked me if a certain bumper sticker he found wonderful might be mine. (It said Coexist, with the symbols of various religions forming the letters.) It wasn’t mine, but we talked a while anyway. He was on his way to water aerobics and had seen the bumper sticker, seen me in the window wearing my sun hat against the glare, and decided the Woman in the Hat looked like someone who wanted to spiritually Coexist. We became friends, and until he moved away last year he was my best sunset-walking and philosophical-talking friend in T or C. Another conversation with a stranger in the Sprout led to my meeting my dancing buddy the same year, and we still go dancing together four years later.
Unlike some more frequent fliers, I don’t mind people on planes talking to me. Good book recommendations and good stories have come from these encounters, or just good lines. I remember being on a plane about to leave Albuquerque for a job interview in Northeastern North Carolina, and was talking to my seatmate about my eventual destination. The long-haired young man in front of me turned around when he heard the name of the town and said, “Turn your clock back twenty years.” He was right. I ended up needing that job and moving east for a few years, and the town is now fictionalized as Cauwetska in The Calling.
Another stranger on a plane entertained me when I was unhappy after the breakup of a relationship. I didn’t tell her, but maybe she sensed it and wanted to be cheerful, or else she wanted to say what she had to say to someone she would never see again. Imagine a Texas accent for this. “I’m a dog breeder. And you know, I’m a Christian, and I’m supposed to think certain things are wrong, but I know homosexuality can’t be a sin, it has to be genetic, because I’ve got a lesbian Chihuahua.”
Back in July in Santa Fe, waiting in the shade at the Railyard Plaza while the Bill Hearne Trio set up, I ended up talking to my shade-mates about the Santa Fe Opera while we waited for country music. I have no idea how we got into this conversation but it felt normal. They told me one of the apprentices was going to have to play a lead that night, and sing in Chinese. An ongoing character in my series, Jamie Ellerbee, was once an apprentice with the Santa Fe opera. If I ever write the details of the crisis he had during that period of his life, a pressure like that could be part of it.
In previous academic years I’ve usually seen students in the classroom ten minutes early, heads down, engaged with screens instead of each other. This year for some wonderful and mysterious reason, they’re different. I come in and find them having real live face-to-face conversations, even the freshmen who don’t really know each other yet. I’m glad they aren’t missing out on the pleasure of talking to strangers.