by Ryan Dalton
I hope this letter finds you well. In general, I am working hard and exhausted, but feel better than I have in a long, long while. I’m in a very good proverbial place right now.
There are, however, some things that have been weighing heavy on my mind; mostly us. No, not you and me specifically or necessarily. But “us” as in humanity. What are we doing? Have we lost the plot? And if, in fact, we have, is it possible to find our way back to it?
When I first moved to Brooklyn, I would ride the subway with a big smile on my face, greeting every person, making eye contact, and sometimes even attempting to strike up conversation. Most people on the subway looked miserable, and I was only sometimes met with warm reception. For the most part, people merely tried to avoid eye contact with everyone. I hated it; so many humans, all piled on top of each other in one city, yet such few human connections.
But city life is fast, and the days can feel longer and more abusive than days in other places. And after a particularly long day, I sometimes find myself assuming the avoid-eye-contact-at-all-costs-and-look-as-miserable-as-possible subway pose. Sad but true. I still hate it.
Tonight on my train ride home, a random stranger tried to befriend me. I’m not sure what about me caught his attention, but he kept making eye contact and smiling at me. I thought I was mistaken at first. But after several stops passed, I realized he was trying to make connection. Even though the hardened, citified version of me told me to be suspicious, I smiled back.
He immediately asked how I was. I responded with something simple, like, “Tired.” With growing skepticism, I didn’t ask how he was doing. I felt like a horrible person, but was obviously conflicted. He asked me where I lived, and voluntarily told me where he lives. He asked what I do on my free time, and I told him between teaching high school and attending grad school, I have no free time.
He said he was trying to be more social, make more time to enjoy the company of friends, because that is the more healthy way to live. I agreed with him fully, but felt my cynicism growing by the second. I went back and forth in my head whether or not I was being realistically skeptical or unrealistically overly paranoid. I never came to any conclusions.
Did I mention he had a kid, maybe 10-years-old, who sat beside him and played a video game the entire time?
They had Whole Foods bags between their legs. That’s normal, right? Not really serial killer vibes, huh?
I noticed a loaf of multigrain bread sitting at the top of the bag.
Right before he reached his stop he gave me his card. I took it, looked down at it, and looked back up at him. He repeated the name I had just read. I only gave him my first name. The train pulled up to his stop, he smiled, said it was nice to meet me, and him, his kid, and their Whole Foods bags were gone.
What is wrong with our human condition that he had to be a rapist or a murderer or a sociopath in my mind? Do you think he might just be a single dad, in a great big city, a little lonely, with no one to talk to, just wanting, no, needing a friend? I don’t know.
Anyways. I have rambled on. Have you had any recent signs that we are part of something bigger than our individual selves? Please let me know how you are doing.
Warmth from cold Brooklyn,
I kept the man’s business card. So, if you think I overacted and should make contact, let me know.
Ryan, thanks for this. I struggled with this daily when Sara and I first moved to Boston. It’s difficult to live in an individualist culture when you’ve experienced collectivism. Having said that, I know America isn’t entirely individualistic or South Africa collectivist.
I think it doesn’t hurt to email the guy and thank him for lifting your spirits even though you might not have projected it at that time.