At home in St. Louis. Where the men are men, and the humidity is cloying. I have resigned myself to looking effortlessly dewy for the next three days.
I'm not big on talking to strangers. Never have been. This characteristic was beneficial as a child, as not even candy would provoke me to start a conversation with the friendliest unfamiliar looking people. That Rick Springfield song was old news to me. So whenever I approach a situation where stranger conversation could possibly occur, I usually take the necessary precautions in order to seem aloof and unapproachable. Last night, after four hours of pita eating, gift buying and people watching at Midway, I finally boarded my plane for home and promptly took a seat in the back... a dark corner where I could rest my head against the small, thick window and watch Chicago disappear into a cloud of ozone. When I could sense that someone had taken the seat next to me, I promptly buried my head in my book and attempted to exude indifference. Most people can sense it when you're not up for making small talk, and most are simultaneously understanding. After all, it's 10:30 on a Wednesday night. We've all been turned into zombies by a painful series of 15-minute delays, and we're all anxious to reach our destinations. My seat friend was an exception to what I thought was a widely accepted rule and commenced conversation before he'd even had a chance to stuff his carry-on into the overhead compartment.
"What are you reading?"
"Um, just this...book." (Exhibits book cover, continues studying last three words of previous paragraph.)
"Is it scary or funny?"
"Um, funny. I guess."
Thus began an hour long conversation that covered everything from tractor buying to the politics of small town living. I never learned his name, but I did learn virtually everything else about him. For instance,
- He has a one-year-old son named Ethan.
- He has Ethan's footprint tattooed on his left tricep. (It's difficult to show strangers a tricep tattoo. It involves complicated meneuvering from both parties. But I have to admit, it was kind of touching.)
- He monitors power lines for a living.
- He was celebrating his 29th birthday and hoped to get back to Bunker Hill, IL in time for a Milwaukees Best or ten.
- He owns livestock.
- He's not fond of minorities. (I responded to this with a grimmace, but I don't think that was enough to turn his world around.)
The conversation proceeded, despite my exxagerated efforts to stuff ear buds into my ear drums and cover my face with a blanket.
"Do you have a boyfriend?"
"Um, no. I mean, I did, but I don't anymore."
"Isn't hard to meet people in Chicago? Everyone's moving around all over the place."
(At this point, I mind-punched him for finding that dark place in my brain where the only other inhabitant is 50-year-old spinster me.)
"No, not really."
"How long are you in town for?"
"So would it be rude to ask you to lunch tomorrow?"
"Yes, no, no. Not rude. But I can't." (I have to take a nap on the couch and give the cat its insulin shots.)
At this point, normal conversation would probably taper off, but this particular exchange continued until I met my brother at his idling car outside the airport. I never learned my traveling companion's name, but I owe him a bag of dry roasted peanuts for coaxing me out of my book and into reality. Normal people talk to strangers every day, and they usually learn something. I learned that it's possible to get an infant's footprint tattooed on your tricep, and that power line workers get a free vacation day when it rains. It rained today, and I found myself hoping he made the most of his day off.