The other morning, I woke to speak with a man I’d never met.
After 13 minutes of failed Google+ attempts, we got through. It was just after 5am and pitch black outside the window above the desk. I curled my legs underneath me as we smiled with relief.
Conversations with strangers are so touching and intimate these days. Maybe it’s simply that any conversation with a stranger, since such conversations are more and more rare, represents something you almost didn’t do. – Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock
It was (a shortened version of) this quote that prompted Philip McCluskey, the Thirsty Wanderer, to reach out over Twitter and then suggest we meet for a virtual drink. He does this often. He has drinks with strangers.
The premise is simple, yet stunning: you have a drink and conversation with someone you’ve never met. It need not be alcoholic—we, for example, had coffee.
He was kind and accommodating and sincere. He says what he thinks and asks good, hard questions. He listens to the answers.
There was a slight (inevitable) awkwardness, and yet a surprising ease to our conversation. Either because of limited time—threatened as we were by the impending wake-up of my youngest son—or his nature, probably both, we got right to the heart of things.
What matters? What do you wish you could tell the world? Did you see yourself ending up where you are?
In the span of an hour, we talked of faith and friendship, religion and travel, parenthood and professions, family and where we’re from. He told of other people he’s met—each had left a mark, I could tell. This is a man who is affected by those who cross his path. We spoke of taking comfort in uncertainty as we grow older, and how writing creates uncommon connections, allows you to be more honest somehow—like in a conversation with a stranger.
As Philip says in his brief video intro to the project, “There is no past with a stranger. And there’s probably not going to be any future either. There’s no broken-in feeling of comfort there, but there’s also less expectation.”
It reminded me of being 17, when I would talk long and late into the night to a red-haired boy named Jon until we’d fall asleep with the phone receivers still pressed between one ear and the pillow. He referenced books I scrambled to read, quoted song lyrics like poetry, and made me question…everything.
Why do we have to stop having these conversations at 20?
I used to wander city streets on Sundays, alone, and strike up conversation with anyone. I once met an actor waiting for his scene in a Jack Nicholson movie they were filming on my corner, an older gentleman riding out his last days in a laundromat, a woman with a thick Russian accent who clerked at the local video store and spiritedly debated me on the meaning of the movies I rented.
But at some point we settle down, get set in our ways. We find our four walls and, for the most part, stay within them. But what if we blurred the line between self and other, between here and elsewhere?
What if any two people, anywhere, could meet and talk?
I let him in to my morning. Still in my pajamas and, at points, with a sleepy two-year-old on my lap. It wasn’t pretty, but it was real.
When I opened the front door for my oldest son to board the school bus later that morning, I lingered a little longer, took in a few gulps of fresh fall air and thought of him, stepping out into his own day. Many miles lay between us, but for a moment, an hour, our paths crossed, our lives ricocheted off each other, and it was as if, particle by particle, a strand stretched across the vast space separating us…
What matters, I wanted to say, is this. Exactly this. Connecting with someone else in a sincere way. Breaking down boundaries, seeing one another for who we really are, discarding fear, diminishing distance and difference. Starting with a simple hello, a warm smile, a good morning, it’s nice to meet you.
And going from there…