Strangers in a Grocery Store

People tell me things.

Stuff they don’t usually tell strangers.

I went to Whole Foods today to work, but when I got there the place was as jam-packed as a ski lodge at lunchtime. I was roving back and forth, stalking lunchgoers shamelessly as they mowed down their organic tofu spring rolls, when a guy who looked about my age said, “You’re welcome to sit here with me if you like.” I gladly took him up.

He was tall, athletic-looking, and eating one of those dried seaweed snacks, which he said he was addicted to and then offered to me. (I declined, they’re expensive and it sounded like they were his crack). He also had a whole rotisserie chicken, and as he started to open the plastic casing, he paused and gave me a sideways look. “You’re not a vegetarian, are you?”

“No,” I laughed, and added, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to throw up right here watching you eat that.” I leaned over to the side and in my most charming manner, feigned vomiting over the edge of the table.

He actually laughed, and over the course of the next 30 minutes or so we started talking, just a couple quick exchanges here and there at first, in between stretches of his reading on his iPad and my typing furiously on my Mac. But one of the topics eventually led off on a tangent, that led to another, and then we were off — we put our technology down and proceeded to have a great conversation.

He was a yoga instructor, marketing consultant, and grad student, and had also flirted with the idea of travel writing before. But in a past life, he told me, he owned a real estate company in the US that folded when the economy tanked. Then he ran a real estate company in Costa Rica that also folded. “I was a mess after that,” he confessed. “Super depressed. I was a young guy — I mean, I know I’m still young, but I was a really young guy then — and without my business, I was like, ‘Who am I?’, you know?”

He shook his head and chuckled, looking away. “I feel like you’re my therapist right now. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.”

I told him that I get that a lot from strangers, though I’m not really sure why. Maybe it’s because I really do love their stories, and I listen, and people can sense that. Some stories are uplifting. Some are heartbreaking. “One time,” I recalled, “a cab driver in San Francisco told me he had just gotten diagnosed with HIV.”

“What did you say to him?”

“I don’t know. I can’t even remember, I just remember feeling so shocked and sad. Whatever I said, I hope it was the right thing.”

We talked about how sometimes people will feel more comfortable telling a stranger their darkest secrets, how for some reason it can be easier than telling your friends and family. I told him about how I’ve had so many interesting conversations with strangers on chairlifts, and that one day I wanted to make a coffee table book out of their photos and stories. His eyes lit up. “You could call it Tales from the Lift,” he exclaimed, “you know, like Tales from the Crypt, but not scary.”

I loved it. “Hang on,” I said, “I have to write this down.” I scrawled, “tales from the lift” on a napkin and stuffed it in my purse.

When the time came for him to go, he started gathering his things into a beat-up leather satchel, and after a moment of almost imperceptible hesitation, said, “I have to ask. Do you have a boyfriend, or a husband?”

In my situation, the only acceptable answer to that question is “yes”, without qualification or the offer “to be friends”. So I just smiled and yes, I have a boyfriend.

“Damn,” he said, “I had a feeling you did, from when you said, ‘we’. But I was hoping maybe you were talking about a girlfriend.” Another pause. “How long have you two been together, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Three and a half years.”

“Wow, that’s a long time,” he raised his eyebrows, closed his bag, and gave me a rueful smile. “Well, I hope he treats you really well.”

And then he sincerely bade me goodbye and left. There was no exchange of information or offers to keep in touch to talk about writing, marketing, yoga, travel, meditation or all the other things we surely had in common. His name is Ryan. I don’t know his last name and I will never see him again. The only thing he left was an idea, four words on a sheet of paper: “tales from the lift”.

This is the best and only right way to leave things, yet at the same time the encounter seemed so profoundly strange. How can we connect with other people so genuinely — not even romantically, just a real, human connection — yet lose them so suddenly, too?

Later on that day I was back in another grocery store, fully-kitted in my cycling kit, clicking around Sprouts in my bike shoes and helmet, basically looking like a huge freak, when one of the employees that Steve and I always talk to walked up to me. “Just gone for a ride?” he asked.

“No, this is just how I go out,” I joked. “How are you, I haven’t seen you for a while!”

“Yeah, I was in Texas for the past three months, with my dad.”

“Oh yeah? Was it a good time?”

“Eh, not really. He’s really sick.” He stopped for a second, considering how much to tell a girl he sees from time to time buying produce in a grocery store. Whose name he didn’t even know. “He has brain cancer.”

Everything went quiet for a moment, and I said the only thing that I could think. “That’s horrible. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he shrugged. “Thanks.”

“I hope things work out,” was all I could manage, and I meant it, no matter how lame it sounded.

As we parted ways, I was left with that same feeling I’d had getting out of the cab that night in San Francisco. That I wished I could do more. That I hoped I said the right thing. Riding home, my mood felt like the weather: cloudy, cold, and inscrutable.

The older I get, the more I figure some things out, and the more that other things confuse me. One thing I have always struggled to understand is why our connections with others can be some of the most REAL experiences that happen to us, yet are also the most fleeting. Why do some people come into our lives so powerfully, like forces of nature, making us believe in fate, reincarnation, or chemistry; only to leave so easily, suddenly, and completely?  You can’t hold on to anyone, any more than you can hold on to a cool breeze on a hot day.

I’m not just talking about strangers in a grocery store anymore. I’m talking about friends, family, acquaintances, lovers. Travel partners, classmates, coworkers, mentors. The older the you get, the longer that list of “People You Used to Know” grows, because of time, space, circumstances, or choice. And like a note scrawled on a napkin, the only thing you have left are their ideas — the way they impacted how you think, act, and the life choices you made. One of my favorite quotes is this, by writer Chuck Palahnuik: “Nothing of me is original. I am the product of everyone I have ever known.” And that’s what you get to keep.

When people leave, you rarely get to say how you really felt, or you prefer to leave most of that stuff unsaid. It’s just too awkward or strange to tell people how much they meant to us, inspired us, or hurt us. We can tell a total stranger our deepest secrets, but somehow we can’t tell the people who matter most, how they made us feel.

I will never understand why some of the most influential people in my life faded away slowly, or disappeared abruptly. The only consolation is that I did have them close to me for the time I did. If you are reading this, know that you made those moments, days, months, or years just a little bit brighter and more interesting, like a stranger in a grocery store. And that I probably still think about you from time to time, whether I’m able to tell you that or not.

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4 thoughts on “Strangers in a Grocery Store

  1. I’m procrastinating working on this Monday morning and I decided to peruse your blog a little. I absolutely LOVE this. You put into words what I feel sometimes but have never truly been able to describe. We encounter so many people throughout our lives, and it’s impossible to keep them all close. But, we can cherish what they’ve shown us, remember what they’ve taught us, and confidently know that they have passed through our lives for a reason.

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