Wednesday, March 07, 2007

the kindness of strangers

When I was younger, prone to introverted reflection and angst, I would often reflect on missed opportunities. In fact, I thought about missed opportunities a great deal. They were usually to do with girls, the failure to follow up on a glance or a drunken conversation, or a night spent chastely with a near-stranger thinking there would be plenty of time for all that later when it never came to pass. But not just that, sometimes it would be trips to pubs or visits to the school library, when you would trade grateful smiles with someone else nearby who knew enough to be on your side - sides being very important to a teenager. One particular time - I think I recall telling Dan this a while ago - I remember being 16 or so, circling and looking for a seat and then being beckoned to a table in a crowded Burger King (other fast food restaurants are available) by a beautiful girl happy to share her table with me. I panicked and rushed backwards, claiming a recently vacated table and then feeling too sick to eat. A missed opportunity. This is the kind of thing I would turn over in my mind.

These days, of course, I am rather better adjusted and not so keen for the approval of strangers, but I still know the feeling sometimes. I'm writing this from my hotel room in Birmingham, and having had dinner out I called into a nearby pub fancying a pint and happy to read my book uninterrupted. But I sat next to the quiz machine and almost immediately a trio of youngish brummies, probably students, gathered around it, shouting and swearing and really quite obviously failing to win. Once or twice the girl, noticing me sitting nearby, said 'ask him!', but both times her companions reached over to claim an answer, making the approach unncecessary. Each one in turn traded a smile with me, and I sat, putting my book down, finding a phrase forming on my lips, something like "oh, it's really hard watching people do a quiz without joining in", or - at a moment when they were fumbling for a ten pence piece - "I've got one". But on each occasion I held back, not for the same reasons I did so when I was a nervous teenager (for fear of rejection) but just because I easily imagined another, better moment to say hello to these nice, similar people who were drinking beside me. And then, of course, the opportunities disappeared, and they retreated from the machine and then from the pub. I was left wondering how my evening would have been altered had I bitten the bullet and said hello; not envious, but wondering at an opportunity I'd failed to take. For a second I was seventeen again, it was strange.

5 comments:

Michi :o) said...

...i'm not sure if that makes sense, BUT....kindness is generally lacking in socitey and if you felt kindness coming from that stanger, then see it as something special, somthing that makes you smile and appreciate it... just don't see it as a missed opportunity because you also need to be kind to yourself :o)...

Ali P said...

Lovely blog. You're right though, the smallest gesture or thing can have such a huge impact on your day and how things pan out.

Being on business alone is tough at times and often tends to encourage periods of quiet introspection.

During my visit to Leeds we visited a bar for some football. I was horribly hungover and in dire need of a cup of tea. I asked the guy behind the bar who said his hot drinks machine had broken, I must have looked forlorn as he said to me 'Tell you what, I'll nip out the back quickly, we've got an old kettle in the staff room. I'll knock you up a cuppa for free and bring it upstairs to you'. I was thrilled and went back upstairs beaming. Minutes later the scruffy friendly face appeared with some steaming hot tea in an old chopped mug, clearly rescued from several days festering in the sink. It was the best cup of tea I've ever tasted. He apologised for the mug and pottered away. I wanted to rugby tackle him and give him a hug. Instead I gave him a big thank you grin when we left.

Laura said...

It's always quite hard to talk to strangers, i recently went to a gig on my own and when i arrived the venue (a tea shop) was virtually empty, aside from a group of people who all appeared to know eachother. I felt increasingly awkward waiting round sipping my tea (i needed a beer!) but after a while the boy next to me started chatting to me and it was lovely and felt quite natural and not at all weird! So i encourage you to do the same. I always feel a bit too shy to do so but after this I may try and talk to people if the occasion arises. :)

jonathan said...

Laura, we've talked about this before! Stop going to gigs in tea shops! It is not appropriate to attend rock and roll events in tea shops unless you are the feyest of indie-snobs, which you are not. The 'group of people who appeared to know each other' were old ladies, and you are at risk of sacrificing the unknowable aura of danger surrounding your online persona by admitting to such attendence.

That aside, I shall bear your sage comments in mind.

Laura said...

Hmm, but the teashop's lovely! Okay it's a bit too twee for some and perhaps even me. But i do quite like tea.. ahem.