I’m Grateful For Random Encounters With Strangers

How being open to serendipity has broadened this introvert’s life

I have known my husband since high school, so when people ask how we met they are expecting a typical high school sweetheart story. Or maybe the usual “introduced by a mutual friend”, or we shared a class. But actually, when we met he was new to the area, we were in different grades, had no friends or classes in common, and hadn’t even bumped into each other over a lunch break. When I tell the story of how we met, I say, “It’s because I walked up the stairs like his mother.”

It was the middle of one of the afternoon periods. I was returning to class following a guidance office appointment. For some unfathomable reason, I have always been able to remember what I was wearing that day: A fuchsia sweater, a jean skirt I had cut shorter, and a pair of hot pink tights (the sort worn with exercise leotards in a 1980's aerobics class). As I was walking up the stairs, I heard someone say, “You walk up the stairs just like my mother.”

I could have kept walking. I really wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone, and it had occurred to me maybe this was just some guy staring at my legs. But I just had to know.

“How is it that I walk up the stairs like your mother?”

“You walk like you couldn’t sleep in the middle of the night but didn’t want to wake anybody up as you walk on the stairs. My mother does that, like she’s sneaking.”

What kind of person notices that stuff, I thought. So, being the curious person I am, when I later saw the stairs boy drawing in a corner one lunch hour, I had to see what that kind of person enjoyed drawing (turned out to be scantily clad elves). And from there, a friendship grew.

My two closest friends are also due to either random or strange encounters. My best female friend was introduced, albeit in a really weird way. I was at a coffee shop with my room mate. One of the baristas was leaving the shop as her shift finished. My roommate accosted her on the way out, saying, “Hey, you should talk to Bethany before you go home because you have a lot in common.” We were both appalled (This is the same friend I take months to talk to. We could both easily spend weeks in solitude and not even notice there weren’t any people around). I had a recital to prepare for (I was a music student at the time). She definitely looked like she wanted to run away. My roommate said, “I’ll get a coffee while you meet each other.” I made the best of it and asked, “Got any idea why he thinks we should meet?” We spent an hour trying to figure out the possibilities. A friendship that has spanned more than 25 years was made.

I met my other closest friend while in the same coffee shop. I was eighteen years old. This was one of the rare occasions where I initiated an encounter (I don’t usually walk up to say hi to people I know, let alone those I don’t). He was being a typical “eccentric customer” type character. Every coffee house has a version of one, in my experience. He was doing tarot card readings and there was a stream of people coming and going from his table to have their cards read. In between he would loudly read from the newspaper and announce opinions. But for some reason his eyes kept on focusing on a particular table. He was really scoping out the people there. I could tune out his loud exclamations, but somehow his quiet scrutiny of the customer’s table. Then I realized he was scrutinizing me scrutinizing him. Finally I went to the table and said, quietly, “I feel bad for that person whose business you’re prying into. I don’t think they even notice.”

“I ascribe to the notion of blending in by being so ridiculously weird that people only notice the weirdness”.

It turned out he was doing some private investigation work that turned into long hours watching someone hang out in a coffee shop. He thought it was interesting I noticed what he was doing. Maybe I would be good at his line of work. Maybe I would be interested? I wasn’t. Turned out he wasn’t either after that job was done. A friendship was made.

And so the pattern continued. When the kids were little, I met another Mom because I walked past somebody’s house. A lady called out, “You’re the only other person who walks with their kids around here. Want a coffee with me?” We are still friends thirteen years later.

I spent two years in a really cool book club and potluck scene because the Mom of a new kid in my son’s class noticed me “actually reading something interesting” while waiting to walk my son home. The same lady took me shopping for my wedding dress when my husband and I decided to officially tie the knot after years of living together.

And there’s the time my tattoo artist remembered I was going to university in Cape Breton and asked if I could drive a friend partway back as she had been stranded in Sydney following a kidnapping. Say, what? Actually the truth. Life is sometimes stranger than fiction. We still keep in touch from time to time.

The thing is, the more I get my life together, the more I get good at saying “no” to the things I’m not focused on, the more I “get sh*t done”, the less room I leave for these encounters. And while I’m proud of myself for learning to be more focused and productive (I don’t feel bad patting myself on the back, building those skills took a lot of work), I don’t want to lose those types of opportunities because I am in too much of a rush to be curious about a stranger.

So, I remind myself of how lucky I am to have encountered the strangers I have since befriended. And I don’t run away when someone asks an odd question. And no, that wasn’t me you saw at the racetrack. But tell me about car racing.

I’m a business trainer specializing in workplace wellness and environmental sustainability. In my spare time I dabble as a mad scientist and street philosopher.

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