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Letter: When you’re a stranger

I almost miss strangers during this stay at home, shelter-in-place time in our lives. I could go full bore and emphatically say that I miss strangers. However, that would not be true.

I don’t miss that woman who sat behind my wife and me last year at a Gary Allan concert in Stockton who “sang” along with him during almost every song. I found myself wishing that a cat in heat trying to claw a chalkboard would drown her out.

I don’t miss that guy seated in front of me on the plane who reclines his headrest as soon as he gets comfortable making my space that much smaller in a plane that’s designed to be the human version of a cattle car cramming as many passengers on board that will “fit.”

I don’t miss that young woman on a New York subway a few years ago who almost knocked me over squeezing into a seat that my wife was about to sit in who, in response to my sarcasm, opened a Bible to demonstrate her piety.

Then there was that conversation that I overheard while dining at a local restaurant. Couple A was telling couple B how much they had enjoyed a recent vacation on a Caribbean island. Mrs. A had been concerned because it was raining on the island when their plane to the vacation destination took off. But she prayed and God answered her prayers because the sun came out as their plane landed. The island has an extremely high rate of poverty, disease and child mortality. I wanted to ask her why she prayed to a god who put the comforts of her vacation above the lives of the people on the island she was temporarily sharing. I did not. There are times when I choose to exercise discretion in order to avoid embarrassing my wife. Perhaps not as often as she would like.

But there are some interactions with strangers that I remember fondly. I do tend to at least say, “Hi, how are you?” to people sitting next to me but I don’t usually carry on a conversation unless invited to do so. There are also times when I throw myself into other peoples’ conversations.

Last year at a Boz Scaggs concert in Napa, a couple guys behind us couldn’t remember the name of the band that had recorded one of the songs that was being played before the concert. One guy suggested Los Bravos (Black Is Black). It wasn’t. I suggested Quicksilver Messenger Service (Fresh Air). They thanked me. One guy then remembered seeing Quicksilver with the Airplane in San Francisco back in the day. (I used to be a disc jockey.)

I once chose to inject myself into a “conversation” in a beer line at Yankee Stadium. Two highly agitated guys were loudly “discussing” which New York baseball team, the Yankees or the Mets, had fielded “better” all star players over the years. Hey. It’s New York. Tourists might mistake that kind of discussion as an argument and, if so, smartly avoid taking part. Not me. I had no such concerns. I was born in NYC. My dad and Uncle Walter were born and raised in Brooklyn, as had been their parents. I had relatives in Peekskill, Fishkill, Poughkeepsie and Albany. I was wearing a Yankees ballcap. And I knew that some young New Yorkers with a few beers just needed to be heard over the din of 8 million residents and 175,000 visitors per day.

I suggested that perhaps we could focus on the great ballplayers who had worn both uniforms. Players such as Daryl Strawberry, Dock Ellis, Tony Fernandez, Dwight Gooden, Ricky Henderson, David Cone, Al Leiter, Yogi Berra… People in the beer line who had not been verbalizing their opinions were nodding their heads. The two antagonists starting naming players, too. I felt a small buzz. My beer line comments had diffused a brewing crisis. I had nipped it in the Bud.

A few years ago my wife and I were at a Steely Dan concert at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles. There was a woman a couple rows behind us who had obviously consumed way too much alcohol and was still drinking. I asked the attractive and much younger couple next to me whether they had noticed that the volume of alcohol consumed was correlated to the loudness of that person’s cackling? They laughed. They had made the same comment to each other. I asked why they were amongst mostly older folks at the concert. They answered and asked me a similar question.

I explained that I had had a backstage pass to interview the band after an El Paso concert 40 some years before on Steely Dan’s first tour as Steely Dan. I remember the couple laughing when I told them that Steely Dan had taken the band’s name from a steam-powered dildo in the novel The Naked Lunch. Ahh. Good times with strangers, except for that drunk behind us.

And last year I struck up a conversation with a Japanese American gentleman from Orange County who happened to be watching the 4th of July parade with us in Monterey, California. As we saw the Monterey County Republican Party parade entry walk by with Trump MAGA signs he told me how his parents had met at a California Japanese American internment camp (Manzanar) during WWII.

I guess the lesson here is that what I really miss is interacting with family and friends but every now and then strangers can add something positive to my life as well. Be safe. Be covered. Be smart. Socially distance. And avoid being yelled at by strangers with KKK signs, MAGA hats, swastikas and angry spittle. It’s not good for you.

— Charles Wieland,

Retired Madera County Superior Court Judge

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