I do a lot of walking. The nearest bus stop is several blocks away, and BART (our local rapid transit) is a few blocks further than that. Go a few blocks further, and you encounter a good food store, several good, cheap eating places, a neighborhood pub, a drug store (or whatever we call them now), two coffee shops, a copy store… you get the idea. Here in the flatlands of North Oakland, near the Berkeley border, I can find pretty much all I need within a few minutes walk. It’s one of the great things about urban living.
So it is, that I often find myself approaching another walker, coming toward me, and here is what happens: in the first few seconds, I feel annoyed. I was enjoying my walk. Now I have to deal with a moment of urban awkwardness. I quickly stifle the annoyance as being Wrong Thinking- not the way the person I want to be should be reacting. Then, the Checking Out begins. What kind of person is this? Gender? Race?(Let’s be honest, here.) Clothing? Body language? Age? Hands visible? General, overall impression? All this takes another second or two, then, based on my internal computations, I decide what to do, and this is where things get interesting.
I am sometimes accused by friends of being excessively nostalgic. Most of my friends are younger than I, and I’m given to understand that any amount of nostalgia expressed is amusing at best, and annoying if I persist. I’m sensitive to this kind of criticism (however well intentioned), because I am in my seventy-fifth year and I, too, think there are few things more boring than an old guy, talking about how things used to be. That said, there are things like common civility that I still cherish, and one of the ways I practice civility is to greet people, when and where I can. The question is, (assuming I don’t know the approaching person), is this a “greeting situation”, or not? A lot goes into the decision. If the person is female, does she look tense or frightened? If so, I will give her all the physical and psychic space I can. I don’t think I’m a very imposing person, but I am a man, and I understand there are issues that must be respected. If I’m approaching a man, does he look relaxed or withdrawn and tense? If he is already staring fixedly at a point behind me, I’m not going to attempt to break into his defenses, and I’ll pass him without speaking.
If, however- and this happens more often than you might think- the approaching person gives off signals, so subtle as to be virtually invisible, that he or she is willing to acknowledge the existence of another person, then, I let a genuine smile come to my face and, as I make a millisecond of eye contact, I say, “Hi”.
Small, but amazing things can happen at that moment. Sometimes the person will just return my brief greeting and, with a flash of eye contact. pass on but, sometimes, the person will amaze me by really looking at me, smiling and saying “Hi, how ya doing?” To which I usually reply, “Alright, so far. Yourself?” “Doin’ alright”, the person will answer, and then we’ve passed.
Doesn’t seem like a big thing, these few words, a quick smile for a stranger, but in that moment I think we’ve spoken volumes to one another about who we are and what we would like the world to be. In fact, in that moment of shared chance-taking we’ve created the world we want, in the little corner of it that we inhabit. I pass on, still smiling, filled with gratitude for a stranger’s generosity, and a feeling of hope. Two strangers, passing on a gritty, urban street, recognized each other’s common humanity, and signaled that recognition with a smile. Once you get something like that started, who knows where it might end?