7 Things I Learned Embedding With Total Strangers
During a lonely year, I entangled myself with horse racing gamblers, renegade aquarium attendants, wizened hostel dwellers, and hundreds of friendly randos.
The cultural meaning of strangers tends to be fear-oriented: they are shadowy and dangerous. That’s often with good reason, but it’s also reductive. “Strangers” is really just a shorthand for “everyone else.” That’s a pretty wide-ranging category, to preposterously understate it! In my encounters letting everyday situations escalate at the dentist, in the grocery store, on trains, strangers were also scratched up lottery tickets to spontaneity and poetry.
The pandemic has understandably strained our relationship to those we don’t know, but hopefully as the vaccines kick in, the social distance we’ve had to cultivate can begin to shrink sometime soon. Because in addition to danger and shadows, there are many spoils to be found among strangers. They affected me so profoundly that I wrote a book, No One You Know, about my interactions with them. Here are some field notes from my wanderings.
Strangers are salves for loneliness
We spend a lot of time focusing on how dangerous strangers are, but they can also be healing. Part of the reason I spent so much time with random people was because I felt alone and isolated, open more than usual to whoever tided onto my shores. It was never a replacement for the connections I was missing in my own life at that time (when I was going through a breakup and far from friends), but it helped ease the loneliness. When you’re engaging with someone completely random and unknown, the weight of the interaction can become more charged — amplified—and any kindness feels double or triple. The unexpectedness is part of the power. It made a big difference when the person sitting next to me in an ice cream shop spent a long time giving me restaurant suggestions after I arrived in a new city, when someone guessed I was a writer when I wasn’t sure myself. “Welcome back,” a drifter mumbled to me once, when a good mood snuck up on me. These little moments accumulate more than you’d expect. You can carry them with you.
Misunderstandings *can be* full of poetry
One of the compelling facets of my stranger interactions was the erroneous judgments, the miscalculations, the assumptions. You size someone up, they size you up, and two blurry hazes try to understand each other. All the while, we make countless micro-decisions about how to present ourselves. What do we reveal to people? What do we withhold?
Of course, that process can have horrifying consequences in some scenarios, like when police and bias are involved. In my own experience, it was deeply disturbing when a few strangers shared racist attitudes and perhaps assumed they were safe to do so because I looked like them. On top of that, I think the fact that I’m a man helped guard me against many dangers that women face from strangers. So it is with considerable privilege that I’m able to report back on some of the poetic gulfs in perception that I experienced.
A few that come to mind: I was unsure if a stranger guarding me in pickup basketball was the guy I’d been beefing with a while back and now just oddly friendly or if he was just someone else entirely. I love the ambiguity of that. Similarly, when a taxi dispatcher kept talking affectionately to “Steve” on her walkie-talkie, I vacillated between whether I thought he was a driver — or her husband. I liked that I couldn’t quite tell, that affection could perhaps flow outside of labels. Once, as a neophyte tour guide, I was standing outside the graffiti-filled Germania Bank in New York, which had been shut down for perhaps a century or longer. I was contemplating what to say about it for a historical tour, fancying myself an intellectual, the meaning of its many rooms and the artists who’d passed through its second life as a house. Then I heard something. A guy in torn clothing chuckled to himself and I realized he was talking to me.
“They closed, man!”
Encounters offer more than just connection
You’re not going to connect with everyone. Many strangers I met are not necessarily people I’d want to be my friends or even reunite with for a cup of coffee. (Some I would in a heartbeat!) But even so, each interaction still offered something, if I let myself be open to it. The gift of a new thought, a story to tell my roommate at the time, a tip about an unusual spice. Most often, these offerings were memorable things they said. In a tiny aquarium, a man came up to me and started describing what it was like to touch electric eels. He’d held them with his bare hands. “It’s not as big of a jolt as a spark plug on a running engine, but it’s more constant,” he said. Because stranger interactions can be so short and because you’ll likely never see the person again, the moment becomes charged, too.
People aren’t who you think
Hanging out with strangers retaught me a lesson I think that’s crucial to keep learning and relearning. We all used to be someone else. We’re more complex than just what can be briefly glimpsed. The bus driver may have once been the lead singer in his band. Maybe he still is. Maybe he calls the bus his “ship” or the “HMS bus” and delights in maintaining a tight schedule. Or maybe he doesn’t like his job at all, fell into it, and still scribbles World War II-era historical fiction at the depot once his shift is over. The epigraph I chose for my book was a line from Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project: “What you don’t know about me is still my life.”
Many people you believe to be rich are not rich. Many people you think have it easy worked hard for what they got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering. Many people who appear to you to be old and stupidly saddled down with kids and cars and houses were once every bit as hip and pompous as you. — Dear Sugar
Identity is highly contextual
Again and again, I watched people I’d just met — and myself — shift in real-time, depending on the setting, company, or mood. A woman bitterly complaining about a Black employee turned to me, a white man, and abruptly — and unsettlingly — transformed into a kind grandmother figure. A casino kingpin became deeply shy outside of the casino. I felt confident in one city, paranoid in another. Different strangers called forth different sides of me. “We are all fifty people,” a person I shared a car with told me. If anything, I’d say she was undercounting.
It’s rewarding to skip small talk
Counterintuitively, it can feel good to tell strangers some personal things. They don’t know who you are and you likely won’t see them again, so it can function almost like a transient, human confessional, from time to time. I don’t mean your deepest secrets, but maybe something like admitting that you’ve been struggling in a new job in the middle of a conversation you struck up with someone in the supermarket line. Something you aren’t ready to admit yet to a friend, since that job looks so shiny to everyone. The taxi dispatcher told me she felt she was in decline, so I was okay telling her I’d been feeling that about myself, too. We laughed, told each other more. The reward is potentially high — not just a catharsis but also a blast of energizing connection and relating with this unexpected person. Strangers are very often warm-hearted to other strangers. It can be a wild ride when you let a conversation go off the guide rails. I’m not recommending that we all become TMI machines — just that we open ourselves to taking small chances in conversation. The risk is relatively low, since you can just walk away if what you say isn’t received with kindness, quickly discounting this stranger as a random person who is *already* turning back into a blur.
We’re all strangers but —
That’s a good thing. In pop culture, there is a certain cynical maxim that “you never know anyone, not really,” and the framing is often negative, like those close to you may be Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence, secretly a killer in some other life. But apart from the most dramatic examples, some mystery is often a good thing in friendships and relationships and acquaintanceships, I think. As I spent more time with strangers, I began to wonder how well I knew the more regular players in my life. And I found, upon reflection, that they were often just as full of unknowns as strangers in some ways. Ultimately, that didn’t bother me. It turned out to be reassuring. It let them be mysteries, giving us more road to walk, instead of having to face the staleness of completion, of final knowledge. We’re always changing in little ways, sometimes in big ones. That there was always more mystery turned knowing into an epic project, something that never had to end, a path we could wander down for all time.
No One You Know is forthcoming from Outpost19 on May 4, 2021. It chronicles Schwartzman’s deepest, weirdest, and most memorable encounters with strangers, all revolving around the question of what does it mean to really know someone. Preorder a copy here.