It’s tourist season, and navigating the metro gets a bit hectic, so I’m standing as far away from other human beings as possible, leaning against the concrete half-wall hoping to cool myself off against it. I notice a young black woman standing about 10 feet away doing the exact same thing as me — leaning against a wall and avoiding eye contact with strangers. She looks about my age, her outfit is cute, and she has blue hair. Us Crayola-haired people aren’t super common in DC. We make eye contact for a split second, say nothing, look away. The next train is 13 minutes away. We continue casting meaningless glances all around the metro station as though it were a very interesting place. Eventually, we make eye-contact again, and I open my mouth to say, “I like your hair,” but she’s already looked away. I feel silly and ask myself, “Why would this stranger in a metro station want to talk to me? What, are we gonna be best friends now because we both have weird hair?” I go back to scrolling through Tumblr on my phone, occasionally looking up in the manner of a small forrest animal that must look out for predators while it eats.
On one of my furtive scans of the station, a man intercepts my gaze and saunters up to stand beside me, blocking my vision of the young woman I would have made eye contact with to silently plea for help if I needed to be rescued. He’s an older man, black, thin, with spots of grey in his short facial hair, and a sizable gap in his lower front teeth. He wore grey sweatpants and a white v-neck t-shirt, and stood closer than I would have liked.
He sighed in a way I took to mean, “Damn, there’s too many people in here.”
Without making eye contact, I said, “Yup. It’s tourist season.” And quick as that, we were having a conversation about Washington DC, race, class, and how the city has changed in the time he’s lived here — born and raised in the District, he says, but I didn’t ask how old he was. On one hand, it was one of those casual conversations you have where the subtext is simply, “As long as we’re standing here waiting for this train we might as well chew the fat a little.” On the other hand, in the matter of 30 seconds, I went from being afraid of this stranger to exchanging our views on why there’s such poverty in our nation’s capital and what’s been done to improve things lately. He seemed convinced things are slowly getting better in DC, especially as the Marion Barry crowd sifts out.
There’s always a risk when you talk to strangers in metro stations or on air planes — like the time I sat next to a preachy Hare Krishna on a six-hour flight from Philly to SF. Part of me wishes metro guy hadn’t come up and invaded my personal space because I really wasn’t comfortable with it to begin with. Another part of me is glad we had the chance to talk just because it’s good to connect with your fellow human beings now and then.
And I keep wondering about the blue haired woman who seemed so interesting. I felt I had no right or reason to so much as compliment her hair. Maybe talking to her would’ve been fruitless, but so what? Instead, I left this huge gulf between us where a man stepped in because he felt at liberty in a way that I did not. I’m not sure what to make of that, but I do think it’s related to the ways that women don’t reach out to each other. It might also be related to race, although I’m not sure. I think it’s related to a lot of issues that I don’t quite have the finesse to pin down.
Humans are an interesting species with our complicated social codes about who speaks to whom and under what circumstances. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we all just said “hello” to anyone we please just for the sake of being nice? I’m adding that to my Ideal World Wishlist.