Strangers and Other Creatures

Right after the mask restrictions were eased recently, I noticed something strange. A woman seemed to be following me at Schnucks. At first, I assumed she happened to be shopping for the same things in the same order: celery, snow peas, avocados. But when she spoke, it broke my vegetable reverie.

Stranger danger. Maybe she was stalking me.

“I am just striking out today,” she hollered through her mask.

“Oh?” I said, wary of appearing too interested in case she wanted to sell me on a healthy new lifestyle or the divine lordship of Krishna.

“I can’t find fresh ginger anywhere! Already been to Walmart and Dierbergs and now here!” Still wary, I felt obligated to help her find it, since she’d hollered at me and all. I had to pick up Caroline from dance class, but this cry for help would not let me off the hook.

The ginger root was piled next to the avocados I’d just been picking through, so I said, “Oh, here’s some ginger – looks like you hit the jackpot!”

She thanked me a bit too much — she’d have found it herself in two seconds — and I headed on to other things on my list.

But she wasn’t done with me. It was her husband’s birthday, she said, and she wanted to make his favorite dish, which is Korean but not too spicy, and you definitely need fresh ginger, not this powdered stuff that some people think is ginger. Right, ha ha ha?

“Ha ha, right!” I laughed along. Cooking with ginger is a joyous occasion indeed.

Now, I’ve been grocery shopping in the off hours the entire pandemic and haven’t made small talk with a single person. This stranger, determined to include me in her ginger mission, gave me pause.

Then, the same thing happened the next day as I shopped for laundry detergent! A stranger asked what detergent I like, and I told her all about the pods that smell amazing.

The next day, it happened again. Browsing in Marshalls, I was stopped by a woman trying on shoes. “Aren’t these the cutest?” she asked. I looked around, unsure if she was talking to me. Emboldened by the ginger and detergent convos, I told her they were the cutest, and she should buy both colors.

So, three days, three chats with strangers. Is it just me, or have we turned a corner? We are so tired of bad news, so eager to feel normal, and so lonely for the oddest things, like small talk in the store.

When the pandemic first started, I’d hold my breath when I passed a stranger. I also avoided eye contact just in case droplets could be transmitted by gaze. (Can’t be too safe nowadays.) Shockingly, this wasn’t conducive to friendly interaction. But now that maybe, just maybe, we are on the other side, it feels okay to engage with others again.

A couple months earlier, my family had ventured out among strangers in Florida. After spending the past year only with people in our circle of work and family, the spring break beach experience was weird and overstimulating.

One morning at breakfast, we were seated six feet from a table of people for whom nothing was right. One complained that her coffee was too hot. Another felt slighted for having to sit in a patio chair while all the other chairs at the table were indoor chairs. Yet another complained that her egg whites were “too wobbly” and inedible. My blood began to boil hotter than the offending coffee. I hadn’t been around strangers for so long that I could not abide their grievances. I left our nice breakfast shaky with caffeinated rage.

I think the problem is I had turned inward — even more than before the pandemic — and had come to see strangers as threatening at worst and irrelevant at best. I was a grouchy hermit crab.

Yet the interactions in the grocery store and shoe department were oddly delightful. They stayed with me for days after.

I mean, the word isn’t wrong: strangers can be strange. But I’ve enjoyed peeking out of my shell. Who knows? Maybe the next time I’m shopping in the frozen section, I’ll spark a conversation about imitation crab.

-Em : )