In Search of

January 22, 2010

I wonder if I have a stamp on my forehead that says, I.S.O. life advice. Apply within. 

In the last few months, strangers have been offering me lengthy discourses on the how-to and wherefore of a life well lived. They find me – in the grocery store, in line for a movie, on street corners – and their eyes travel to mine, inexorably drawn like a moth to a house on fire. Maybe I send off smoke signals. Maybe it’s just that I notice them.  

Back in my days as a city dweller, I was adept at sidestepping strangers who looked like they had something to say to me. Second nature for hardened urbanites everywhere, I’d stare into the mid-distance and blow past like Amtrak at a signal crossing. I honed my skills in Berkeley, California, where people on the street are full to bursting with cosmic insight they’re itching to share (and I use the word itching in its most literal form here). I’m not over-stating when I say I developed gymnastic avoidance skills.  

These days I live in the ‘burbs where one is less apt to encounter clusters of muttering prophets. That does not mean, however, that unsolicited advice is absent. I am older now, and considerably happier than I was in my urban days, and maybe this acts as a sort of psychic welcome mat, because surprisingly often – over the turnips, in line at a bathroom, while waiting for the walk signal – a stranger will home in on me. I smile, and sometimes speak. I swear that’s all I do. And then they are recounting stories about their diabetes, the wife who is bedridden, the son at war, the old dog on dialysis. I am suddenly, overwhelmingly, privy to the intimate details of their lives. Usually the encounter ends with a litany of warnings and advice, sometimes with just a smile and a shrug. When the person turns to go, it is with an attitude of  - what –satisfaction? Relief? 

I feel that in listening, I have somehow helped. But occasionally I succeed only in enabling habitual monologuers who might best be shut up. Recently, while volunteering at my children’s school during our county’s H1N1 mass-inoculation, a teacher’s aid joined me to watch the kids for allergic reactions. He seemed friendly, and I thought, how nice to have someone to talk to while watching the sleepy high schoolers seated in front of us. Our conversation, however, soon became a one-man dissertation as he began to instruct me on the pitfalls of child-rearing, and how he himself had triumphed. Privately I disagreed with him on just about everything he said, but he was on a one-way roll with his instructive narrative. It would have been like arguing with a self-help audiobook, as with pride he told how he’d turned his son into a perfect specimen of young manhood. When his hour was up he shook my hand without another word and returned to his classroom duties. On my break I checked my forehead in the bathroom mirror, in case it now read, I.S.O. self-affirmation lecture. Line forms here.

That same day, I stopped by a local Safeway with my 14 year-old son Julian for salad makings. This wasn’t my usual Safeway, and I didn’t know the stocky, grey-haired man loading onions into the bin. (Kevin, my regular produce guy, and I are on a first-name basis, our conversations having evolved way beyond the usual, “You want Romain? Hold on – I’ll get you some fresh from the back.”). 

Julian and I marveled aloud at the huge sack of onions the man was hefting. That was all it took. He put down his load and his box-cutter, wiped his hands on his apron, and then proceeded to tell us that he was about to retire after 35 years and how his body had been wrecked by the grueling work, and then confessed that his liver, kidney and bladder woes were due to youthful hard living, rather than to the honest, back-breaking work of labor. Suddenly his whole focus shifted to Julian. “You got to start taking care of yourself now – don’t wait! Cut out the sugar and red meat! I had my share of drinking and all the rest and let me tell you, you can’t get it back. And money! Save your money, kid! There’s nothing so important as that!” He followed with a lengthy outline for a savings plan my son should follow now -  how he himself had been born again– which had saved not only his soul but his life, and about a buddy who’d squirreled away a dollar a day and now owned a million dollar condo in Florida. 

Finally the man reached out and shook Julian’s hand. “So remember what I said. Some day, you’ll think about the Produce Guy and what he told you, and maybe you’ll come back and see me when you do.” Julian dutifully thanked him and we continued on our way. 

I assumed he’d be sniggering by the next aisle, but he wasn’t. As we perused the two-for-one sale on pasta, he said, “That was pretty cool for that man to give me all that advice. Maybe I will start saving my money. I think I just might remember the Produce Guy,” Smiling, he reached for the fettuccini. 

And I thought, it’s people like you, my boy, who keep ‘em coming. Is that a stamp I see on your forehead? But I was proud of him. While rationally I know that he’ll still eat hamburgers and all those sugary cereals he loves so, and that money will continue to flow through his fingers as it has always done ever since he realized what it could buy him, at least he listened, providing a service by lending an ear.

I’d guess that’s all people hope for when they buttonhole a stranger and pour out cautionary tales. They just need to be heard by anyone who will give them the time of day.


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