Dispatches | August 31, 2009

My stepfather used to talk to strangers. No matter where we were—waiting for Chinese takeout, getting the oil changed, picking up a prescription at the pharmacy—he’d strike up what seemed like an hour-long conversation with someone. When I was a teenager, his habitual friendliness drove me nuts. I refused to go out into the world with him. I had no idea why he wanted to talk to people he didn’t know and would probably never see again. What was the point?

My husband has the same habit. He’ll talk to anyone, anywhere, at any time. After years of existing on the fringes of his conversations, I very recently decided I liked the idea and started talking to strangers myself.

In London this summer I was even more amiable than he was. I was the first to initiate conversation with our seat companion on our eight-hour flight. She was a surgical nurse at a hospital near Heathrow and was returning from a much needed vacation to even longer hours. Because of the recession the hospital had cut redundancies and was now operating with a skeletal staff. Sounds too familiar.

In fact, evidence of the recession was everywhere. My next memorable conversation was with Jimmy and Owen, two young, unemployed blokes from Ireland who were on a week-long bender in London. Jimmy was asleep on his canvas bag, but he woke up and we all four chatted under the awning of an Asian restaurant near Leicester Square while waiting out a rain storm. Both of them had made a small fortune in construction in Germany and the U.S. before the recession, and like many, hadn’t saved a penny of it.

On the river front in Southwark near the National Theater, a group of shirtless teenage boys were taking turns running up and then flipping over a curved concrete wall. Several of them got enough elevation to do twists before touching ground. They called themselves free runners, a sport I’d only read about and seen in director Anthony Minghella’s last film Breaking and Entering. They were happy to have their pictures taken. The skateboarders at a graffiti covered underpass weren’t as willing to talk or pose for pictures, but one let me take a spin on his skateboard while their too-cool female groupies snickered at me.

I’ve always been a people watcher and an eavesdropper, but as a writer I might have discovered sooner the value of talking to strangers. Who knows, maybe Jimmy and Owen will turn up in a story someday, though when Speer and I told them we were writers they intuited our intentions and made a cross of their fingers to ward us off.

“Don’t go tellin’ any stories about us,” Owen said as he hoisted his backpack onto his shoulder. They said their good-byes and then took off down the rain-glistened street to catch their train home to sober up and face uncertain futures.