Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Geary Street’s Familiar Strangers

Throughout the course of your day, do you expect to see certain strangers at specific times? I’m not talking about the guy who takes your order at Noah’s Bagels. (For me, it’s Ahmed.) Or the barista who makes your latte at Boudin Bakery. (It’s Miguel, the one with the strange accent and black fingernail polish). Or the hooligan behind the counter at the liquor store who hollers, “How you doin’? You still livin’ around here? Whatcha up to tonight?” and then takes five dollars off your bottle of already-reduced cabernet. (That would be James). And I’m not talking about how, each evening at 7:52 p.m., you hike down O’Farrell Street and pass the Laundromat that’s attached to your apartment building and glance through the window to see the same woman mopping the same spot in the same corner of the floor. 

Yes, it’s a fresh dose of déjà vu, but it’s not what I’m talking about.

All those folks work for companies that schedule their employees for the same shifts every week. But what about the strangers without set schedules? The ones you see on the streets every day but never talk to? After taking regular note of their presence, you wonder about their personalities, their journeys, and the meaning of your encounters.

You see, for six months, Alexa knew that if she rounded the corner of Geary Street at 8:37 a.m. on her way to work, she’d get stuck behind a prehistoric Asian couple: a man who stood five-feet tall and weighed 100 pounds (on a good day), and a four-foot-seven-inch woman about as heavy as one of Alexa’s arms. She was Big Foot next to them. The duo shuffled down the sidewalk at a turtle’s pace, but Alexa couldn’t get around them because everyone else tried to get around them at the same time, which created a persistent bottleneck. Of course, the man and woman were oblivious and moseyed along their merry way.

After a few weeks, Alexa grew accustomed to looking at the back of the Asian shufflers’ heads. She began to notice little details about them. The lady grasped the man’s arm tightly, while her free hand, weather beaten, touched the metal cart they pushed together.

Where are they going? Why the cart? What’s in the cart? What on earth are they wearing?

Alexa grew more curious every day. She must have been too afraid to ask these questions, so she made stories up about where they came from and what they did. In Alexa’s imagination, they were Uma and Melvin, proud parents of five children and fulfilled grandparents of ten babies. They’d owned a Laundromat all their lives. Three years ago, they were forced to sell the Laundromat to their middle child, Kim. Uma and Melvin had grown too old to run the Laundromat, but they intended to keep the business in their family, as they’d spent so many years building it. Every day, Melvin pushed their metal cart filled with laundry supplies to the building while Uma hugged his waist for support. She suffered from Multiple Sclerosis, and her muscles challenged her strength often.

One day, Alexa rounded the corner and didn’t see Uma. Melvin hobbled along, though, his glossy bald head hanging like he’d just lost the love of his life. Naturally, Alexa thought he had. She called her mom in a panic while keeping a few paces behind Melvin. Don’t worry, her mom said, comforting her. It was as if Alexa had called about a close friend.

Ecstatic, Alexa spotted Uma the next day. The old lady looked revitalized, new. What had happened to her? Alexa wondered. It must have been something drastic, because Mel looked heartbroken. And Uma does the same thing every single day. She walks on Geary Street at 8:37 a.m. What had caused her to alter this custom? Alexa’s mind went crazy thinking about the possibilities, but she realized she’d probably never know the truth. And then she wondered how a stranger could have touched her life like this – especially when the stranger didn’t even make her bagel (at Noah’s) or coffee (at Boudin) in the mornings. For Jeez’s sake, she’d never even spoken to the lady.

But that’s the thing about familiar strangers. You never know how they’ve impacted you until they’re gone.

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  1. This is such an amazing story, by far my favorite in the mix! The familiar stranger is one of the best aspects of living in a city- they really do enhance my curiosity.