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Suszynski: Beholden to strangers

Walking has taken on a new excitement recently. With the onset of the spring weather, the changing mask mandates and people emerging from their cocoons of winter, I find myself talking to strangers again.

On Friday, I was walking around a lake when an older woman and her husband pulled me aside.

“Look, right over there, do you see the blue heron?”



I looked through the cattails but couldn’t find the bird. She had me take another step and whispered, “Just by the edge of the lake.”

And then I saw the bird, its neck resting in a graceful curve, long yellow beak, the crest at the top of its head set in motion by the wind. I looked at the woman, then, at her husband, clearly amused at his wife but also clearly in the act of loving her. He smiled at me and nodded knowingly.



“I can’t believe it hasn’t moved with all our commotion,” I told her. “But, you know, I do love when they get up to go. And their wingspan, I love when they fly.”

This woman laughed and spread her arms, mimicking the flight of the bird. She patted me on the back and continued watching.

I have had a lot of these interactions lately — of strangers pointing things out, of people taking the time to ask meaningful questions. I have been thinking about these interactions because I am about midway through a book called “Tripmaster Monkey” by Maxine Hong Kingston, and I recently came across a passage that resonated with me.

The main character, Wittman Ah Sing, is standing at a crosswalk and observes people on the other side of the street: “At the corner across the street slouched a tough-s— girl with racoon make-up, black motorcycle jacket, short skirt, fruit boots. Wittman prepared for rude eye contact, but at the light’s change, she waited to walk slow with her old-world grandma. He slowed down too, an additional pedestrian body in the crosswalk against cars jumping the light. The girl bent down, speaking in kind Spanish to the babushka head.”

And then this line: “How to behold strangers: longer.”

As we emerge, I do feel as though we have longer. I find myself elongating my patience, my capacity for connection, and even my curiosity. I am curious about the people around me.

That stranger, she must love blue herons, just as her husband loves her for loving them. And what if I had brushed her off? Gave her that annoying wave of half acknowledgment? Then I would have never seen that magnificent bird, then I would never have seen that youthful joy in this stranger’s eyes. I felt as if I had been handed a gift with no strings attached. Except for maybe to pay it forward.

When I was a teenager working the summers as a lifeguard, I biked to work every morning. I had to pass a pond and carry my bike over my shoulders to hop across a small creek. One day, as I reached down to pick up my bike, I saw something orange in the grass near the water.

From a distance, it looked like a Ring Pop. But as I reached down to pick it up, I realized it was a baby turtle, small enough to fit in the scoop of my palm.

As I picked up the turtle to move it out of harm’s way, I heard a voice behind me. A little boy, who had sprinted ahead of his mother, was staring at my hand. I showed him the little turtle and let him hold it.

These moments with strangers remind me of another book called “Event Factory” by Renee Gladman. I am not sure “book” is quite the right word, maybe “experience” would be better to describe it. A linguist travels to Ravicka, a place that speaks its own language with various dialects.

The linguist spends most of the short book wandering around and meeting strangers. But their customs of greeting each other are very different. Their language requires a lot of deliberate physical motions. There is one passage in which the narrator mentions to a stranger that she is looking for a specific book by the author Amini.

The stranger responds empathically: “She was beside herself, as if mentioning Amini’s name was not the easiest thing a tourist could do. … Ravickians have a particular handshake that is reserved for occasions when they have no other way to show allegiance, when they have exhausted all creative possibilities of conveying intimacy, short of nakedness, and suddenly she had thrust it toward me.”

While we certainly do not have such formal customs at expressing connectedness, I have found there is a quality of joy that one entrusts to a stranger when you share even just a glimmer of an experience.

When I handed the little boy the turtle, he was frightened at first and closed his palm around the creature. But then he looked at me and I smiled at him, and he peeked under his fingers. Once his mother caught up to him, she put a hand on his shoulder. He relaxed a little and then touched the turtle’s orange shell.

He looked up at me, “Like candy?” he said. How to behold strangers: longer.


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