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Talking To Strangers: Sunday musings…5/5/23

“You want to escape winter and you are looking at a map Quebec City? The weather app says it’s zero degrees there!” “Now you know why I prefer looking at paper maps.” –Frazz

“The map is not the same as the territory.” Ray Nayla, The Mountain in the Sea

Beth and I have just returned from an adventure in south Florida experienced in two parts. We followed Hero, Beth’s epic dressage horse, as he spent a part of “Season”, as the Floridians call it, in the equestrian mecca that is Wellington. When folks asked me where I was headed I told them that Beth was following her horse, and I was following my Beth! In truth, absent Hero and our friends who train both him and Beth, Wellington holds very little of interest for me.

Which is why I make it a point to talk to strangers there whenever I can.

Do you do this? Talk to strangers? I make a special point to do this all the time, but I make a particular effort when I am far afield from my home coordinates. Whether playing at home or away, talking to strangers puts me in “the territory” rather than simply placing me on a map. I’m pretty good at it, actually. Likely due to the potent combination of both nature and nurture at home (my mother is famous for chatting up literally any poor soul who is even momentarily motionless in her vicinity) and the necessity of doing so on the daily at work (I am a physician who sees dozens of patients each day). Breaking the ice and starting a conversation is second nature, and thankfully I have a keen sense that alerts me when a stranger (or I) might wish to remain strangers.

We chatted up any number of strangers over our 2+ weeks in Florida. Have you ever flown Allegiant? They don’t have a bulkhead on the port side in the front of the bus. This left us sitting knee to knee with the flight attendants on the way up and down. One of them literally couldn’t make eye contact, either with us or their teammates; no chatting there. On the other hand we did get some giggles out of the other flight attendant. She sent us off with a huge smile and best wishes for the trip ahead. Friendly banter with the rental car garage attendants resulted in two super-sized upgrades.

We spent just a little bit of extra time with every single person who responded to tiny bits of outreach. I thought I was educating the seemingly pushy owner of a surf shop who was trying to sell me a pair of Maui Jim sunglasses (we sell more of these than anyone else in Cleveland). While discussing the fact that thus far it is a physical impossibility to make a clear, un-tinted polarized lens we discovered that he is actually a particle physicist on break from Berkeley filling in for family. We looked him up on Google Scholar; he’s the real deal! Maybe my poking at his sales pitch will turn into an idea that benefits anyone who ever struggled with glare while driving at night.

A waitress in Stuart was so excited to tell us about the hidden gems in her town that she wrote down her “must see” list on the back of the proverbial napkin. Her highlight was “Blowing Rocks”, a natural phenomenon at the local beach where the incoming tide, aided by a favorable wind, sends water through porous beach rocks and creates a kind of surging geyser. Very cool. The owner of a tack shop we visited for an “emergency” equipment fix spent 33 years in Oklahoma trying to move back to NY. Banter with her about “fraidy pits” led to a side trip to the local Italian deli for lunch on a day when we were at risk of defaulting to Subway. I literally bumped into a woman pouring coffee in the French bistro where we got breakfast each morning. Her accent said Massachusetts; sure enough, she was from Worcester. When I told her I was from Southbridge she asked if I was French. I sent her off giggling with my Mass/Rhody/Canuck patois ringing in her ears.

But it was two more significant instances of “talking with strangers” that really made the second leg of our Florida adventures memorable. Our outbound departure was kind of a disaster. I knew that my back tires needed to be replaced. It was my plan to do it in the beginning of the week when we returned. Honest! Really, I was. So of course we had a blow-out on the way to the airport. Thankfully it happened about 200 yards from an exit on the highway, and we limped into a gas station/convenience store right across the street from the off ramp. Out comes a stranger, a young man in a pulled-up hoody, who looked over and asked if we were OK.

Turns out he was a tire mechanic! More than that, he is a tire mechanic who talks to strangers. Here we were with a totally flat tire, 35 or so miles from home and still 15 miles from the airport. Now, anyone who knows Beth is assuming that she was just gonna change that tire, impressing the crap out of that tire mechanic along the way. Of course she was. She can do pretty much anything. Except that our car doesn’t have a spare since it is shod with “run-flat” tires. Even Beth had no idea what that really meant. Our new friend the tire mechanic pulled an air compressor that you plug into your car and tried to pump nus up. No love. An inspection of the tire revealed a tear the the sidewall/tread junction. So it was 15 miles of back roads at 35 miles and hour (the run-flats supposedly will go for 50 at 50mph) with the blessing of the stranger/expert who was willing to talk with us.

And if we hadn’t gotten on that plane we never would have struck up a conversation with Max!

Meeting Max was a classic in the “talking with strangers” canon. Anyone who reads my drivel (or who followed my adventures “Drinking with John Starr” on Facebook) knows that I have a ton of fun with wine and spirits. I also have this little quirk, always on the lookout for something new, and preferably different from what everyone else might be drinking. Anyway, there we were at the festival that is Total Wine and More in Wellington, a store so fabulously stocked with spirits unobtainable in Ohio that we make an annual pilgrimage. We were there to pick up the ingredients for a cocktail to accompany that evening’s crab fest, and I planned to seek out a couple of prized, “can’t get ’em” aged rums.

Which is where Max came into the picture. One of the store managers suggested a couple of his favorite rums and offered us a taste. Max tagged along and proceeded to give a 3 minute master class in tasting rum. The fact that I agreed with his off-the-cuff tasting notes as he eviscerated the poor manager’s suggestions prompted me to invite him back to the rum aisle to review my purchases and make suggestions. It turns out that his entire career has been in the spirits industry specializing in rum. It’s a rather longish story from here, but the Reader’s Digest version is that he changed half of my selections at Total, and then hunted down 3 gems for us while he was shopping for himself in Miami the next day. Oh yeah, and when he delivered them to our VRBO he brought along all of the fixin’s and made us one of the best Mai Tai’s Beth and I have ever had!

The moral of this story is easy and it is obvious: a map is nothing more than the “where” of where you are going. What makes being there worth the trip is the “who” that you encounter once you’ve arrived. The adventure of actually being in the places you see on the map more often than not begins with, or is certainly much more interesting, when you talk to strangers. It’s easy, and it’s fun. Tonight we will make a Mai Tai, raise our glass, and offer a hearty toast to Max and the other strangers to whom we talked, and who helped make our trip an adventure.

I’ll see you next week…

2 Responses to “Talking To Strangers: Sunday musings…5/5/23”

  1. March 6th, 2023 at 6:46 am

    Nancy Leach says:

    Another gem! Speaks to the power of serendipity that becomes available to a curious and open mind. One correction… I believe “The map is not the territory” should actually be attributed to the early 20th century philosopher, Alfred Korzybski. I only know this because I referenced it in my first Master’s thesis (1978)- a suggestion from your and Beth’s old Uncle Joe:)

  2. March 6th, 2023 at 10:44 am

    drwhite says:

    Thanks Nancy! The quote came from a novel and was unattributed. I’ll make the update!

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