When I first moved to New York, I found that I was a bit of a magnet for encounters-with-strangers. I’d be sitting in the park reading, and a teenage evangelist would sit down with me and start parsing biblical passages. Riding the subway, a young man once put his headphones on my head and asked me to listen to a song he had written. Homeless people tended to tell me their stories when I gave them change. It became a bit of an epidemic, and in certain cases, a bit of a liability. It also didn’t seem to happen much to other people I knew who had just moved to the city. Several of my friends speculated that I tended to “look available,” by which they really just meant that I made eye contact and didn’t get up and walk away when people started talking to me.
Eventually, this started happening less. I’ve lived in New York for almost ten years now, and I have to say that over that time, I’ve found myself becoming more wary of what people are going to say to me when they stop me on the street (it’s often unpleasant; frequently offensive), or what someone might do if I don’t respond the way that they think I should. I’ve also just gotten much more used to carving out my own space–mentally, as well as physically–in an otherwise cramped and crowded city. I still cultivate relationships–albeit casual ones–with people I don’t know very well: the guy who works on the deli on my corner, the lady at the check-out counter at the grocery store, the sensei who runs the karate studio down the block, the maintenance staff who work around my office at NYU. But over time, I’ve become less ‘available,’ less open to random encounters with people I don’t know.
But I’ve been thinking that lately, I’m reverting a bit–as if now that I know that I won’t be in New York soon (eight weeks and counting), I’m suddenly much more willing to engage in those encounters all over again. Just last week, I found myself stopping in at the hair salon near my office, just to say hi to the hair dresser and beautician who have worked there for years. I chatted with a man about his adorable 15-year-old Norwich terrier who was walking leash-less down the sidewalk. I talked to retired woman working the counter at a thrift store about her six years training as a Buddhist and her aspiration to become a chaplain on a cruise ship. Sitting at a bar this weekend, I helped a waitress remember the convoluted take-out order that a difficult customer had placed a few minutes before. It feels refreshing, honestly, to be “available” again, and the right state of mind for both leaving this city, and starting again in another one.