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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Talking to Strangers in the Valley…and Elsewhere…

One dandy dahlia

If you want to gather the news, you have to talk to strangers. And the Ripple, you know, is by no means shy.When you think about it, how many friends and acquaintances wouldn’t be friends and acquaintances if you hadn’t first approached a stranger and engaged him or her in conversation. I was talking to a Valley friend the other evening, a friend, I might add, who a year ago was a total stranger. In 2001 Viviane moved to the Valley from Belgium with her husband Alain and son Tom. Gladys and I were struggling along the Upper Loop Road and happened upon Viviane crossing to collect her mail. I stopped, introduced myself, and that’s how our friendship began. Before this chance meeting I only knew her as that friendly lady who always waved when she passed me on the road.

Viviane shared with me a trait she found bothersome with us Americans: “People don’t seem to talk to each other,” she complained. “I like to talk to people standing in lines at check-out counters, but they don’t like to talk to strangers. It’s not that way at all in Europe.” I’m afraid she’s right. We Americans like our space, whether it is territorial—or emotional; it’s a cultural thing, a throw-back to our pioneer days when the wide open spaces of our vast continent were sparsely settled; when the nearest homestead was a day’s horseback ride away. That old Kentuckian Daniel Boone: when he heard the sound of a neighbor’s ax or could see smoke rising from a distant chimney, he felt crowded. “Give me elbow room,” said Daniel Boone. Europeans on the other hand have lived at each others’ elbows for centuries, are comfortable with this crunch of humanity. In Europe just a big stretch and you’re in another country!

Maybe it is because we Americans are always in a hurry, always on a “tight” schedule, always so busy rehearsing our daily commitments—our routines; even while waiting to be checked out with our purchases our minds are on a treadmill, churning away with a myriad of concerns. So if someone turns to talk to you, he’s entered your personal space, the perpetual treadmill abruptly brakes and you register that uncomfortable look that says, “Talk to someone else; I’m busy with my thoughts at the moment.” Or, “Leave me alone, old man. Don’t take advantage of me just because I’m held hostage by my place in line!” And you quickly return to your own business.

I make it a point to talk to strangers in the Valley whenever I can. There are my journalistic responsibilities to be sure, but you learn things from strangers. There was Marv Breece the birder. Toby Cantwell the falconer. Two zookeepers trying to retrieve a wayward falcon. I’ve met a game warden, an animal control officer, and the bridge technicians I mentioned in the last post. I directed a gentleman to the Barrell man’s residence a couple of months ago. He belonged to the American Veterans of Foreign Wars, was a veteran himself and a member of his post’s detail responsible for the proper disposal of worn out American Flags. This dedicated Vet needed a barrell from which to fashion an incinerator for appropriate flag burning. He even offered me a ride, which in deference to exercise I declined.

The diminutive Cambodian gentleman in the flower fields across from the now defunct Sky Valley Driving Range: after two years of friendly waves from me and hearty jingles from Gladys no longer scowls when I approach him (see post and photo 3/21/2010). I stopped to visit the other day and he returned my “Good Morning!” with a cheery greeting and a smile. Although I’m certain we’ll be on a first name familiarity soon, for the moment I’ll just call him Elijah Doolittle, the Valley’s male counterpart of Shaw’s Cockney flower girl Eliza. Elijah was bundling peony buds, and I learned he refrigerates them for three weeks to a month and then on demand brings them out to blossom. He laughs when I ask him what my wife would think if I kept bundles of buds in our fridge in suspended animation.

And then there was Sargent Bob (see post 7/26/2010), friendly and harmless enough when afoot, but a terror on two wheels when cycling in the Valley. A near collision with an inattentive Sarge on the shoulder of the Loop Road last summer may not have strained our friendship, but spur of the moment evasive action on my part strained some muscle in a rather sensitive area and frequently reminds me of the event whenever I’ve spent too much time in the saddle of the riding lawnmower,

Viviane tells me she makes a point of talking to strangers in checkout lines. And I do, too. Have for years. The way I look at it, my age allows me the courtesy of that privilege--as long as I preface my pronouncement with a smile, don’t overstep propriety of decorum or by no means become a bother. The lady in line behind you has a bundle of collard greens in her basket…. Ask her how she prepares them (“Simmer together the greens with a smoked ham hock for three or four hours…). Your dinner guests will be lavish with their compliments….

And today at Freddie’s for instance. A sign declaring sixty-eight cents a pound (Father’s Day special??) draws me to a display of broccoli. Right off I notice the crowns are long on stalk and short on the good stuff. I think, “A little stalk is tolerable, but too much stem is less than subtle, obvious price-gouging to me.” After all Freddie’s is selling the item by the pound, right? A bargain should be just that, so surreptitiously I snap off the excess of marrow from the first two stalks. A lady approaches the bargain table and abruptly halts my trimming. She begins to paw through the crowns. “Quite long on stalk, don’t you think,” I remark. She smiles, nods, and points to a crownless stalk. “Looks like someone else thinks the same.” Since the lady looks like she had only bargains and dinner on her mind, I admit to being the culprit. She smiles again, stuffs her produce sack—heavy on stalk--and heads off, I suppose, to the package sauces aisle. I’m about to abbreviate another stalk when a second woman sidles up from behind. Same greeting (… “a bit heavy on stalk….”); different audience. It’s a bit easier to confess my dastardly doings a second time. Instead of backing away or reaching for her cell phone to speed dial 911, she holds up a crown and points to the stalk. “I trim the end, peel the stalk, slice it thinly, and add it to my salad.” “Ah!” I say, “just like….” “Water chestnuts,” she finishes my sentence, fills her bag, and moves off to hold some tomatoes to her nose.

Such a simple yet practical way to utilize the whole of a vegetable, I think—get the full value from your money--and if I hadn’t talked to a stranger in the produce department of Fred Meyers, I never would have had such a practical idea myself.

So whenever possible, I say, smile and strike up a conversation with a stranger. I did with Viviane and came away with a friend. You might do the same, and if not, chances are you’d at least improve your salad. (The lady knew what she was about: our salad last night had that crunchy oriental texture of water chestnuts.)

However, if you’re afoot in the Valley, and a stranger stops to offer you a ride; and you notice there’s a chainsaw on the seat beside him; and he looks like he’s dressed for a Halloween party, this might be the time to heed that timeless advice your mother gave you and: “Never talk to strangers!”

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