February 12, 2014

My 3 Year Old Niece Taught Me How to Talk to Strangers. ~ Carmela Caruso

Photo by Joseph Crachiola

I board one of the last outbound trains from Boston after midnight, take my usual stance in the middle doorway of the first car and look around.

A woman sitting across the aisle to the left is eating greedy gulps of ice cream directly from the pint that is still wrapped in a CVS plastic bag. She’s already swallowing the heaping mouthfuls before the tip of the spoon touches down into the carton again. Her eyes dart around and catch mine for a brief moment before I look away.

Beside her a man openly cradles a Pabst Blue Ribbon beside his thigh in his right hand. He takes unashamed swigs with penetrating eyes, daring someone to remind him that drinking in public is against the law.

Across the way another man in his late twenties or early thirties sits with his cell phone inches from his face, pressing away constantly at the screen, perhaps sending text messages, playing a game, or scrolling mindlessly through a social media site. He doesn’t glance up or even seem to notice the woman sitting directly beside him.

She is beautiful with dark hair and large brown eyes, dressed professionally on a train filled with people in jeans and sweat-pants. Her head is bowed down and she is crying softly, allowing the tears to run off her cheeks and into her lap.

I think of how callous it is for the man beside her to plug away on his cell phone, unaware.

Although I’ve never seen the woman before, I want to comfort her, reach out and hand her a tissue, place my hand on her shoulder, and ask if she is okay, but of course, like everyone else on the train car around me, I ignore her and stare straight ahead at my own expressionless face in the darkness of the window across from me.

Rewind several months earlier.

I am returning home from a trip to the New England Aquarium with my three-year old niece. We get to the platform just as a train is pulling out of the station and the overhead sign indicates it will be seven minutes before another train arrives.

Rows of flat wooden benches stretch out on the raised platform beside the tracks. Sitting on the second bench closest to the stairs is a mother with her two small children. One of them looks to be about the same age as my niece, the other is wrapped snugly in an infant carrier and peering inquisitively over her mother’s shoulder. Every other bench in the station is empty. I begin to lead my niece further down the platform, but she has other plans.

She skips over to the occupied bench and without hesitation sits down beside the little boy and smiles.

I say something futile like, “Let’s sit at this bench over here,” but she ignores me and the mother graciously slides down to make more room. My niece motions for me to sit by patting the space beside her.

“We’re coming from the aquarium,” the little boy says to my niece. She stares back, suddenly too shy to speak.

“Oh really,” I say, smiling at the mother and trying to hide my discomfort. “We were just there too.”

“Cool,” says the boy, then starts talking about all the fish he saw and asking my niece if she saw them too. They pass the seven minutes before the next train arrives talking, questioning, connecting.

We board the train together, continue the conversation, then part ways a few stops later. My niece and I transfer to a second train where she meets another three-year-old, jumps up on the seat beside him, and plays the drums as he strings the guitar on an iPad app.

There are no boundaries between her and the world and she shifts effortlessly from one situation to another.

Go to any public place, especially one that involves waiting—the train or bus station, doctors’ offices, airports, park. You will see children coming together to play regardless of any of the factors adults like to divide themselves by—age, race, ethnicity, physical ability. They join together without question, introduce themselves by name, and pass the time with play. Something like sitting beside someone on a bench and starting a conversation happens without hesitation.

At some point though, we lose this innate ability to connect to strangers.

Maybe it’s in school or after warnings from our parents, but suddenly we stand aloof, occupy ourselves with electronics, hardly notice those around us and when we do, we see people as potential threats rather than opportunities for conversation and connection.

Back in the present, sitting on the train home from a concert I attended solo. Glancing at the woman across the aisle crying, I can’t help but imagine what my niece would have done if she were with me. Surely she would have climbed up into the empty seat beside the woman, stared sweetly up at her and asked, “What’s wrong?” Maybe her presence, her innocence would have allowed the woman to temporarily detach herself from whatever it was that had caused her to cry.

We all crave human connection; it is in our nature to form friendships and relationships.

As much as I like to tout independence, I know that I too crave the energy one gets from being in good company. We can’t go through our lives alone and if we try to, we end up turning to other unhealthy addictions to fill the void. Maybe it’s overeating, drinking too much, or spending too many hours attached to electronics. Perhaps if we could put away the ice cream, the Pabst Blue Ribbon, the cell phone, and channel our inner three-year-old, we’d realize what it is we’ve been missing all along.

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Assistant Editor: Heather Hendry / Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo Credit: Elephant Archives


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Carmela Caruso