Sunday, November 8, 2009

Ripples from an Egg-straordinary Conversation

he pooch and I headed out for our usual stroll the other morning, but suddenly the sidewalk morphed into a slalom. Every few feet we had to dodge the splatter of a raw egg.

Strange. I expected to see smashed eggs and pumpkins the day after Halloween—not several days afterward.

I smiled. Memories stirred of the bus ride I’d taken the afternoon before Halloween. I was traveling downtown to make my COBRA payment and visit with a few former colleagues. It was pouring rain so I took the first bus that stopped. Unfortunately, it was the least desirable route: seven miles of stop-and-go at every other corner.

Halfway through, as I was wondering whether I would fall asleep or heave first, a man sat next to me. Then he asked if it was okay to sit next to me, but he didn’t wait for my reply. He kept talking.

He’d been seated a few rows ahead of me earlier, until he had to move to let the person next to him exit the bus. I had sensed some discomfort of the people around him. Some distrust. So I braced myself for whatever was about to unfold.

The man seemed young but looked old. He was thin, not tall, well equipped for the rain with umbrella, raincoat, and hat. He talked incessantly.

This, I think, was the source of discomfort for others. He spoke as if word spaces didn’t exist. He quietly mumbled most of what he said and periodically enunciated some phrases at normal volume. His phrases came out in question form.

He was seeking conversation, or connection, and I did my best to oblige. He wanted to know why I didn’t have an umbrella or rain hat, whether children came trick-or-treating to my door, if I would be going to a Halloween party and what people did at those parties (he’d never been to one), but over and over again he wanted to know why people threw eggs on Halloween.

He stumped me there. I never did it myself, never saw a reason for doing it.

We continued chatting until the bus arrived at my stop. I wondered if anyone would take my place as his conversation partner.

In the Before Time, when I had a job, I usually had a bus story to tell my work family. Now that my work family has been disbanded, I told my tiny tale to my former boss. I said I didn’t know why encounters like that didn’t bother me yet I can get tongue-tied in every other human exchange. (I was worried there was some kind of hidden superiority-inferiority element to it and I would soon have to confront the revelation that I’m a jerk with confidence issues.)

My boss surprised me with a quick answer to my question: “Lill, love,” he said, “innocence. You talk to people like that because they exude innocence.”

I’ve thought more about this since then, and especially after seeing the smashed eggs on the sidewalk. I might have an answer for that fellow bus-rider about why people smash eggs.

It’s a display of power. There’s a certain thrill for some people to destroy a fragile thing. It provides immediate gratification and, because it’s so easy to do, it can be done well. Houses of cards, sandcastles, small animals, children, people who are “other”—all are at the mercy of those seeking power. And since Halloween is admittedly a night of mischief, these thrill-seekers get a free pass for one night.

This is also the answer to my question about why that bus conversation didn’t bother me. When I encounter a fragile thing, my immediate reaction is to protect it. Help it. Engage it.

The world is made up of two kinds of people: the powerful, and the fragile. And I am neither.

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