Tag Archives: personal essay

Smiling at Strangers

5 May

2000irises: Smiling at Strangers

This piece originally appeared on Smartly Chicago:

Smiling at Strangers

At 21, with just $600 in my pocket and the full wind of naïve bravado at my back, I moved to London alone. This dumb fearlessness served me quite well in London, but not without cost. London aged me, taught me fear, and gave shape to my own limitations in a way I’ve been working to undo ever since.

One night, about 11 pm, I was walking the 2 ½ miles from SoHo back to the hotel in Paddington where I lived and worked, when I was approached by an elderly man. I walked the same route several times a week, and by then I knew to be alert and careful: walk purposefully, head up, never make eye contact. Never, ever smile at strangers. Aside from the plentiful homeless, no one ever said a word to me on the street. I was justifiably leery when the man stopped me, but he only handed me a bloom – just the bloom – of a small red carnation and said “Cheer up, love, night’s still young.” Then he smiled and continued on his way. I cradled that flower in my hand all the way back to my tiny room. I hoped it would live for a while, but you know it didn’t.

As soon as the man spoke to me, I realized I’d been walking about London for months with a fierce, cold expression on my face. This ferocity ran so counter to my ordinary cheerful, friendly nature that it disturbed me. I had to consider if my love of London was really worth such a sacrifice.

This transformation began as soon as I arrived in London. Fresh off the airplane, I settled into a window seat on the Tube with my considerable luggage flowered around me. I donned my earphones and cued up my portable CD player (cutting edge technology in 1994.) A man took the seat across from me. As he sat down, I looked up and smiled – just a polite “hello” smile. He smiled back, and I looked out the window.

A moment later, he tapped my arm and smiled at me again – a huge, inviting grin. I smiled weakly, nodded, and pointedly went back to looking out the window. A few minutes later he tapped me yet again and smiled. This time I didn’t respond, but I knew he was staring at me, grinning like an idiot. I hoped he would get off the train soon. Then he touched my knee. I frowned and shoved his hand away.

I resigned myself to hauling my luggage off at the next stop to wait for the next train. When we slowed for the station, I stood up, but he stood too. Then he leaned down and kissed my cheek. I was too astonished to react. I just stood there, horrified, frozen. Finally, another man realized what was happening. He shouted “Hey!” and loverboy dashed off. This was the moment I realized I might have gotten in over my head.

You would think I’d have learned my lesson after that, but I didn’t. All over London, men reacted very differently to me than any American man ever had. While, thank God, no one else ever touched me, I’m not used to drawing strangers’ attention, and it took me far too long to figure out what I was doing wrong. I was smiling at strangers.

Perhaps I overcompensated then, disconnecting from others completely in exchange for an imagined invisibility. The old man made me realize I wasn’t invisible at all – just afraid and angry: angry at myself for having been naïve, angry at the world for being dangerous for women. I wanted independence so badly that I fooled myself into believing I was invincible, and when I realized that wasn’t true, I mourned.

I still miss my stupid moxie, the beautiful illusion that I could do anything at all – the same necessary, optimistic lie we still teach our daughters. I would get on that plane to London again in a heartbeat, but if I did so now, I would have to take my fear with me. Heavy luggage indeed.

photo by d’n’c


The Perils of Listening In

26 Apr

2000irises: The Perils of Listening In

This piece ran on smartly. Chicago on April 25, 2011:

Remember the last time you were sitting in that café, minding your own business, chatting with a friend? You were completely focused on one another, catching up on recent events, sharing traumas and victories, emotions, fears. It was a wonderful conversation, wasn’t it? Personal and satisfying, meaningful, refreshing.

Yeah. I remember that too. I was listening the whole time.

I possess the dubious superpower of Super Hearing. (Imagine concentric red lines emanating from my ears.) I’d rather have Super Strength or Eidetic Memory, but I suppose I’ll take the hand I’m dealt (or ears, if you will.) I haven’t yet used my power to thwart criminal masterminds, but I totally will if the opportunity rises.

Like most superheroes, I have a love/hate relationship with my super ability. Generally, I use it for good. After all, Super Hearing can be practical and useful. For example, when I waited tables, I always “magically” knew what my guests needed before they asked. Imagine the tips! Later, as a teacher and professor, I easily discerned whispered conversations, the rustle of passed papers, the pucka-pucka of cell-phone keypads. A glance in a student’s direction usually sufficed to bring them around. You can also easily imagine how handy Super Hearing can be for a mom.

Beyond its benefits to maintaining order, though, Super Hearing can be vexing. You see, I can’t turn it off. There are many, many conversations I just don’t want to hear. For example, recently I’ve been unwittingly privy to:

* “She thought it was hidden, but I found her diary under her mattress. She called me a bitch.”

* “I’ve been clean since I got out of prison, but it’s hard. I’m lonely a lot.”

* “Oh yeah, she’s hot. I’d love to get my hands on that ass.”


All this wouldn’t be so bad if I weren’t also ridiculously empathetic – another “talent” I can’t turn off. Sometimes others’ whispered confessions and harrowing stories bring me to tears or inspire such fury, I have to escape to the safety of my car and cry. There have been times when I’ve heard things so awful I’ve considered whether or not to contact authorities. Occasionally, with students in genuine need, I have intervened, but mostly I keep my nose out of other people’s business.

Instead, I compensate. I never leave home without my iPod because I don’t want to hear your hushed argument with your boyfriend, your regressive political views, or your cell-phone conversation with your divorce lawyer. I don’t want to know the details of your sex life, drug habits, medical issues, bank account balances, or relationship with Jesus. I always wear my noise-canceling earphones in the café, in doctor’s waiting rooms (deadly), in the library, on public transportation – anywhere bored people are prone to chit-chat.

Originally, I cultivated my Super Hearing. As a young child, tuning in to others’ voices served me well if things got dicey. But I no longer need this skill. Voyeurism holds no allure for me. I’d happily trade my Super Hearing for, say, Time Travel or Super Speed. Super powers never come free though. As Spiderman, Batman and Catwoman have demonstrated, there’s always a cost.

I imagine old age will eventually dull the constant din of other people’s voices, especially as I’ve spent the last twenty-five years listening to loud music through earbuds. In the meantime, know that I honestly don’t want to eavesdrop, but if I’m sitting nearby without my earphones on, I’m listening.

smartly. Chicago post #1

25 Apr

Have a look-see at my first post for smartly. Chicago. I’ll repost the essay here in a day or two.

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