Three years ago, if you had asked me, I would have said I didn’t really like strangers. Living in New York City for my whole adult life, I’ve always taken the masses of people I don’t know as a given, the wallpaper or background noise for whatever path I was carving through the sidewalk on my day. But if you sit next to me on a plane, I stick my earbuds in; I have never been much for small talk. I love to people-watch, but in public, I tend to keep to myself.
That all changed when the world shut down, and for nearly a year, I rarely saw or interacted with someone I didn’t already know. But in February 2021, I finished my second round of vaccination, thanks to my teaching job. It was strange, moving through the world feeling like I had a minor superpower — not invincibility, but at least some extra protective wall.
My newfound minor superpowers acquired, I felt a little more confident about entering public spaces for nonessential purposes: cafes, beer gardens, that bagel shop I’d been missing. I found myself striking up very minor conversations with bartenders and baristas and feeling almost tearful when I walked away. It had been so long since I had a conversation that wasn’t planned (on Zoom, in my classroom) and with someone I knew. Since I’d had a spontaneous conversation with the vaguest of acquaintances, or even a stranger.
Of course, I am not the only person who has discovered in the past two years that we really lean on interactions with acquaintances and strangers for part of our daily dose of humanity. For decades, researchers have found that having many “weak ties” — the people we chat with at the water cooler or the person who takes your donut order every morning or the greeter at your place of worship or the doorman in your building — is a reliable predictor of your well-being. In other words, it’s not just your close friends and family, the people you might reach out to in a time of crisis, who aid your emotional state; it’s also the semi-random people who chance simply puts in your path. And that’s exactly who I’d been missing.
I thought of this research while watching Pawel Lozinski’s documentary The Balcony Movie (currently making the rounds at festivals and coming soon to HBO Max). Incredibly, Lozinski made the movie pre-Covid; it feels like a perfect setup for a pandemic movie. But no. Lozinski sat on his balcony in Warsaw and asked questions of the people who passed on the sidewalk below. For over a year, he filmed and asked questions about their day, about the meaning of life, about love, about all kinds of things.
Many people Lozinski talks to are good sports, joking with him and passing the time. They talk about the errand they’re on the way to accomplish. An old woman tells him snippets of hilarious stories about her late husband; another man tells him about hiding his relationship with his great love for all his life because they were afraid of being judged for being gay. We see a pregnant woman’s belly grow and then, later, she pushes a carriage. A man who has just been released from prison shows up several times, first thanking Lozinski for a shirt he handed down from the balcony for him, later updating him on his life.
Those interactions build the kind of movie critics like to call “deeply human,” whatever that means. In the end, it’s a tale of weak ties, and of the joy of simply watching people pass by and engaging them in conversation. You never really know what someone will say, but it’s rarely what you’re expecting.
Having watched The Balcony Movie, I was reminded of that feeling this winter when, omicron having all but fully subsided in New York, I stopped into a bustling French bistro on 10th Avenue to grab a quick brunch before I went to a Sunday matinee of a much-talked-about off-Broadway show for which I had a ticket. I had 40 minutes. I perched at the counter and ordered a bowl of poached eggs and vegetables, a cup of black coffee, and a bottomless passionfruit mimosa.
An older gentleman sat to my left, and smiled and told me the mimosa was very good. A minute later, his friend returned from the bathroom and they kept eating and chatting. I finished my eggs and was still hungry and started to ask the waitress for toast, but the man stopped me and said, “You want the fries. They’re the best fries.”
Well, he was right: I did want them, and they were the perfect bar fries — shoestring style, not too many of them, crispy but not overcrispy, salty and delicious. I ate them so fast that he missed that I’d even gotten them when I turned to thank him. He asked me why I was on this side of town on a snowy Sunday, and I explained; it transpired he and his friend were church musicians who’d just finished their shift at a nearby parish and were grabbing lunch before they went to their evening gigs. They wanted to know where I write, and we laughed, in what to me is a very familiar conversational beat, about how similar “Vox” sounds to another well-known but very different media outlet if you say it out loud in a busy restaurant. They wished me a good time at the show and hoped we’d bump into each other again.
It’s the simplest thing in the world, the kind of interaction that you can have twice a day in New York if you want, just eating some $5 fries at a bar. It’s also the best kind of conversation. Nobody has an angle or is trying to get anything. You’re just delighted that another interesting human you’ve never seen or talked to before has crossed your path. They might never do so again.
But the camaraderie that comes from just being alive at this moment — having survived to this point, to be able to sit in a snowy bistro on 10th Avenue and bask in the kindness of strangers. To celebrate that we are here, both human, and to be alive together in this moment is a little bit of a miracle.