That moment – when I’m sitting reading, writing or researching something in a library or eating, texting or reading in a public space and I sense someone I don’t know is about to speak to me – a moment I know most people dread. Admit it! Most of you want to run away, pretend you didn’t hear the stranger’s comment or question, wish you could just disappear into a puff of air or escape by some previously unnoticed route and when you realise you can’t escape, that a confrontation is imminent and unavoidable, you grit your teeth, make fists and reply, “Yes, very well thank you, how are you?”
But that moment is a moment I enjoy. That moment, when I know a stranger is about to speak, to strike up a potentially unnecessary conversation, I get a wave of excitement in my belly. Like a female Louis Theroux, I don’t run like I was told to at school (“Never talk to strangers!”). I do the opposite. I relax the muscles in my jaw, smile just enough to show a flash of tooth and throw the ball back into their conversational court, “So what brings you here?” and this is my tin opener. Sharp and oiled.
Once the lid’s off, inside the tin can be anything. A friendly, interesting, bizarre, unpleasant, even aggressive can of worms. It depends and it’s a spectrum, like personalities are. The answers I’ve received vary in detail, tone, legibility and levels of kindness, ranging from the angry young drunk in Peckham: “What the fuck do you care? How much did you pay for that phone?” to the whisky-croaky middle-aged woman in Edinburgh: “My ma died here forty-four years ago tae the day and I come here every year wi’a wreath and a wee packet of cigarettes – her favourite brand, Benson and Hedges – and offer ‘em up tae her.”
“A bit like you would to a god?” I said.
“Na, she was nutt’in like a god. She was ane old narky bitch, but she was ma mither and I quite like tae imagine her lookin’ down on me smokin’ her favourite cigarettes and she” – cackle, cackle – “can’t do a bloody ram thing aboot it!”
Another time I didn’t get a direct reply. I got this (from a seventy-year-old gent with a sleeping bag in a giant carrier bag who spotted me sat on a comfy-looking bench from across a precinct in Stoke): “I’ve not had a problem with my teeth for years. Couple of dentures, an X-Ray. The nurse said I needed to spend two minutes twice a day brushing. Who has time for that? I’m a busy man. How long do you spend brushing your teeth every day?”
I said, “Probably about a minute after breakfast, a quick go over midday and then before bed if I can remember.” I lowered the book I’d been reading prior to his interruption – the Gormenghast Trilogy – and smiled into the face of what could have been one of its characters.
He nodded. “Yeah, exactly. Best part of two minutes, max. And have you seen that new notice they’ve got now? The one that says if you’re late for your appointment you’ve to pay a fine and they might not see you again? The NHS don’t even do bridges now, you’ve to pay private for those. You’re looking at three-four-hundred quid a pop. Who has that sort of wad in their back pocket? I’ve got bills to pay.” He pointed into his mouth, “Half of these are glued in.”
Through ‘that moment’, I’ve met (in broad daylight in busy streets in well-known towns and cities) a gay priest selling a caravan, a drugged-up teenager reciting Keats on a graffitied corner, a Polish grandma as funny as Ken Dodd (and twice as pretty), a mum and daughter both with Down’s Syndrome dancing to Like A Virgin by Madonna outside a chip shop (it happened, there’s nothing you can do now) and a very friendly builder with gold teeth worth more put together, he claimed, than his boss’ Rolex and BMW.
As Bill Bailey once said, “I’m a mecca for those with no agenda.” I suppose I’m of that mecca ilk – friendly face, unassuming nature, lone wanderings. The reason I’m regularly approached is because I’m available, a willing listener who’s really an observer, as writers often are. Plus I spend a lot of time in warm libraries with free toilets and so do people without agendas. What’s a great bonus is that those strangers who want to chat when most people are at work or busy shopping or picking the kids up from school or wouldn’t chat to a stranger at gunpoint are the kinds of strangers who make the best characters and, in many ways, the best people.
So next time you’re approached, don’t flinch and nervously edge away from your willing stranger because you were told to when you were nine. As long as you’re in no immediate danger (a quick check for knives and religious pamphlets is recommended) and you’re in a safe public place, relax, enjoy the experience – and, without prejudice, just see what they’ve got to say.