A Kind of Stranger

I don’t like talking to strangers. You never know what they’re going to say.

I can do it if I have to — it’s part of being a writer, after all — but there are some strangers I’d rather not meet.

For example, I avoid adults who are wearing pajamas in public, unless they have just emerged from a burning building.

I have little patience for strangers pointing at my face or tallying points on their fingers as they talk. These are provocative gestures symptomatic of a lazy intellect, poor impulse control, and sinister motives.

Last, and obviously, I don’t want drunk strangers talking to me. They are difficult to understand and impatient when not understood, and that makes them say things like “exchoose me, exchoose me” while wagging a finger in your face.

Add to this the minefield of potential conversation disasters we must navigate nowadays: politics, climate change, the booming economy, the fake economy, mass extinctions, mass migrations, mass shootings. It’s hard to take a risk on strangers.

But over the holidays, so fittingly, I was reminded it’s a mistake not to.

I was in a local grocery store, a place where I am always alert to the danger of encountering strangers. But I made the mistake of opening the beer cooler and lingering too long there, having become dazzled and baffled by new and unfamiliar holiday brands.

An atmosphere of stale tobacco enveloped me. I perceived a very tall, lanky figure sliding into my periphery. He was wearing big sheepskin-lined boots that were really slippers, a faded Clint Eastwood-style serape-poncho, and on his head was perched a battered diadem that may once have been a fedora. While not exactly sleepwear, his attire did not inspire confidence.

He presented a tall boy — a 24-ounce can of beer — for my inspection. I recognized it as a generic specimen of substandard lager favored by males under 21 and over 75 years of age. In other words, men who don’t know any better.

“Is this any good?”

It was the kind of question there really is no right answer to, especially if you happen to know the truth, as I did.

“It’s a bargain,” I offered, diplomatically.

I glanced up at my interrogator. He was in his seventies and had a dark, deeply lined face that spoke of many seasons in the wild. Most remarkable were the bright silver eyebrows nearly the size of his enormous mustache.

“It’s not for me,” he said. “I don’t drink anymore.”

I sensed an unwanted conversation coming on when a shorter woman of a certain age appeared at the end of the aisle 20 yards away, locked her gaze on me and bellowed, “You! Where are the gluten-free burritos?”

Did I mention I also have no patience for strangers accosting me like a stray dog?

I ignored the woman to continue my unwanted conversation with the serape-sporting Clint Eastwood stand-in. This impelled her to careen down the aisle, point a finger in my face and shout, “Exchoose me! Do you work here?”

I was wearing a soggy raincoat and fisherman’s bill cap with a big blue marlin embroidered on the crown, and I was carrying a basket of groceries with one hand while holding a beer cooler open with the other. After the blast of her wine breath blew past me, I said, “What does it look like?”

She stood up straight, huffed and slammed her arm down to her side, though from experience I fully expected it to come right back up at me with a fist. Instead, she looked my companion up and down and said, “Are you carrying a gun?”

Again, this is another one of those questions there is really no good answer to, especially if someone without a badge is asking it.

“Not today,” said the man in the serape.

“Well, you should be,” the woman declared, jabbing a finger first at him and then toward heaven. “Jesus Christ loves guns,” she said. “Jesus loves hunters. When God told Adam and Eve to get dressed, they went out and hunted some animals and made clothes out of the skins. God loves hunters. Do you love hunters?”

She stared at us both with indignant defiance, pointing.

“My soul is prepared,” the man next to me said. “How’s yours?”

She stood up even straighter than before, if that was possible, slamming her arm down at her side again for emphasis. Her dyed red hair was well-styled, she sported some modest jewelry, and she wore a once elegant long blazer. Beneath that, I noticed, were pajamas.

“You must be from New York!” She simultaneously lifted her chin to look down her nose at us, spun on her heel and marched back in the direction whence she came to resume her search for gluten-free burritos.

I now considered the man in the serape a good friend. I nodded to the beer in his hand and said, “I would be happy to recommend something better. Who is this gift for?”

“It was for me,” he said. “I just needed to be talked out of it.” He handed me the can.

“Thank you,” he said, and walked away.

Ted Olinger is an award-winning journalist. He lives in Vaughn.