“Are people cruel to you?” An old man asked me, 10-minutes into a casual tête-à-tête. He looked at me, searching my eyes for an answer I failed to give.
“I am sorry—what do you mean?” I replied, polite but shocked at such an intrusive question. I’d bumped into a 60-something grandpa in the aisles of a grocery store. A talkative fellow with a kind smile.
“I know, I just met you, but there’s something about your eyes. They are sad.” The man studied my face now with his microscopic gaze.
“I am happy.” I replied. “Just tired cause I had a crazy night. Deadlines, school…” As I gave him answers to questions asked, I wondered why I felt the need to justify my mood to a complete stranger.
“I am just a curious old dude with a lot of time to kill. It can be annoying, I know. But, can I be so rude to ask you another question?” He babbled on.
“Sure, go head.” I complied, nervous about what was coming next.
“Is it tough being here in America? I mean away from your country? During this time?”
“It is. It can get lonely. But, you get used to it.” I replied honestly. “I just fill my time with work. Or school, you know. And deadlines, the ones I was telling you about…”
“Where are you from?” The man interrupted. May be he wasn’t convinced with my answers.
“I well—now I like to say I am from Brooklyn. It’s changed for me. I left my country 5 years ago.”
Truth was, I didn’t like telling people where I was from. They looked at me a certain way as soon as I did. Put me in a box and asked me questions that usually pissed me off.
Something about this man was different though. I didn’t mind him talk. No matter how unsettling it was.
“You are probably looking at me and wondering—what is this man doing with me—what does he care? May be he has no one to talk to!”
The man was persistent. A born New Yorker, I thought. May be, I kinda liked it.
“No. I am not thinking that! Absolutely not!” I replied, mulling over what he had said. Truth was—I’d care if he had no one to talk to. I’d been there. For days.
“You know, I give people a key to happiness everyday. You know what’s the key for today?”
“What is it?” I asked, amused.
“Stop watching the news. It’s going to end the world.” He sounded serious now.
“Why is that?” I asked, equally serious. Funnily enough, I had stopped watching the news. It disturbed me.
“Well let me ask you a question? I think you can answer it cause you are an intelligent girl. You know you just said—you go to school, do your deadlines, yada yada…” He smiled.
He had been listening. Nice—I took note.
“Go ahead with your next question?” I gave permission.
“Does news really help you stay up-to-date or does it make you feel more righteous?” His eyes now narrowed toward me.
I blinked back, tongue-tied.
“I mean, if you go by the way I look, you’ll think I voted for you know who! And then you’ll hate me. And then we won’t get a chance to really talk to each other and understand each other…”
I blinked back again. Words eluded me that day.
“Don’t you ever wonder why people don’t talk to each other any more? I mean that’s the problem with America right now. Everyone’s talking over the other. No one’s listening.” He said.
“Hang on. I think I have an answer to that! But, I think I am getting a call.” I replied, irritated that the phone call I had been waiting for all morning had to decided to come now.
I could’ve allowed it to go to my answering machine. But, the old man and I had been holding up the queue at the store. I gestured to him to take my place and told him I’d meet outside.
As soon as I got off the phone I went looking for my stranger. I saw him at a street corner talking to somebody else. He was engrossed in a conversation, perhaps as stimulating as ours had been.
I walked up to him and waived to catch his attention. But, he seemed to be lost in another world.
“Hey! I thought you’d left!” I cried out. “I think you made a few interesting points back there. I have to say—I agree with you.”
The man merely blinked back, confused why I was talking to him.
That’s when I realized that the old man might have been older than I thought.