“Yes, I have perhaps suffered more than you. Yet I do not succumb to despair.”
I prefer to ride in the last train car but couldn’t tonight, as it reeked of fentanyl. Little did I know this would be something I would later be thankful for. I scurried onto one of the center cars and stood in the middle section, the area with the seats that face each other. Why did I stand there? I never go in that area. The doors closed and we were on our way, already bombing into the next station. At this late hour only a small crowd was forming.
He walked slowly by me without recognizing me, taking a seat to my immediate right. What was his name again? I can never remember. A congenial face who’s ridden my bus not a few times, and better known by other people in my life who speak better French. My French is abysmal, so I remained silent, too embarrassed to speak up.
He’s a mid-aged man, handsome in a Clooney sort of way, trim and sharp as so many Frenchmen are, tonight wearing fitted jeans and coat with a scarf, and shoes you looked at a second time because you were trying to resolve whether they were duotone leather dress shoes or sneakers, because they really seemed to be both.
He said to the college-age woman seated across from him, “I like your scarf.” A gentle, quiet accent.
“Thank you,” she replied with enthusiasm. “I like your scarf! We both have yellow!”
“Yours is golden.”
She had the youthful exuberance that welcomed such comments, perhaps especially when they came from an amiable and French version of George Clooney. You could perceive she hadn’t yet been soured by poor experiences, did not yet have the instinct to turn from the world, to be wary and cautious, distrustful. She was excited by the prospect of living.
Do you remember what that’s like?
I seek to preserve that belief, that sight for goodness, despite the times I’ve been burned. I assume good in others. I believe they are telling the truth, that maybe they are giving and trusting and kind, because I am. I am gullible, and you will ask, has this gotten me in trouble? Have I been burned by these traits?
Worse than you can possibly imagine. But I endeavor not to let those experiences define me. Are they not fewer in number, for all of us? The tendencies within me listed above are also those which allow me to experience all the highs of my life, all the countless joys with strangers recounted in the pages of this blog and my book. “Do you really want to live your whole life distrusting other people?” historian Rutger Bregman asks. “That price is way too high to pay. I think it's more rational to say, OK, this is just going to happen a couple of times in my life that I'll be the victim of some confidence game. And if you've never been conned, then maybe you should ask yourself the question: Is my basic attitude to life trusting enough?”
It’s a good sign, not a bad one, if you’ve been taken advantage of here and there. It means you’re getting the good stuff too. Like this woman, who was beaming from the stranger interaction in a way none of the other youngsters buried in their headphones and smartphones could know. I look to such souls for inspiration, in the ongoing question of how to remain open, fragile, raw, while also taking care of myself.
A silence passed. Then Monsieur Clooney commented to three young friends seated off to the side, nearby, all unrelated to the scarf-clad woman: “I like your earrings, all of you.”
As they thanked him with smiles he added, “everybody, so well-dressed tonight!”
At this point I simply had to turn and say hi. “Bonsoir, monsieur!”
He recognized me instantly. “Aaahh! Bonsoir, mon ami! Comment ça va?”
“Ça va bien, et vous?”
“Tres bien. Où vas-tu ce soir? Résidence, travail?”
“Au cinéma, bon! Quel film?”
“Un film français: Petite maman.”
“Petite maman. Un film… de Celine Sciamma.”
“Ah oui, Sciamma.”
At this point he lost me with his reply, and I said with a smile the one French line I can repeat with ease: “Je sais seulement un peu de français!” And despite his protestations I insisted on my clumsiness, adding, “un petit peu!”
We put together with a smattering of both languages that I was off to see the new Celine Sciamma film on my own, and had earlier that evening seen Jacques Audiard’s Les Olympiades (English title: Paris, 13th District). He knew both directors and we jointly marvelled particularly at Audiard’s prodigious talent across a range of genres. The hushed and respectful awe that crept into his voice on the mention of Audiard immediately revealed how thoroughly he knew the man’s work... I was flushed with delight. I don’t get to talk cinema with people nearly enough. Out of gladness I asked how he was doing generally, and decided to give a truthful answer to his reply of the same.
“I’m… okay. These days are, you know.”
He smiled in rueful agreement, asking, “what is a struggle for you? Which one?”
“Well, personal stuff is hardest for me. If my personal life is going well, then I have the strength to not be bothered by everything else. But if it’s going poorly, then I see everything as… you know how if three things go badly, people think everything is going badly? But it’s really just three things? I am trying not to do that.”
“Yes, I agree. I keep my personal life very simple.” After I assented to the wisdom of that approach he added, “there is a parallel in math. Simplicity as an emergent quality.”
“Really?” I asked, thinking it over. “The reduction of things… as a growth?”
“Well, yes. The cancellation of complexity. It allows for…”
As we continued on, I could feel the woman across from us leaning in, listening with fascination. I flashed her a smile and wanted to bring her in on the conversation. Spaces like this should feel like campfires.
I said, “okay, I just have to say I think your shoes are super cool. I noticed them as soon as you sat down.” She smiled wider. “They’re very striking. And I like the… the pleasant contrast with your slacks, it’s a cool contrast.” They were striking; matte black platform shoes with thick rubber soles, which raised her at least four inches, likely more with the elevated heel. Not my style, but definitely hers!
“Oh thank you! It’s my first time wearing them out, so that’s good to hear.”
Monsieur Clooney: “How do they feel?”
“Really good! I can see over people, which has never been my experience!”
Clooney, who is tall, quipped, “you can see at my level!”
She laughed. “Exactly! I think they’ll be good for going to concerts and raves, they fit well for dancing, and I’ll be able to see the stage. For once!”
I said, “it’s good to be able to see the see the stage!”
He nodded, saying, “yes, I like the clash with your pants. It’s good.”
She thanked him and asked what we were up to tonight, and I mentioned I was going to see a film. “It’s called Petite maman, by the director of, did you ever see Portrait of a Lady on Fire?”
“I don’t think I know that one.” She spoke the line not dismissively but eagerly, her wide eyes and clear voice wanting more. Not all young people are so intrigued by new worlds. But how do you describe the sublimity that is Portrait de la jeune fille en feu in a few words on a subway?
“It’s about two women… a painter and a subject, and they form a bond. It’s kind of magical. Really beautiful.” Clooney was nodding. “You should check it out.”
“I’ll look for it! Is it in French?”
“Yeah, but there’s subtitles,” I said. “I’d be lost without them!”
“Hey, you know more than me. I know Spanish and English, but not French–“
At this point Clooney said, fluently, “eso es muy bueno, poder hablar español–" to which I exclaimed in delight, “you’re amazing, oh my goodness! Both of you! My Korean and English are both better than my Spanish and French, I barely know anything, but you, both of you–"
She said, “well that’s great too!”
Westlake Station came all too soon. “Thank you. I’ll leave you two here. Have a great night!”
“Enjoy the movie!”
“You too! Bonne nuit!”
And with that I dashed out the train doors, just in time. There was no exchange of numbers nor other information. That’s not why we were here. You don’t talk to strangers to make friends. You already have friends. We speak to the person next to us for the reminder that we belong to something larger. Not just a friend group, not merely a family, but the vast interconnected cosmos of humanity at large, the great urban experiment as success rather than failure. Do you know how good that feels? How deep down that sense of community bolsters us, the knowledge that we all share life and light, and we make more of it when we reach out to each other?
I document the details of this quotidian exchange because these are the moments life are made of. Despite my short time here I can already state what you probably also know: it will not be the momentous, climactic high points which stick in your memory. It will be run-ins like these, the small moments of pause in our hectic lives when we made each other glow. The three of us became beautiful, easy smiles bouncing off the energy we threw around for one another. We felt larger, filling the outline of our best selves, accepted by others different in age and temperament, able to find a common language of existence.
He was a thinker, someone alive to his surroundings who considered his words before speaking them; she was buoyant, open to the world instead of shut off from it, receptive to joys besides the ones she knew; intrigued by our conversation and eager to offer light. I like to imagine the two of them talking long after I left them. They will likely never see each other again, and I am equally unlikely to run into either (though I have had a knack for randomly encountering the Frenchman). What sticks with me are their qualities. That is what I did walk away with, and what galvanizes me. Their conversation inspires, raises me up with the reminder that things like this still happen– even today, in our antisocial, withdrawn, interior, suspicious, isolationist times.
This happens too.
Happy New Year.