Discovering we rely on the kind faces of familiar strangers

ALICE STEINBACH

April 18, 1993|By ALICE STEINBACH

People, I have noticed, often do not see things clearly unti they've vanished. Oh, sure, we look at the world around us, but somehow we manage not to see it.

Until, as I said, whatever it is we've become accustomed to looking at suddenly disappears.

Take, for example, the woman I used to see -- or look at -- on my way to work each morning.

Here is how I remember her: a gray-haired, neatly attired woman, probably in her late 60s, always wearing a hat and always waiting at the bus stop around 8 a.m.

I also remember that for three years, no matter what the weather, she was there at that corner. Appropriately dressed, of course.

In rainy weather, she wore a large rain hat and rubbers over her shoes.

On snowy days, heavy boots poked out from beneath her coat, and over her always-proper hat, she tied a woolen scarf.

Summertime brought out neat, belted cotton dresses, accessorized, naturally, by a straw hat that rode down low over her eyeglasses.

But regardless of what she wore, she gave off an air of competence coupled with a no-nonsense attitude. Clearly a working woman at an age when a lot of people no longer work, this was someone who telegraphed stability and dependability in a world that increasingly seems to contain less of both.

Of course, I remembered all this about the woman at the bus stop only after she vanished. It was then I realized how much I counted on seeing her each morning.

You might say: I missed her.

Naturally, I had fantasies about her disappearance. Retirement? Accident? Or something worse? Now that she was gone, I felt I had known her.

And thinking about her in this way made me realize suddenly that a significant part of our daily life consists of such encounters with familiar strangers.

We all have them -- these familiar strangers we see regularly:

The middle-aged power walker you see every afternoon at 3 p.m.

The woman who regularly walks her Yorkie at the crack of dawn.

The dapper twins -- two brothers who appear to be in their 70s -- you see at the library.

The slender, attractive man at the supermarket who, rain or shine, always wears sunglasses.

They are, in other words, people we think we don't know -- but actually do.

And such people are, I contend, important markers in the landscape of our lives: They add weight to our sense of place and our sense of belonging in that place.

Think about it for a moment.

If, while driving to work, we mark where we are by passing a certain building or a certain intersection, why should we not mark where we are when we pass a familiar, though unnamed, person on the street?

After all, if part of being a tourist is seeing nothing and no one familiar to you, then can we not say that seeing the familiar jogger or supermarket shopper is part of what makes us a citizen of our community?

It is one of the things an immigrant longs for, I suppose: the sight of the familiar stranger. The shopkeeper who nods to you. The bus driver who delivers you to your workplace each day. The woman you see from the bus each day walking her child to school.

Sometimes I wonder: Am I that person to someone? That familiar stranger?

Perhaps someone who shops at my supermarket every Saturday sees me there and notes -- without really noting -- my presence. Or perhaps someone at the drugstore counter, where I often eat breakfast, would notice if I suddenly stopped showing up.

Once in a very great while you might actually meet one of these familiar strangers. As I did a few months ago.

I was standing in a coffee shop when a woman walked up and said hello to me. "Do you know who I am?" she asked. And I did. She was a patient I had seen many times in my doctor's office. It was an easy, familiar exchange -- although we never got around to exchanging names.

But here's what I remember most about the importance of familiar strangers. Once, driving home from the airport after a long vacation, I was feeling disoriented, out-of-place. Then I saw him: An elderly man dressed in a tweed jacket and green cap. I guess I've seen this man walking through my neighborhood a thousand times.

"Ah," I thought, seeing the familiar stranger. "I'm home at last."

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