Ya know those posters or books that claim that everything we needed to learn we learned in kindergarten? While I don't find those claims to be so far off, I never learned the things you're supposed to learn in kindergarten. Or rather, I heard these rules, ignored them, and quickly moved on with my life -- a life where I don't share, I don't play fair, I've been known to hit people and mostly, I talk to strangers. All the time. This has always struck me as a pretty unreasonable rule. For starters, there's the obvious fact that if we didn't talk to strangers, none of us would have friends. Don’t most deep, long-lasting friendships begin with two strangers talking? And what about dating? I took this rule a step farther by not only talking to strangers, I went on to sleep with strangers. Loads of them. While sleeping with strangers typically backfired with a slew of STDs and pregnancy scares, talking with strangers has predominantly worked out for me.
One of my earliest memories with a “Stranger” was at a time when my well-intentioned parents took me to serve food at a homeless shelter. Even as an adorable 12 year old, I was willing to take things a step further than my parents could have ever anticipated. Not only did I want to serve food to these turkeys, I wanted to hang out for a while, share a meal, and possibly take them to a movie later. I believe this was a church outing, one of the few I've ever attended in my life. We drove from the predominately white, crispy clean suburbs, all the way to Joliet where we could find ourselves some hungry homeless people. This is one of those things that white people do to feel better about themselves. They drive to a homeless shelter that's not too far away so that they can still have time to come home and garden. They smile and nod at the homeless people. They shake hands through a plastic glove. Then, they all jump back into the church van and talk about how grateful they are to be white and have homes. Well, I wasn't buyin' it. I wanted in on this homeless organization and I wasn't going to leave until I could really figure these people out.
Luckily, I found myself a very eager and willing teacher named, "The Candyman." The Candyman was this HUGE black guy with the biggest, most crooked smile I had ever seen. If I remember correctly, his teeth looked like Chiclets, he wore huge 1980's plastic glasses and he walked with a cane. Oh, and he always had candy on him.... obviously, cause he was The Candyman. We were doing bits and I had never felt more comfortable. By the time my parents dragged me out of there and tried to explain to everyone why I was acting so peculiar, I started in on them. Why is it bad to hang out with The Candyman? Weren't we going there to help people? What do you mean dangerous? We were scooping gravy in a church basement, how bad could it be? The hypocrisy of all the church-goers really rawed my hide and it became evident that all future gatherings with strangers, like most other things in my life, were going to have to be done behind my parents’ backs. This was the day that my parents and I entered into a silent “don't ask, don't tell” policy and that policy has been in place ever since.
More recently, I came home from work to find a man in my dumpster. This is pretty standard in my neighborhood. We have an unlocked gate into our parking lot and at the back of our little driveway lies a dumpster. This is a treasure trove for homeless people. After I got out of my car, I realized that this man was full-on, inside the dumpster and when he saw me coming he queried, "Can you believe it’s going to be Christmas next week?" Now I was still trying to get my bearings cause I wasn't sure what this clown was up to and I had to be sure before we could chat. When I replied that no I couldn't believe that Christmas was next week he went on, "Well I guess it doesn't matter cause my whole family is dead." Well, now I was hooked. Partly because I wanted to know why his whole family was dead, partly because he sounded so chipper but mostly because I wanted to know what the happiest man in America was doing digging through my dumpster.
As it turns out, Anthony has been homeless for 2 years. He's addicted to crystal meth and he's shooting it but remains HIV negative... supposedly. He told me that he was digging through trash because his "aunt" is really hard up for money. Oddly, I believed this story. I believed that meth-head Anthony wants to recycle a few plastic bottles so he can give his aunt the 35 cents. Also, Anthony really had me because if there's one breed of person that I love more than strangers, it drug-addicted strangers. They are my favorite people. There is nothing more predictable in the world than the behavior of a drug addict but they always think they're being so clever. At the end of my conversation with Anthony, I had given him my phone number, a roll of quarters to call me and a pack of cigs. Obviously, Anthony never called. Worst case scenario, he used my $10 worth of quarters to buy drugs, best case scenario he used it to get an HIV test.
On my ride home from work the other day, I saw Anthony crossing the street. I wanted to stop to say something but now that we actually knew each other, it was kind of awkward. I knew just enough about him now for him to feel judged whereas before, when I knew nothing, he was just a perfectly normal guy, digging through my trash. I guess that's the thing that I like about strangers. They're the perfect person at the perfect moment and they teach you something and then go away. In Anthony’s case, he taught me that if you shoot crystal meth you’ll end up living in a dumpster. What if all the homeless people are angels? It seems unlikely that angels would be meth heads, and big scary men named The Candyman. But what if our horrible kindergarten teachers got it wrong? What if we're supposed to be talking to strangers? I'll tell you what. If I ever end up balls deep in a trash can, I'd want you to talk to me.