Beautiful Strangers

Last week I went to the grocery store like I was gonna rob the joint. I had a mask over my face, gloves on my hands and a steely focus on the job ahead.

Get in. Stock up. Get out. Nobody gets hurt.

Inside, along the narrow aisles and unusually barren shelves, six other shoppers were focused on their missions, too. The energy was tense, with very little eye contact. I held my breath as I passed a man without a mask. A woman in the cereal aisle coughed three times. I cringed. I guess I won’t be getting granola.

It was the most uncomfortable shopping experience since Covid came into my life, but it all changed at checkout. The kid ringing me up smiled and looked me in the eye as he sorted my bounty. He asked how I was, and even commented on my choice of chips. “I love these,” he said.

Since then, the neighbor who hasn’t spoken to me in three years said hello. When I passed an acquaintance on the beach, our usual head nod turned into a 10 minute conversation. And a historically idle group-text has morphed into a regular, lively video chat in which I’m reconnecting with people I haven’t “seen” in years. And all it took was a pandemic.

Is anyone else noticing this tug-of-war between get away and come together? We’re like naughty siblings ordered into silence in different corners of the room. We obey because we must, but it doesn’t take long before we’re inventing sign language and making silly faces at each other. Cheeky like, Whaaaaat? We’re not talking.

It’s as if we’re compensating for the masks, gloves and physical distance with kind words, actions and fancy tech.

The stories are everywhere. Italian neighbors singing together from their balconies. Homemade Thank You! signs for hospital workers at the end of their shifts. Smiles from three meters out, rainbows in the windows and so much more. It’s inspiring to witness.

Where my brother lives, across the Golden Gate Bridge and beneath the Marin headlands, the neighbors join at 8pm to howl like coyotes into the sky. Ow-ow-oooooowwww! Each in their respective backyard, they howl. To honor health care workers. To release the day’s stress. To feel something primal. To say hello to friends they’ve known forever, and the beautiful strangers they’ve only just met.



P.S. If you want to get someone a birthday or Easter present, you should bake them cookies. Cookies are the best. If you can’t bake them cookies you’d do well giving a Db Gift Card, available here. Oh, and if the silence of working from home is killing you, here’s your solution.