J and I have an ongoing joke about the number of perfect strangers who talk to us whenever we go anywhere in public. We regularly get asked for directions, or if we’re dressed in Bruins gear on the way to or from a hockey game, folks will ask us who the Bruins are playing, or what the score was, or what we think about a particular player. Folks will inquire about J’s camera, or they’ll make chitchat about the weather, how crowded the trolley is, or any other sort of random topic. It’s as if in place of the proverbial “Kick me” sign, someone stuck a sign on our backs that says “Talk to us: we’re friendly!”
J and I speculate that we must look normal, nonthreatening, and otherwise approachable: if you’re lost and need directions, you don’t want to look like a creep by asking a solitary member of the opposite sex for help, and you don’t want to bother a couple who looks Too Young, Too Hip, or Too Completely In Love to take time for your problems. J and I, on the other hand, apparently look Just Right. We don’t look like we’re too cool to be bothered, but we also don’t look like we’re so lonely and desperate, we’ll latch onto anyone who strikes up a conversation.
J and I look, in other words, perfectly average, and it seems that random strangers like to talk with average folks. Over the several years we’ve been dating, J and I have given countless directions to out-of-towners, once helped a guy in Atlanta buy baseball tickets from a sidewalk scalper, and last weekend tried (unsuccessfully) to explain to a young bewildered Asian woman why there were so many sports fans on the T even after the Red Sox season is over. (Apparently, they don’t play ice hockey where she comes from.)
Although neither of our respective exes was actively antagonistic toward strangers, neither J nor I had this experience of being so popular with strangers when we each were married. Although I occasionally had folks ask me for directions when I lived in Boston and took the T to and from school, strangers didn’t regularly talk to my ex and me when we were together in public. J and his ex-wife didn’t go to as many events as J and I do, so they had fewer opportunities to talk to strangers, but still, J insists that he didn’t talk to as many random folks when he was married as he does now that he’s dating me. Whatever secret conflicts and resentments both J and I experienced in our previous relationships, I’m guessing that tension was apparent to the strangers who didn’t talk with us. Sometimes you get a “vibe” that a silent couple is harboring hidden hostilities, and apparently J and I don’t project that vibe. Whereas my ex-husband often accused me of flirting or trying to upstage him if I simply behaved in my normal outgoing fashion, J doesn’t feel threatened if I speak up and act friendly with folks, so I do.
Yesterday afternoon, after having stopped to chat with a neighbor we’d seen raking leaves on our way to brunch, we dropped by another neighbor’s house for an open house fundraiser for Connect Africa, an organization that provides business and educational support for Ugandan villagers. While J and I browsed crafts made by Ugandan women working to support AIDS orphans, we chatted with the neighbor who had organized the open house, her husband, the friend who founded Connect Africa, and several women who were also browsing the handicrafts. “You should buy one,” I advised one woman who was tentatively considering a pile of intricately woven baskets. “Then you can use it to carry the jewelry you’ll want to buy.” I pointed to a small basket I’d filled with beaded bracelets and necklaces, and the woman nodded. Later, while J and I were selecting a colorful woven mat, agreeing that we’d find somewhere to put it, I saw the woman I’d talked to standing at the jewelry table filling a basket.
J and I ended up buying two armfuls of handicrafts, much to our hostess’ delight. “This is great,” J remarked, admiring a goblet-shaped basket he’d chosen as a desk-organizer. “Every time I look at this, I’ll think about where it came from, and the story behind it.” After we’d said our goodbyes and headed home with our African treasures, J observed, “You just spent more time talking to the neighbors in one afternoon than my ex-wife did the entire time we were married.”