People Who Don’t Need People

Lockdown has given us loners permission to revel in isolation.

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Photo: ATMTEE.com

If quarantining and social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has taught me anything, it’s this: It’s OK if you’re not a people person. For most of my adulthood, I’ve felt guilty for preferring my own company over everyone else’s. But now, I realize a lifetime of lonerism prepared me for life in lockdown.

Although I do miss several things about the way things used to be on the outside — no lines to get into Trader Joe’s, going for runs without a face mask, traveling — being around people is not one of them. My husband feels the same way. When we run out of clever things to say, we fantasize about running away together to a secluded farmhouse in the country where we can live off the land and avoid most human contact except with each other.

We’ve become so fond of wordlessness that we’ve begun to communicate by humming the script.

“Hmmm hmmm hmmm” means “I love you.”

“Hmmm hmmm hmmm hmmm” means “I love you, too.”

And I mean every word I don’t say.

Of course, wordlessness isn’t sustainable, and I can’t hide my bitchy resting face behind a face mask forever. I just completed a work project that required me to do a series of Zoom interviews, and frankly, I’m all talked out and smiled out. The last thing I want to do now is participate in virtual happy hours and video catch-ups with my friends.

I wasn’t a phone person before the pandemic, and just because everyone is suddenly free to talk doesn’t mean this leopard has changed his spots. The old rule still applies: Don’t call. Just text. Or drop me an email. Not you, Mom. Shhh. Don’t tell Dad.

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There’s no place like home … alone

I’ve always enjoyed the silence and felt the profound pull of solitude — even when I appeared to be the life of the party. That was just a role I used to play in my twenties and thirties, back when I was looking for the validation I didn’t receive growing up black and gay. In the middle of most crowds, though, I always felt alone with everybody.

My stutter, which I’ve become an expert at masking, led me to misdiagnose myself as shy. While I have at times harbored a possibly unhealthy amount of fear of people, I simply always have been happiest on my own. My brother once called me “a recovering introvert,” and it was a dead-accurate description of me in my party-hopping twenties.

Even now, I find the majority of human interaction requires a lot of effort. The “Smile” command doesn’t make it any easier. I’ve made peace with my bitchy resting face, and the world should, too.

Despite my reclusive tendencies, I’m not a particularly quiet person. Give me a hot topic to explore (racism, homophobia, the Oscars), and I can run with it. Ask me where I’m from, what I do, what I’m doing, how I’m doing, or what I had for dinner, and I’m ready to run in the other direction.

I can’t deny the potential power of people in smallish doses. A stranger on the street can help create a magic moment that totally makes a city, or simply boosts my spirits when I’m down in the depths of a blue funk.

I blame the repetitiveness of most conversations. I reveal so much about myself as a writer (which, by the way, is the ideal loner profession) that when I’m actually talking to someone face to face, the last thing I want to do is rehash the minutiae of my personal life. I know that for many, conversation equals Q&A, but I have never mastered the art of small talk.

Hello, Goodbye

All this said, I can’t deny the potential power of people in small doses. A stranger on the street can help create a magic moment that totally makes a city, or simply boosts my spirits when I’m down in the depths of a blue funk.

A random woman who stopped me as I was walking down Avenida Santa Fe in Buenos Aires (alone, of course) one Christmas morning circa 2008 gave me a hug just because she thought I looked like I needed one. She remains as memorable to me as anyone I spent hours or days with during the four and a half years I lived there, and she was in and out of my life in just a few seconds.

That sort of thing doesn’t happen often, but I consider myself lucky that it happens at all. Seven years ago, I was walking down another deserted street (alone, of course), this one in Tel Aviv, when a guy came rushing up behind me. As he brushed by, I yelped and nearly jumped out of my skin because the song blaring through my iPod headphones had made me completely oblivious to his approach.

He turned around to see what had happened. When he saw me glaring at him, he paused his phone conversation and approached me. Smiling, he said “Hello” and held out his hand. After shaking mine, he turned around and went on his way. It was such a little gesture, but the difference it made was great.

That same evening, the coolest one since I’d arrived in Tel Aviv, I went to an outdoor bar (alone, of course) wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and my Haviaiana flip flops. A young woman noticed me shivering and took her leather jacket from the back of her chair and offered it to me. I accepted it, thankful to be warm enough to enjoy my solitude.

She told me to keep the coat until I was ready to leave, and I didn’t see her again until I left an hour or so later. There was no straining to chit chat, no expectations, not even an exchange of names.

And guess what? The conversation we didn’t have was the best one I had all night.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Idealist Loner Wanderer Hypochondriac Anxiety Survivor Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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