Stranger of the Week

Washington Square Park

We’d found a bench in the shade, my friend K and I, and he smoked as we talked. Our conversation topic was the same it’s been for twelve years: addiction, sexual attraction and the psychoanalytical makeup of our mutual friends. There was a time when this conversation had a performative whiff to it, when we were young and stupid enough to have conflated all those things into a glamorous gloss, and our chief mode was envy. We were older now: married, divorced, in AA, learning to meditate.

You approached swiftly, like people do when they’re assured that this will be an easy exchange between strangers and everyone knows the protocol. K was already reaching for his cigarettes. This is something I envy in smokers, the fellowship of it. The way two people who’ve never met can seek and grant the small generosity of a cigarette or a light. But a person could not, for example, approach a stranger eating a bag of Reese’s Pieces and ask to bum one. We might share a deep fellowship, a love of Reese’s Pieces, a dependence on them. But if I were to ask her for one she’d be aghast. She might even flinch. I can hear it: an, “uh… excuse me?” in a tone that made clear the person who needed excusing was me, not her.

“Can I ask you something?” you said to us and naturally neither of us flinched, but instead said ‘sure!’ K had just been talking about a guy we both knew who presented himself as a highly attractive man, even though we ferociously assured each other that he was totally not. K had done his voice, the louche, “Yeah, hi…” and had mimicked the slight head roll backwards he did when he extended his hand, as if he were James Franco in a Gucci ad. You seemed like the sort of guy who played or had played a lot of video games, but was also able to joke winningly about playing or having played a lot of video games. You looked to be in your late thirties, that age when having come to an acceptance of your ginger stubble and your slight belly was so complete and so palpable in its ease and humility, that it actually cast you as attractive. In the movie, you’d be the best friend of Kristin Wiig who’d at last realize that kindness trumped Jon Hamm’s facial features and that her soulmate has been there all along.

“Did a bird just shit on my back?” you said, and turned round, in a slight crouch, to present your back and its black t shirt to us. Not a guano smirch in sight. This, for some reason, struck me as exultant, miraculous. My God, we were so happy to tell you that you were all good. You thanked us and went on your way and we watched you go.

“‘Did a bird just shit on my back?’” K echoed to himself, amused, and this time there was affection in his voice, doing your voice.