there's people been friendly
but they'd never be your friends
sometimes this has bent me to the ground
now that this is all ending
I want to hear some music once again
'cause it's the finest thing I have ever found
"elijah," rich mullins
I seem to be a preeminently approachable person. I do not say this as a boast, for I do not really mean to be this way. But the evidence gives weight to the conclusion: when I was walking the High Line in New York City I was stopped by complete strangers and asked to take their picture for them; in the Boston subway station, an Asian woman swung round on me and asked me the way to...some place that started with an A (thankfully there was a native nearby who could help, because I couldn't). In the grocery store, in shopping centres, I'm stopped by complete strangers and chatted to. I am usually not alone, and yet people always stop to talk to me.
You know me. I'm a writer. I'm an introvert. I'm five feet tall with half an inch tacked on as a kind of salt-rub in the wry wound. I've got plain-jane brown eyes, a mane of hair highly susceptible to humidity; due to chronic kidney infections as a child and the medicine I had to take for them, my teeth are permanently stained. I am not a quick thinker on my feet and I am painfully aware of all my defects. I have little to nothing to recommend me. So why do people stop me?
I'm not sure, but I have a suspicion. This morning at a clothing store, as I was on my way to the cashier, I passed by the manager who was talking to another employee. I had already breasted them and gone past when I heard the manager ask how I was. I was in full forward tilt but, realizing I was the one he was speaking to, courtesy demanding I turn back. And I did so. I get so peeved with people who mumble, "Fine, thanks..." and shuffle on without making eye contact. I always make a point of making eye contact, being sincere in my response when asked how I am, and I try always to ask how the other person is doing himself. So I did so - looking back on it, I think I gave my head the most childish little tilt to the side, too, which only amplified my naive aura. I'm not sure I want to know what the manager thought of me, but my modus operandi seemed to turn the cashier's haggard expression into interest; she commented on the shirt I had bought and what a nice colour it was, on this and that and the other thing, and she was really nice - I was glad I had taken the time to be nice to her. The same thing happened at the grocery store, and the Sephora store when I went down to restock on my mascara. People were polite - you have to be polite in business or you don't get any business - but they seemed to open up more when I looked them in the face and took the time to think and reply and be kind in return.
I know I am a naive creature. I combine a paradoxical mix of starched cynicism and unflagging naivete, and I am aware of that. Yet I am always pleasantly surprised by a show of friendliness in other people, and I think people, likewise, are pleasantly surprised by a show of friendliness from me. My sister-in-law calls me a free spirit and I try to take that sunshine with me whenever I go out. People seem to brighten up because of it. I make a point of looking at them like they are real human beings that actually matter in the scheme of the universe, I make a point of asking them how they are as if how they are really matters. It doesn't matter what they look like or where they work, how good or bad a day they are having: I could make it better just by smiling and being my sincere, naive little self.
I find it hard not to smile when I am out in public: it's my default setting. And I think people see that. I think that might be why they come up and talk to me. In Rosemary Sutcliff's Bonnie Dundee, John Graham of Claverhouse is described as one who looked at you as if you were the only man in the world. I want to be like that. I want to look a person in the face as if they were the only person in the world, smile as if that smile were for them alone, and really mean what I say. It could be I restore their faith in the basic kindliness of man to man - could be I show them a charity only heaven's kind knows. Whatever it is, they do matter, and though I may not see them again this side of Judgment Day, I want them to know that, if only for one moment. I want them to know that to at least one person on the planet their existence was not taken for granted.
It will never hurt you to be kind. It may be the thing that heals them.