Being a Stranger

Julia was the first woman I met when I moved to Austin.

She was a barista at the Starbucks by my apartment.  Before I had internet, I had Starbucks.  Before I had friends, I had Julia.  So every night until Time Warner had the decency to stop by, I went to Starbucks to use their internet and talk to Julia.

And thus began my coffee addiction.

Julia provided for me the classic conundrum of customer-based acquaintanceship.  She knew my name, and when I walked through the door, she would wave and ask me how I was doing.  I knew sparse details about her past and a general scope of her present.  We would chat, and then I would order coffee, sit down for two hours, and disappear.

Are employees friendly because you’re a customer, or friendly because you’re a friend?  Can a customer ever really be considered a friend?  Well, I didn’t know, and I didn’t bother finding out, because one day, Time Warner showed up and installed my internet.  I didn’t go back to Starbucks for weeks.

Then I ran out of coffee beans, so I went back to Starbucks, and Julia was there behind the counter as always.  She called me out on having disappeared for so long, so I explained that I finally had internet and was making coffee at home.  We then talked for a while as always, then I ordered coffee for old time’s sake, sat down for a while, and at closing, began to walk towards the exit.

Julia called out at me as I was leaving:

“Hey, Jeff.  Don’t be a stranger.”

I smiled.  “Don’t worry, I’ll be back.”

I haven’t been back to that Starbucks since.  That was two years ago.

As it turns out, I think about Julia often.  I’m not quite sure what role I played in her life, if any role at all, but I’d like to think she looked forward to seeing me walk through those doors every night, if for no other reason than to establish a brief and thin thread of a connection with some other human being on this planet.  Goodness knows, I looked forward to seeing her, if for no other reason than to see another human being smile back.

A recurring theme: that mystique behind characters who enter your life briefly only to leave as quickly as they have arrived.  Some of the most important characters in my life’s story are people whose names I never even knew, and yet they stand for me as symbolic representations of ideas or romantic sentiments.  For instance, there was a woman on a train in Eastern Europe with which I watched the landscape pass by through our window – the star-crossed lovers that never were (yes, quite a cliche, but so is happiness).  There was a woman once trapped in an elevator with which I conversed from the other side for an afternoon – a testament to the silliness of blind courtship.  Somewhere, an old coworker I chased with futile vehemence, perhaps because I knew it was futile, perhaps because I knew we were the worst possible match, and therefore nothing was at stake.

Women, women, women… I won’t lie – I’m a sucker for forever-lost pseudo-connections.  I’m sorry, Julia.

And yet, these individuals I meet for an hour, for a day, for years throughout college, and never meet again – they torment me, because as much as I enjoy the poetic angst of a lost connection, deep down inside, I hate myself for it.  Perhaps I listen to too much Russian music.  Maybe I’m afraid of vulnerability.  Regardless, I look back on these individuals with a form of self-spite, angry that I so willingly left them, or let them so willingly leave me.

Call it the Tragedy of Friends that Never Were.

Maybe I was that tragedy for Julia.  Maybe not.  Who knows?

And yet, for some reason, I often hear her voice telling me, “Hey, Jeff.  Don’t be a stranger,” and those words resonate with me, because now every time I meet someone whom I am destined to lose to time or mild acquaintanceship, I think, “Hey.  Don’t be a stranger,” and that thought occurs not in my voice, but in Julia’s.

In due time, I will start saying that to people: “Hey, don’t be a stranger.”  They will hear it in my voice, but really it will be Julia’s words.  I owe it to her to pass on a little bit of our brief past together to those who share a brief present with me.

And then suddenly I wonder: how much of what we say to each other is said in secret homage to someone else?

About Doctor Quack

Just another bonehead with an internet connection.
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11 Responses to Being a Stranger

  1. larissa says:

    I love your blog, Doctor Quack!

  2. Becky says:

    Perhaps it’s time to go back to Starbucks. Maybe they know what happened to Julia and she can become more than a stranger to you. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.

  3. Jon Hayman says:

    Think you got troubles? Cal just lost to Oregon 55 – 17. It could have been 75, but the Ducks let their 5th string play the 4th quarter. What does that have to do with Julia? Pretend Julia is the Rose Bowl…

  4. probinso2013 says:

    This was epic and absolutely resonated with me–shared a donut with a homeless man named Reggie in the wee hours of the morning and felt a similar connection!

  5. Curious how I’ve been wondering of late how many people from my past who have flitted in and out of the landscape of my life, think about me as often as I think of them. Perhaps it’s more often than I imagine it to be, i.e. never. I share the “don’t be a stranger” trigger, but also – music. Hearing a tune that was shared or had significance to memory will stop me in my tracks and give me pause to reminisce over days gone by, even missed opportunities, or – declined opportunities.

    Your post helps me to believe that there are people who I remember with frequency who, perhaps, think of me as often.

  6. Yelena says:

    speaking as a former starbucks employee, I think this whole sentiment is the goal of every starbucks employee past, present, and future

  7. marialla says:

    Sometimes our brief meetings are meant to be just that. They give us a chance to be our best – yes sometimes, by accident, our worst but mostly not – and put our best foots forward. Our feelings are warm and we remember a nice smile and try our best to give the same to someone else. No point in feeling too guilty – if it was meant to go further it would for sure!!

  8. Sue J says:

    This was really touching and beautifully written. I know this feeling and have felt the same lament after walking out the door or allowing them to. I discussed it once with another who suffered (yes, indeed) the same thoughts. “There are so many interesting people in the world; it seems a shame to limit ourselves,” I had said.

    “I know,” he agreed. “I want to touch every one of them.”

    And then we shared a moment of silence, mixed with hope at the possibility of it and lament over the impossibility of it. A year or so later, we’d part company in exactly that hesitant way and he would become part of my lifetime lament.

    Your mention of the Russian music that might feed it struck a chord with me, too. This same person once made the observation that I listened to a lot of sad music. It’s true. I try not to but it is what pulls me in, maybe because I yearn to feel that sadness sometimes. I recently watched an interview of Anthony Hopkins wherein he spoke of that same sadness. He blamed it on his Welsh heritage, saying that the Welsh were an introspective and consequently sad bunch. Part of my ancestry is Welsh, so I listened hard to his words. Ultimately, he thought it a good thing, as it fed his ability to fall deeply into his characters. I think his performances on screen speak well of the value of this thing we sometimes feel is a curse. Well, it made me feel a bit better anyway. 🙂

  9. Pingback: The Saga of Expression | Doctor Quack

  10. Sean Gasser says:

    You should swing by that Starbucks for the mere chance you run into her. If nothing else it would be a repetition. Walker Percy defines it as: “The re-enactment of a past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time.” – if that makes sense. Those two years you’ve been away will suddenly come into focus.
    Also reminds me of a scene or two in Rules of Attraction: Sean Bateman tells Lauren that he “just wants to know you,” to which she replies: “What does that mean know me, know me, nobody ever knows anybody else, ever! You will never know me.” Then later on Paul Denton approaches Sean at an outdoor snowy stage and tells him that he just wants to know him, to know who he is. Sean responds with “No one ever knows anyone. You’re not ever going to know me. Deal with it.” He basically steals Lauren’s words and uses it for himself.
    Anyway Jeff, don’t be a stranger.

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