Stranger, Can You Spare an Ear?

Virtual strangers confide in me all the time, mostly on public transportation.

Here are the “shares” I heard just last month on commuter buses to and from work:

  1. He had a Lap-Band because he was an emotional eater.
  2. She was on probation (the post-incarceration kind).
  3. She never loved her husband and didn’t breast feed her son
  4. His Baby-Mama was sleeping with his brother.
  5. He was back on Zoloft.

It happens away from home too. On a flight back from Mexico, the woman sitting next to me, who in retrospect I hope was not hitting on me, came out to me as practice for telling her father.

All confessions that seemed meant for a “bestie,” family, spiritual counselor, or maybe Dear Diary, so why me?

Is it my smile, my big brown eyes, the invisible-to-me neon sign on my forehead that says Tell-Me-Your-Secrets? Now.

Does my messy hair signal that I’m mostly okay with messy stories? How do they know that I will calmly sit through TMI without OMGing or WTFing all over the place?

Being near several transportation hubs, I catch different buses all the time, and it’s rare to see them again. Nor can I imagine what would come next if I did since I’m good with counting these as one-time-only public services, and not the kind of ongoing support of, say, therapy.

Each encounter—from cheaters to transgenders—has been fairly organic, with only the fleeting gasp or glare from a fellow passengers—perhaps hints to switch to a neutral topic like the weather.

What is unspoken, yet clear during our brief time together is that although I’ve been invited in, it’s not to fix anything or even give my opinion. No pep talks, silver linings, or recommended action plans either.  Just listening, witnessing, and being there.

A co-worker of eleven years seems to have a TMI magnet too, but resists.  Loudly. On commutes, she boasts that she’s the one with the headphones, IPhone, IPAD, and scowls that say if you bug her, you might die. “I have to set boundaries,” she tells me in a way that means I’m included even though she starts several friendly, yet superficial conversations with me each day.

I have headphones, techy toys, and Darth Vader shields up too on those days when I’m nowhere near available for heavy “shares” and just want to be on me, but otherwise, if the stranger seems harmless, I’m open. Well, after a thirty-second adjustment to the fact that we’re not going to talk about the weather.

Not that I understand it completely, but maybe it’s sometimes easier to dump secrets on a stranger who doesn’t have backstory, biases, access to the rest of their circle, OR ANY INTEREST WHATSOEVER IN UPDATES.

It’s a fast-moving world I want to slow down, so I’m up for a half-dozen or so random authentic moments like this a month to drizzle on top of the hurried, fakey ones that fill most days at the office.

Also, I think when we tap into someone’s struggle, pain or complexities, we often get a glimpse of our own—past and present—or else a human roadmap for where not to go, and isn’t that why we read autobiographies and watch Lifetime movies?

Yesterday, as I was waiting for a bus home, I heard a craggy voice say, “Make a Wish” and I turned to see a Willie Nelson sort of fellow holding out a plastic cupcake with a candle in it, and of course, he had a story for me too.

To lending an ear,

N. Shami

7 thoughts on “Stranger, Can You Spare an Ear?

  1. Oh boy, do I feel for you. I’ve had “Mother Confessor” lit up over my head for a long time now. I’m a professional writer, so stories are very important to me. I’ll listen to anybody once. I will admit that I now have a thing about avoiding public transit because that’s where I’ve encountered the stranger folks who really need someone to listen to them.

    • Yup, I like stories too and public transportation is a very, VERY good source, although sometimes they are stranger-than-life and I’m barely awake and just trying to get to work. LOL.

  2. Sometimes talking to a stranger is the cheapest alternative to a shrink. There are hardly any repercussions and often it can lead to a really open conversation from both sides.
    I often get into deep and interesting discussions with people on planes, streetcars, trains etc. Sometimes it can get a bit heated if the person strays into the ‘no-no’ zone (i.e. politics & religion). But if they just want to talk about their lives and how they want a change, I can get into that.

  3. I love this post. I can relate. I always joke I have “social worker” written across my forehead (I have my masters in SW), because literally everyone comes to me about their secrets or life obstacles. And by everyone, I mean strangers as well. It’s amazing. I’ve always wondered what it was in me that attracted others to tell me their life stories. Maybe we’re just approachable looking people, maybe we present ourselves in non judgmental ways, maybe we look friendly and kind. I’ve always thought of it as a compliment and I hope you do as well!

    • One “social worker” (without the degree) to another, I like your take on this, but it usually takes the rearview glance to see it as a compliment of trust and approachability. Peace…

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