Class Notes

Urban Encounters

On the art of talking to strangers

By Paula Marantz Cohen | April 9, 2013


What I like about city life is the chance to learn through chance encounters with strangers. Only in a city—and I’m thinking here of New York, where I lived for many years and still visit often—can you spend the day in serendipitous meetings with people—in diners, on the street, in museums, in buses or on the subway. The opportunities for random talk are endless.

I chat with people about their dogs and always learn some minor fact that I didn’t know: like that the Welsh terrier is a breed derived from the airedale terrier.

A woman I ran into in a coffee shop on the Upper East Side once told me where I could get a terrific foot massage. Another in a thrift shop in Murray Hill tipped me off to the 23rd Street thrift shop crawl—about five shops, all superlative where it is possible to unearth an endless supply of inexpensive, if superfluous, items. We ended up shopping there together.

Then there’s the woman at the Museum of Modern Art, who recommended the exhibit of Renaissance drawings at the Morgan. And the guy selling the bracelets on the street who told me that I could get a cheaper bottle of water at another vender a few blocks down.

Mostly, though, I speak to people not to learn anything but to connect—to have that fleeting moment of goodwill. Like when I complimented a woman on her boots and she said: “Really? I wasn’t sure about them. They cost too much.” Or when I told the guy in the guitar store, who had mentioned that he’d been working there for 40 years, that he didn’t look a day over 30. He said the same of me, which brought to mind a line from a Shakespeare sonnet—“and so I lie with her and she with me / and so we both with lies in comfort be.”

Sometimes, of course, one’s collegiality is not returned, like the other day in Soho when I asked a man with a baby slung around his neck how old the infant was. He answered peremptorily, “six weeks,” then moved away, as though annoyed that he might be asked more questions. I felt like telling him that he had no business bringing a six-week-old outside in a cute carryall and refusing to talk. It’s an unwritten law of the city that dogs and babies are fair game for people like me to fawn over. If he can’t conform to this law, he should keep his kid inside.

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