I do not easily connect with people and have few friends. I do not even have many casual acquaintances. But every now and then, I have a completely random but deeply meaningful encounter with a total stranger. This usually happens in a bar — and not necessarily because I am drinking — but perhaps because the stranger is.
One evening last fall, I was inspired by the drizzly weather and early darkness to go for a pint of cider in a cosy taproom after I got off the bus after work. The place was comfortably busy with no large groups; just couples and a few individuals, most of whom were busy looking at their phones. As usual, I had a notebook with me for company, but I was not inspired to write. I had had a very busy day and just wanted to chill.
I was sharing a large table with a man who was seated kitty-corner across from me. He was absorbed in his phone for a while, but then he suddenly put it way, as though to get up and leave, even though he was only halfway through his pint. But he leaned down and reached for something on the floor. He lifted a black garbage bag onto the seat beside him and pulled out a large spiral notebook. It had been at least doubled in thickness from having been used as a scrapbook. I watched him examine it and shortly he looked up and met my gaze. I asked if it was his scrapbook, or one that belonged to someone else. He suddenly teared up and took off his glasses to wipe his eyes. I immediately apologized for intruding — but he was equally quick to apologize for being emotional. I said I would leave him alone to enjoy the scrapbook.
I redirected my attention to the one of the large TV screens, but only a few minutes later, he was pushing the scrapbook towards me to show a photograph of himself with his brother taken when they were young.
The scrapbook had been compiled by his brother, a musician who worked enough to make a living at it — but probably not so much as to lose the fundamental joy of it. The scrapbook was full of the usual photos of friends and family, but there were also artifacts from life of a musician on the road: Greyhound bus tickets; airline boarding passes; show bills; newspaper and magazine clippings, and so on. For almost an hour, we turned page after page, and my companion improvised a narrative of his brother’s life.
The brother had just passed away, and the last few days had been spent in the brother’s apartment, going through the contents and deciding the fate of it all. Some things needed a little more consideration and had been put in the garbage bag as that was all that was available. After leaving the brother’s apartment, he decided to stop for a beer on the way home. And this was literally the first time he had ever seen the scrapbook.
When we were done, he returned the scrapbook to the garbage bag and finished the last of his beer. He thanked me for allowing him to show and tell. And he apologized again for his initial emotional reaction. I thanked him for sharing it with me. It had been a wonderful glimpse of the life of a person I never knew and who recently departed this world. I have no interest whatsoever in music, but the life this man led as a musician was interesting, as was the lifelong relationship of the these two rather different brothers.
Lifelong connections are special. But in the absence of those, a collection of random chance encounters with strangers can add up to something equally special.