The Sewing Circle

Every day, I get to learn more about my neighbors than is normal, or sometimes, comfortable. I hear about whose car is dead, whose child is having trouble at school, and why someone I know isn’t speaking to someone else I know and how someone else’s vacation went. All this information comes to me daily and none of it is solicited for. Well, almost none of it.

How many of you have struck up conversations with the person in the seat next to you on a flight to somewhere? Perhaps you’ve made a connection with a total stranger on a long bus ride and said things that really out to be reserved for loved ones, the confines of your own head or a therapists couch. Oddly, it seems to be a fairly universal occurrence. A strange phenomenon happens to people when you throw them together on some form of transportation. We seem to open up and talk with people whom we would normally pass right by with nary a nod or a smile.

Over the years, I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of this experience. The nice girl I met as I flew home to the States from Brussels. She had just finished visiting friends in Europe and was returning home to find a new job. She would be living with her mother for a while until she got her feet under her. Or the young man that my father got to meet on a flight to Hawaii. He was nervous because he would be meeting his fiancé’s parents for the first time. He was Caucasian, she was Japanese and the prospective in-laws were very traditional and old fashioned. It could be any one you meet. All you need to do is add forced confinement with moving in some form of public transport. Amazingly, it almost always seems to lead to loosened tongues and open conversations in my experience, any way.

talking

I have even had a brush with celebrity… sort of. He is famous, at any rate. I recall vividly the two hours I spent chatting happily about nothing in particular with a bearded, old man at a gate in Newark airport. He was animated, extremely interesting to listen to and a great listener in return. He told me about growing up in New York City when he was a little boy. About the day his mother, who was sweeping the front steps of their town house called to him excitedly to run to the front door. When he emerged and looked up, he was just in time to see the Hindenburg pass quietly overhead, heading for Lakehurst. Two hours later, it would be a smoldering wreck. We talked about this and that: kids, parents, friends and history. In the end, we boarded our flight and he wished me well on my trip. It was a pleasure to meet the distinguished Dr. C. Everett Coop, past Surgeon General of the United States. Of all the random chats with strangers I’ve had, his name alone do I remember.

Most folks, I suppose, would attribute this strange opening up of personal space to the rational that we will son be leaving our new found confidants in the next seat and can walk away with no worry of seeing them or any one they might know, ever again. Well, it aint true. It’s got to be something else. I don’t know what, but I know it’s not that. Here’s how I know.

I live on an island and every day, I take a ferry ride to the mainland. The ferry is the great equalizer for the folks who live on the rock we call home. People from big houses and people from small houses alike must ride the boat. It doesn’t matter if you own, rent or are staying with a friend. If you want to get to town, we all ride together. The ride is not a terribly long one. Adding the time you spend sitting in your seat and waiting for the boat to depart on schedule, you’re looking at anywhere from twenty to twenty five minutes. In that short time though, we all get to reacquaint our selves with what’s going on with who.

Conversations are struck up with people whom you only ever talk to on the boat. You might never get together over a cup of coffee and a danish out on the island, but you could easily wind up chatting with this person every day for the length of the boat ride. Even if you don’t participate in the great chatterbox that is the ferry, you still get the benefit, if you can call it that. Though topics of conversation might be a little more restrained than if you knew you had anonymity, you do still hear the details of your fellow islander’s lives as the chatter floats among the seats of the cabin.

A woman down the street from me is going to a conference for a couple of days. She’ll be talking a cab to the bus station and then will be heading for Boston. She’ll get to the station early since she anticipates it being crowded. Her husband is worried about the roof on the building next to his new office. Snow is coming and it looks like it needs work. I find out about a private marriage ceremony on a boat in the marina; the parents, uninvited and the bride, many months pregnant. The public works guys a few rows back are explaining to a fellow islander how the budget for their department works versus the fire and police, and just what they think of that. A young couple I know will be going on a camping trip to Hawaii soon. They don’t know where they will be camping, but they are excited since neither one of them has ever been there before. One of the local fishermen experienced a hernia while he was out working. He made himself a girdle out of duck tape to hold things together until he could steam back to shore and get to the hospital.

None of this information was part of a conversation that I was active in. It simply came to me like radio waves, broadcast across the aether. There is a simple truth to living where I do. There are no secrets. People talk about six degrees of separation, but here, it’s more like two. Though I am continuously amazed at islanders I know doing foolish things such as having affairs, I conclude that they are either just that naive or simply don’t care that they will be inevitably found out. We all know each other’s business and if we don’t, we will soon.

And the truth of the matter is, that’s okay with us. The vast majority of islanders simply don’t mind. Who cares? In many ways, it’s defiantly helpful. There’s less to hide about your life, mostly because there is no point in expending the effort to hid it. We all know each other far better than we should. It also means that we tend to take care of each other pretty well. We know who’s sick and we bring them soup. We know who needs a ride to work and we offer it to them. We know who’s having a party and we show up with clam dip. It’s not quite communal living, but it is community living, to be sure. News travels fast here, good or bad and I rather enjoy that. Why invest in a telescope and a wiretap when all you really need to do is make sure that you’re on the five o’clock boat heading home.

“She’s been seeing HIM? No way!”

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3 Responses

  1. So Sweetiegirlz says: That’s okay. because you may just one day find much wisdom, the answer to a problem, a new friend, someone to help, a lifelong mate, and on and on and on. the only time it becomes a problem is when there is way too much info (graphic) around say,,,kids, or people trying to sleep, or loud cell phone convos.

    That’s also why people watching is so popular with people. What’s more of a lesson than an ‘in your face’ lesson with live people? Have you ever studied body language? It’s amazing.

    It’s really important to think outside of our own existence sometimes. It’s something that most of us forget to do pretty regularly. Riding the ferry just provides us with a mental “poke with a stick” to listen to what other people are saying, feeling or hoping. It’s a good chance to remember that we are, in fact, part of a community.
    -TP

  2. What a lovely post. I really enjoyed reading it.

    I’ve just come off a two day diving trip on a boat and as I sit here I still have the sensation of being on board. As I read your piece and I came to the part about the ferry, I felt I was there with you, as my mixed up cochlea is telling me that I’m still bobbing around on water.

    I thought I was the only one that people have opened up their hearts to when on long flights or bus journeys. I’ve told some amazingly personal things. Perhaps it’s a bit like going to confession. One gets to purge their soul to someone they possibly won’t see again.

    I hope you had a great time diving! The last time Action Girl and I did that was easily four years ago. You have to really steel your self before getting in the water around here, even during high summer and once Short Stack came along… well… It’s going to be a while before we can pull our gear out and use it again.

    I think people do tend to open up way more on a long flight than they would elsewhere. I don’t really know why. I’ve been both Father and confessor on flights. It’s the instant bonding that can happen that interests me. The best example that I can remember was actually a short commuter flight. The crew was exhausted, the flight had been delayed three times and we were all tired and cranky. Once airborne, the flight attendants broke out the booze and handed it out for free while we took turns standing up and reading from a package of Trivial Pursuit cards that someone had and shouting out answers. That was by far the most fun I’ve had on a commercial flight.
    -TP

  3. A great read. I usually chalk those things up to confined spaces or holiday mode; but not realizing (or not caring) that the separation factor between people living in a small community is … small … probably is just as reasonable an explanation.
    Personally, I’ll tell most people anything if they ask. I don’t care. I’m like that. Sometimes I’ll tell them even if they don’t ask. I’m like that too.

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