While I was writing Stranger Things and thinking about the way strangers’ lives intersect, I went to the grocery store. It was a spontaneous visit at an odd hour and my daughter was with me—all three details out of the ordinary. I don’t remember what we went there to get, but we as we rounded the coffee aisle we surprised a woman with her face turned upward toward the bulk dispensers. She was leaning in on tiptoe, eyes closed, and savoring the aroma of roasted beans while her children investigated the boxed crackers.
My daughter and I must have arrived suddenly. We startled her and she began to laugh in that blushing way of having been caught doing something she never thought anyone would see.
Those who know me know I don’t see anything odd about sniffing the coffee bins. I keep Starbucks in business. I make my coffee before I make my children’s breakfast. I can drink it at any time of day, any time of year. I eat coffee beans (if they’re coated in chocolate).
From my point of view, her behavior was normal. But she couldn’t know I wanted to erase her embarrassment just as badly as she wanted to explain herself.
She’d just moved to the area, she said, and something had happened to her coffee pot. I don’t remember. Lost in the move, or broken, or maybe left behind. She hadn’t brewed any for a while. I commiserated with her about that. She was pleasant, smiling, responsive in a way that invited conversation. We introduced our kids. We talked about grocery stores in the neighborhood, where the nearest farmer’s market was, where everyone went to school. And then I asked, “What brought you here?”
Her eyes fell away from mine and her hand stroked the fine hair of her youngest. It was a gentle, protective gesture. “We came to get away from a bad situation,” she said. Her smile stayed in place but now I could see the strength she possessed to keep it there.
The awkwardness of our encounter shifted balance then from the coffee-sniffing customer to the empty-handed witness. It’s one thing to bump elbows with strangers in tight quarters and discover you have something in common. It’s quite another to find yourself standing face to face with a real need that you have no resources to meet.
It was not the place, in the presence of children, and I was not the person, having done nothing to earn her trust, to ask for details. But I did ask if she had reliable support—friends, family, community—and she assured me she did, and I believed her.
After we parted ways I went straight to the store’s gift card kiosk and selected one from a home furnishings store. I sent my daughter to the car for a coupon to the same store, which I happened to have in the glove box. I paid for the card, wrote my phone number next to my name and address that was printed on the coupon, and returned to the aisles. We found her by the freezers.
I called her name—to this day I remember her name, and the names of her children, powerful and promising names, and I think, with names like that you’re all going to be just fine—I called her name and she turned, and I pressed my little offerings into her hand and said, “Please go buy yourself a coffee pot.”
Part of me wanted to apologize. What’s a coffee pot to a woman who has just had to uproot her life and her children and make a run to safety? Nothing, I’m sure. But it was what I had to offer. She accepted with profuse gratitude that says for more about her character than mine.
This is the real awkwardness of encountering strangers. Not the moment when you could avoid each other but make eye contact instead. No, it’s the moment when you choose to offer up some part of your true self, knowing how inadequate it is. But you do it anyway, because you also know that doing nothing when you could do a paltry something is a betrayal of love.
Every once in a while the loud clamoring pain of the overwhelming world fades, and you find yourself face to face with just one person. You will see something that perhaps no one meant you to see, and you will be the right person to see it, and tend to it, though the tending be awkward.
Have you ever had an awkward encounter with a stranger?