By Jade

“You real sexy.  Need some help with those groceries?”

I didn’t see his face–the city has taught me to avoid eye contact–but it doesn’t matter.  They’re always the same.  While I’m rounding the corner of my block, or the one on the way to the subway, they talk to me.  Something about my body has given them permission.  But I don’t talk back.  Instead, I adjust my posture and my body answers for me: “Not interested.”

It’s a funny thing, talking to strangers.  It’s a universal mandate of American childhood: Don’t do it.  They want to steal you or touch you or otherwise corrupt you via the unknown.  But as you get older, you learn who the good strangers are.  Your parents’ friends, the grocery checker, attractive people.  As shy as I used to be, even with my own extended family, I became exceedingly outgoing in college.  And if there was one thing being a writer (or listening to The White Stripes) taught me then, it was that every single one’s got a story to tell–if you get him talking.  So I got people talking.  And I turned strangers into friends very easily.

But then I moved to New York, where we’re all so guarded, in the daylight, among strangers.  Doormen of our own lives, really.  I ride the subway with the same faces every morning, offer up my seat to the same pregnant woman at least once a week, and exchange coy looks with the same Irish-looking guy in biz-cas, but I’ll never know their names.  Even my voice forming an “excuse me” as my body tries to negotiate its place on the subway sounds jarring.  Because you’re just not meant to talk during the morning commute.  So I try to cover the “excuse me” with a cough, try to suck it back inside, but I can’t.

I’ve talked to strangers.

I spent the weekend before last outside the city, in one of those other places I call home.  Princeton is the kind of place where strangers don’t really exist because it’s one big country club and you’ve all done enough to get in.  So you talk to someone because he has a cute dog or a cute baby, or because you’re digging her tiger print dress, or because you’re an undergrad who wants to know what life is like two years out.  You exchange pleasantries, or maybe find your soulmate, and it feels good.

But sometimes the conversations you have with strangers aren’t the kind you just strike up–even in places like Princeton.  And I came to understand that very clearly that weekend.

Long story short, I found myself in the waiting room of the Princeton Medical Center ER (accompanying a friend who is fine now, thank Goodness).

An elderly woman–Marge, as I would soon discover–entered the room, wheeled in by her equally elderly husband.  I didn’t know her story, or why she was in the emergency room, but the sight of her there bubbled up a dull, achy compassion deep in my chest.  I avoided eye contact in my city way, and partially out of respect for whatever delicate situation she might be in, and retreated back into the safety of my iPhone.  Until I couldn’t.

A yelp of pain, a flutter of hands, a look of desperation on an 80-year-old face.  Help.

Marge’s foot had slipped from the wheelchair’s footrest, and the weight of it hanging there had her in agony.

Her husband tried to support it with his own fragile hands, but his already crooked back was straining under the dead weight.

“Get a nurse!” Marge whimpered.  But if he let go, or moved her foot even a centimeter, he’d leave her in extraordinary pain.  “Get a nurse!”

“Don’t worry, I’ll get someone.”  I spoke up.  “I’ll get someone right now.”

A wash of relief on Marge’s face, a thank you on her lips.  “People don’t normally go out of their way for strangers.  God bless you.”  I was her angel without wings.

I ran to the receptionist, who hardly acknowledged the frantic young woman in front of her, and even less the elderly woman moaning a few feet away.  “This woman needs help.  Please get a nurse out here now.”

“The nurse will be with her when it’s her turn.”

“I don’t care about her turn.  She needs help.  Right now.”

“Someone will be out here when it’s her turn.”

“Are you listening to me?  Are you listening to her?”

“I can hear what you’re saying.”

“Then why aren’t you doing anything about it?!”

At this point, I had raised my voice.  The woman, cold as a hospital room, retreated into her booth, slid closed the glass door, and sealed herself up inside.

I ran back to Marge.  Both of us were on the verge of tears.  “I’m trying.”

“Can you help me?”

So there I was, on my knees in a hospital waiting room, propping up an 80-year-old ankle with my small, nervous hands.  Her skin was ill fitting, as if it might tear at any moment, like that of an overripe plum.

“Thank you, darling.  Thank you.  Not many people would do this for a stranger.”

Marge and I had a sweet little chat while I was crouched there.  I tried to distract her from the pain by regaling her with stories of Reunions shenanigans.  Her smile fell around me like a halo.

Eventually, a nurse came (when it was Marge’s turn, I suppose).  We exchanged warm goodbyes.  I said I hoped we’d meet again under more pleasant circumstances, and I meant it.

We were no longer strangers.