chance meetings


    I’m a collector. Not a keep-it-in-the-box-so-it-will-be-valuable-someday kind of guy, as much as I like to keep things around for a few days (weeks, years) before I let them go. Things like grocery store receipts, ticket stubs, random pieces of paper that somehow ended up in my pocket. I have brochures and postcards, old magazines, business cards scattered here and yon around the house and, every so often (though not as often as Ginger would like) I clear (at least some of) them out.

    My mind is much like the top of my desk in that I collect random bits of information, both useful and not so, and keep them tucked away in what passes for a mental filing system, but is perhaps more like one of those random thought generators that goes to the pile and pushes one to the top every so often. One of my favorite recurring metaphors that keeps bouncing back came from a Wittenburg Door article in the late Seventies or early Eighties that talked about “billiard ball relationships” and how we spend most of our lives deflecting off one another on our way to somewhere else rather than spending the time and energy required to listen to and love one another. Even in the incidental contact of life, we can find meaning and connection rather than allowing ourselves to offer nothing more than a glancing blow.

    Somewhere around the same time, Christine Lavin sang a song that I keep in the same file, “The Moment Slipped Away,” that begins:

    She’s a famous actress movies and TV
    I recognize her as we climb the stairs of the IRT
    we cross the street together moving up Broadway
    I’m trying to come up with something clever I can say
    about how I love her work what it means to me
    how in her most recent film she acted brilliantly
    maybe she’ll think I’m stupid maybe this’ll make her day
    but she disappeared into the crowd and the moment slipped away

    Both metaphor and melody found me in the afternoon flow of this fall day in 2009 as I was out running errands. I had three tasks: take the Story People poster Ginger gave me for framing, get light bulbs at Lowe’s, and get gas for the lawnmower. My first stop was the TROSA Frame Shop, which also sells furniture. TROSA is Triangle Residence Options for Substance Abusers and a wonderful organization that helps addicts get back on their feet through work. Along with the frame shop, they have a landscaping business and a moving company; all three do great work at fair prices. I’ve been going to the frame shop for over a year now and have gotten to know the woman who does the framing at least well enough that we call each other by name and have told a little bit of our stories.

    At the end of April last year, I stopped in the store because I was passing by and saw her at the desk. She beamed as she told me she was just days away from being clean for eighteen months. I asked her what that meant and she said, “It means I get forty dollars of my own each month.” She continued, “That don’t sound like much, but when you’ve gone eighteen months without two nickels to rub together, it feels like a lot.” TROSA had provided her housing, employment, and support over that time, but that forty bucks meant she had earned their trust.

    I have not seen her since. Today, I walked in as she was coming down the stairs and she smiled, called my name, and gave me a big hug. Before I could say anything about framing, she told me November 3rd had been her two year anniversary. She had completed the program, was going to graduate on November 15th, and was now in school training to become a TROSA staffer.

    I felt fortunate to get to share her excitement and achievement.

    I parked at the BP station not far from our house and went in to pay for the dollar’s worth of gas I needed for the mower. When I came out, a Pontiac that looked as though it had come off the assembly line about the same time as Christine Lavin’s record was parked behind me. The driver’s door was open and a man who looked quite frail was sitting with one foot out on the pavement, looking at my car and perhaps wondering what had happened to the driver. When I walked up, he said, “I like your license plate.” (I have Red Sox frames around them.”) I thanked him and he continued, “I was up there in 1980 – Carlton Fisk’s last season.”

    “We moved from there about two years ago,” I answered. “I like it here, too.”

    “More laid back,” he said, and smiled. I wished him a good evening and then he said, “Nice to meet you. I don’t imagine I will be seeing you again.”

    He turned our glancing blow into a lovely moment of truth and connectedness. We probably won’t see each other again. (Right – now watch us run into each other at the gas station once a week.) The brevity of our contact in the scope of human history shouldn’t diminish the moment of common humanity we shared. How much better a life full of those kinds of chance meetings over one filled with silent passings.

    Someone has said of language that we have words for what matters to us. Take note, then, we do not have words for the kinds of encounters that colored my afternoon. The frame lady and I are not friends, yet we are more than acquaintances or passing strangers. The gas station guy are more than passing strangers simply because we took time to speak. We have words for neither.

    Both need names lest we forget they matter, and they help to make us whole.



    1. I love this one … I, too, am a collector of moments. I think of them as dots to collect. Thanks for connecting these dots so beautifully. I love the picture you framed.

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