Smiling at strangers

My cashier at the grocery store looked angry yesterday. Shit, I’d probably be angry too, getting paid a pittance to move food I can hardly afford myself from left to right all day. I eye-smiled at her as I handed her my card, and for a second I could tell she didn’t trust me, she thought I was smiling to be polite and not because I really meant it. But I held her gaze for a few moments beyond the bounds of formality, and her face melted into softness, openness, kindness. She smiled back at me, and I could tell she meant it too. It felt like the whole room got warmer, if only for an instant.

Brooklyn is not a place where people smile at strangers. I’ve started playing a little game: try to make eye contact with random people, and if they hold contact for longer than it takes to look away, smile at them. It’s fun to see the range of reactions, in myself and in everyone else. The most common one – including on my end – is to look away as fast as possible. Sometimes, though, we both make it through the initial fear, and share a moment of seeing and being seen. I’ve even gotten a couple surprised, yet warm, “Hey!”s, from complete strangers.

It’s funny: in the city that dresses more flamboyantly than any other place I’ve been in America, we’re so afraid to be acknowledged or noticed, or to be seen noticing someone else. Avoiding eye contact on a crowded subway car is practically a sport. Why? Why are we so afraid to see each other? To be noticed?

Maybe we’re afraid that once we acknowledge one stranger’s humanity, we’d have to acknowledge the humanity of all the others, too. That schizophrenic half-clothed man on the subway? Yeah, he’s someone’s son. He’s you, with hardly more than randomness standing between your two stations in life. The same is true for the cop dragging him down the platform by the collar, and the goth-punk-emo TikTok kid spray-painting ACAB on the wall a few steps behind while filming herself. Both you.

Get off the subway downtown, and roll your eyes at the suit practically running back to the office, spitting strings of stock tickers and numbers into the phone like a Long Island wizard casting spells. He’s you, too. The red-faced protester blocking traffic on 6th Ave, yelling hashtaggable epithets at invisible powers-that-be, blocking that poor first-generation immigrant delivery driver from getting home to her kids. The same woman screaming poisonous words at her kids, and her kids turning that cruelty onto each other and their classmates. You, you, you.

And the less we acknowledge that fact, the more we look away, the more dangerous it becomes to look back. The more deranged the portraits we paint of each other in our own internal worlds, the more malice we see in an unexpected glance. Why else look away from eye contact, if not from fear? Do we truly have so much to fear from each other?

The crazy guy on the train? Look back at him, hear his story if he can tell it, and underneath you might find a man who really needs to be seen and held. The cop? He feels it’s his duty to shield you from the city’s dangers. The graffiti artist? She’s trying to expose and memorialize the mistreatment of her fellow citizens. The stock trader grew up poor and wants to make sure his kids don’t have the same fate. The activist is bringing awareness to global horrors – what’s a little traffic in comparison? The delivery driver is trying to be a parent to her children, a luxury she herself never had.

In the unexpected moments when the barriers break down between me and one of my yous, I find another me: someone doing their best to keep going, to support themselves and the people around them with the limited time, energy, and insight they have.

So that’s why I smiled at my cashier yesterday. Maybe she’ll pass it on.