I enjoy meeting strangers when I travel. You get to share stories and hear about people’s lives who live so very far away from you. It brings the world a little bit closer together.
I met a few strangers in New Orleans. One such person was a teenage black girl with an undecided number of kids who was trying to kick a cocaine habit. We had an encounter.
“Meeting A Stranger in New Orleans”
Having had enough walking for the day and knowing the three miles downtown would generate enough sweat to fill a bottle of cologne: -Body Salts, For Him or For Her – especially in this humid New Orleans climate, I decided I would, for the first time, take the streetcar. I crossed the road to wait on the bench. The streetcar ran in each direction either side of me.
A few minutes later, as I was just finishing up the last of my root beer, a black girl about three years my junior, maybe eighteen or nineteen, came and sat on the bench with me. I didn’t look at her.
“Uhh, hi!” My confidence came out too well, far too well.
“Woah, calm down. You had too much root beer or what?”
I had sounded like a hyperactive child. I now had a choice. I could either continue on regardless and form a stupid, overeager personality for myself that would exhaust me and would eventually be found out, and cause her to wonder why the hell I had acted like that and think me insane which, admittedly, wouldn’t have been too unfair a judgment. Or I could try and recover myself, admit I was trying too hard to be friendly, and have her think I was trying to hard to be friendly because I wanted to hit on her and she would call me a pervert and that would be that.
“Sorry, umm, hi. I’m Chirpy.”
“Hi Chirpy. I’m Timone.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“I like your accent. Where you from?”
“England. Way, way over there.” I pointed in a random direction, having absolutely no idea which way I meant. I think it was supposed to be a humorous moment. She didn’t laugh.
“I live down there, one of those side-streets.” She pointed the same way I had, in the direction away from downtown.
“Looks like a nice area,” I said. I still hadn’t looked at her. I was turning the empty root beer can in my hand.
She said, “Naw, it’s shitty. It’s where all the poor people live. Poor black people. ‘Cause it’s all racist, y’know? We get the shitty places and I have to, I’ve got to work three jobs to look after my kid.”
“Three jobs? Damn.”
The mention of racism made me uncomfortable. Not because I was racist but because I just knew I was going to say something stupid.
“Yeah, I know right? Three jobs! And the dad, fuck knows where he is now. He sure ain’t around, that’s for sure.”
“But you know who the father is?”
“Shit yeah, I know who he is! You ain’t calling me a whore, are ya?”
Well, there it was. That didn’t take long. Christ.
“No, no, no, no! Of course not. I meant, maybe you could find him?”
“Naw, that ain’t happening. And I can’t even get benefits ‘cause I’ve got three jobs but if you’re working you ain’t getting no benefits. Know what I’m saying?”
“Yeah?” Not really no.
“I’m working my ass off and I’m trying to study, get a degree. I wanna be a nurse, not that anyone would employ me ‘cause I’m black. So I work three jobs, come home and look after my kids and try and learn this nursing shit.”
I was beginning to doubt the credibility of this story, mainly for practical reasons. There wasn’t enough time in the day for three jobs, studying, and looking after a child, surely? Plus first it was singular, my kid, now it was plural, look after my kids. Even the worst parents wouldn’t forget how many children they have, right?
Timone continued, “And I’m still jittery most of the time. Been off for two weeks and it’s getting to me, you know? I lash out, specially if someone disrespects me.”
In the distance I could see the two headlights of a streetcar probing in the dusk light, coming our way.
“Why would anyone disrespect you?” I asked, as I fumbled in my pocket for my coins. I had heard it was a buck twenty five.
“Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking, people shouldn’t disrespect me. I can see you’re a good guy, Chirpy, but you don’t know people like I do. People disrespect me all the time. I wanna be like, Fuck off bitch, you don’t know the shit I’m going through. I know if I just had one hit, one little hit, I’d relax and I could be a good mom, but I know people who’ve stayed on, yeah? Gets them in the end. Jarnesha, look what happened to her.”
Thankfully I didn’t learn about Jarnesha, although I’m sure the blurry photos on Timone’s phone were fraught with intrigue. The streetcar approached.
We stood up. I made sure I had a dollar and four quarters ready, just in case it was more than $1.25. I didn’t want to have to search around for change in front of everyone. I knew I’d end up not being able to find my coins and have to mumble an eye contact-less apology and walk off with the stares of the normal people in the streetcar burning into me as they trundled off.
“I don’t wanna end up like Jarnesha so I’m working my ass off in school and these three jobs. One day I’ll go to Paris. I’d love to go to Paris. Most romantic city in the world, I know it. I’ll meet a proper man and we’ll go to Paris and I’ll be a nurse and I’ll be clean, real clean, and I won’t be jittery and lash out at people anymore ‘cause people won’t disrespect me. We’ll have a good life.”
The streetcar stopped. Simone went on first and I watched her as she paid her money into the machine next to the driver. She put the coins in the slot and took the ticket that came out another slot. There was a piece of paper stuck on the side of the machine. In the few seconds I got I couldn’t read much of it but I did see $1.25 written there somewhere. I stepped up and paid my dollar bill and one quarter. I panicked as my ticket didn’t immediately come out of the machine. I felt a tiny tear of sweat . Then the ticket came. I grabbed it like it was the greatest gift in the world.
I looked for Timone, found Timone, and sat as far away as possible from Timone as I could.
Anyone else have any strange stories of meeting strangers? Comments please!