Friday, December 5, 2014

We never exchanged names because that would have been weird

But I imagine their names were Chuck and Debbie.  

Lately I've noticed something.  When you're in a big city and you need help with directions, there are plenty of people around you but no one to ask.  Because they are all plugged in to their phones.  And no one - I do mean no one - is going to take those ear buds out of their ears to help you get oriented.  That NPR podcast will trump you every time.    

But if you're lucky you can find a smoker.

The smokers' ranks are also thinning, but they are some of the only people in our society who seem to be willing to stand still for a few minutes and take in their surroundings.  They stand there quietly in their filmy white cloud and ponder.  I'm not sure what they're thinking about but they seem calm and connected and sometimes I wonder if more of us shouldn't take up smoking.  

Just without the tobacco part.   

Last night I was lucky enough to find not one smoker but two in downtown San Francisco, where I needed help getting back to my hotel.

"Excuse me, can you help me get oriented here?" I asked.  I had Google maps loaded on my iPhone and held it up so Chuck and Debbie could see it, because nowadays when a stranger approaches you on the street most people tend to assume you're unstable and they ignore you, and I couldn't afford to be ignored by the only two people in the vicinity who were standing still and not listening to a device.  

And I think Google maps on an iPhone is a clear indicator to the other person that you are not crazy.  

Debbie started laughing.  "Oh no, we're not gonna be able to help you.  We're visitors here ourselves. We just got here last week.  We've been helping our son get settled in.  He's starting a new job in this building right here tomorrow.  We're from Indiana.  We've been staying in Dayton City..."

"Daly City," said Chuck.  Those two words were to be his only contribution to our conversation, but it occurred to me that without Chuck none of us would have been there that evening.  If he hadn't proposed to Debbie on the lake that day in the summer of 1992, they wouldn't have had their son together and the three of them wouldn't have been standing there when I walked out of that building in downtown San Francisco on the evening of December 3, 2014.  

We never talked about how Chuck and Debbie met and got engaged because that would have been weird.

But I imagine that it happened on a boat in the summer of 1992.

"...Daly City," Debbie continued, "But we're going home tomorrow.  We've got stuff we need to do at home, and we've done about all we can to get him settled."  

Their son walked over to us and nodded.  Somehow his frame seemed very very small compared to the giant steel and glass building he was standing in front of.  The rest of his life was about to begin in that building tomorrow.  

And he looked very small.

We talked a little bit about him and his new job and where his new apartment was.  And I asked him if he knew how lucky he was that his parents were there to help him get settled in and he smiled and nodded.  

"Well I'm sorry we weren't able to help you," Debbie said as I walked away.  "Hopefully you can find someone who lives here."  And as I rolled my laptop bag past the dark bars and candlelit restaurants and fluorescent convenience stores on Mission Street, I realized Debbie and Chuck had given me exactly what I had asked for.  Because when I approached them, I had asked, "Can you help me get oriented here?"

And they did.  

They showed me that to my left was the fact that big changes are as scary as they are important.  

And to my right was the knowledge that you don't have to do everything alone.  

And in front of me was the realization that not everyone cares more about their NPR podcast than the people around them.

And I hope that behind me was the possibility that that building is not quite as big as it once seemed, or perhaps that you are not as small as you once thought.  

Someone else pointed me to my hotel that evening, but Chuck and Debbie helped me get oriented.