I've been eating out a lot lately. Even though I have loads of work to do at home, or maybe because I have loads of work to do at home, I've really needed to get out for part of the day. Usually I just go to Subway or maybe Taco Bell & do some of my assigned reading while drinking an obscene quantity of Dr. Pepper.
Anyway there I was in Subway reading "How To Teach English" and minding my own business when this little old man came up to me and started chatting me up. I had noticed him when I first came in, sitting at a table with a tattered leather satchel & an unopened paperback in front of him. After an exchange of "Hello"s he started quizzing me about my life. I can't even remember his opening line. I do remember thinking that although I was not at all interested in making small talk with this stranger (and strange he certainly was), I would soon be a stranger in a strange land and I was going to have to learn to be more outgoing if I ever wanted to make friends there. So when he asked what I was studying, I told him. And at his prompting I told him about my plans to go to Thailand.
Would you believe that a part of me had hoped I wasn't on the verge of something so interesting - I could have killed the conversation pretty quickly if I'd said "I sit in an office & do paperwork all day long." Instead he got to sound all excited for me, and he told me that he used to live here & there, and had even authored a novel in his younger days. He pulled out the book that had been sitting on his table, flipping it over to show a picture of him in, as they say, the full bloom of his manliness. the more we chatted the sadder this man seemed to be. He was so clearly clinging onto his 'glory days' and desperate for any small connection with another human being. I became uncomfortable and gradually shifted my focus back towards my book, answering his continued conversational attempts with minimal acknowledgements. Eventually he got the hint and, wishing me well on my trip, he left.
It struck me as so sad, so sad and so very frightening - how palpable this man's loneliness was. With no husband and no intention to have children - will I end up like this? As my friends focus increasingly on their own nuclear families, and as my own family grows older & I lose touch with relatives - will all my connections fade away? Will all my big adventures turn into snippets of small talk I subject strangers too? This is one of my greatest fears, to grow old, lonely & boring.
A few days later I ran into that same lonely old man at Subway again. I hadn't noticed him at first but he was there - leather satchel & unopened novel on the table. He got as I was pouring my drink and tried to start a conversation with the girl behind the counter. Then as an aside, he commented to me about her unwillingness to chat. I made a non-committal noise as I filled up my 32oz of Dr. Pepper & left the store.