I’ve heard a lot of people say that when the time for social distancing is over, they’re going to do a lot more hugging. I don’t know how much hugging I’ll do, but I do plan to talk to a lot more strangers. As I have written elsewhere, talking to strangers opens up whole new vistas for a storyteller. Everybody has a story–many stories, actually.
For me, talking to strangers comes pretty naturally. What doesn’t come naturally is writing down what they say. Something remarkable happens, or I hear a remarkable story, and I think, “I’ll remember this for as long as I live.” But it’s not true. I’m amazed at what remarkable things I manage to forget when I don’t write them down.
I hope you keep a notebook. Forgive me for going into full do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do mode. I don’t faithfully keep a notebook. I keep a Tuesday letter instead. So here in this Tuesday letter I shall make a record of my most recent encounter with a stranger, which was a doozie:
Last week I went to the grocery store. There was an older woman whose job was to wipe all the germs off the shopping carts. When I got my cart, she stopped me and said, “Can you open this gum for me?” She was holding out a little stick of Dentyne gum, right in my face. “I can’t get this gum open with these gloves on,” she said.
I knew better, but I didn’t have the moral fortitude to refuse. So I took the stick of gum from her gloved hand–the one with all the shopping-cart germs. I peeled the foil down like a banana so I wouldn’t touch the actual gum, but I’m not sure why I bothered. She popped the gum right in her mouth without taking her gloves off.
She seemed very appreciative. “Do want a piece?” she asked. I told her no thank you, but she must have thought I said thank you, because she placed a stick of gum right in my hand.
Bonus Anecdotes: Wildlife Removal
Writing advice sometimes gets a little airy-fairy and esoteric, but I’ve got some highly practical, concrete, and actionable writing advice for you: Any time you run into a person in the wildlife removal business (i.e., the people you call when you get squirrels in your attic), stop what you’re doing and ask that person to tell you about his or her job. Then write down whatever that person tells you.
I talked to one wildlife-removal specialist who had no sense of smell–which made him the skunk specialist for his outfit. The man had no fear of skunks. But smell-blindness is both a blessing and a curse for a skunk man. Once, after trapping and relocating a family of skunks, he went to a convenience store to pick up some well-deserved refreshments. The whole place emptied when he walked in. “You’d have thought I was waving a gun,” he said. Even the cashier ran out, howling. The wildlife removal man had taken a direct hit from a skunk and didn’t realize it.
Another wildlife removal guy told me about the time he got a call to remove a hawk from a Walmart. This hawk was especially fond of grapes and had been terrorizing customers in the produce section. The wildlife-removal specialist’s ingenious solution involved making a grape-lure of some kind, but I’ve forgotten the details because I didn’t write it down. At the time it seemed like the sort of thing I would never forget. (I should also say that I’m open to the possibility that the man was pulling my leg the whole time…a hawk who likes grapes?)
Then there was the squirrel/raccoon/possum guy who was surely the most soft-hearted animal lover I’ve ever met. He carried Nutter Butter cookies with which to lure squirrels and raccoons out of dark corners. He had a squirrel in his yard who was so fond of Nutter Butters that it would climb down out of its tree every morning, jump in the back of the wildlife-removal truck, and ride around all day on the man’s service calls. Then, at the end of the work day, when the wildlife-removal specialist went back to his house, the squirrel went back to his tree to rest up for another day of wildlife removal. That’s what the man told me, anyway.
He got to telling me abut how much raccoons love Nutter Butter cookies, and how cute they are when they eat them. “There was this one raccoon I had caught,” he said, “and I looked over at him on the seat of the truck, and he was just working those little paws and nibbling at the cookie like this…” He pantomimed the raccoon nibbling the cookie.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Did you say he was on the seat of your truck? Up in the cab with you?”
“Well, sure,” the soft-hearted wildlife-removal specialist said. “It was raining. I couldn’t put him in the back!”