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March 2006
Editorial: Talking to Strangers
By Kymberlie Adams Matthews


I often come here after work to this candle lit café on Brooklyn’s bustling Seventh Avenue. I sit at the same small corner table directly facing a wall of window and work. Over a glass of red wine I read, edit and watch New York walk by. I cannot help but notice the people. And aside from being a relaxing place to catch up on work, this café is made for people watching. I often find myself nibbling on my pen cap, caught up in the art of watching them, guessing who they are, where they come from, where they go, what they do, even what they think. New York is people—people of every race, nationality, language group, religion, sex, and sexual orientation. And it overwhelms me at times to be part of it all.

I finish my wine, pack my bag and head out the door. As I step onto the sidewalk I am immediately surrounded—people walking, people jogging, people merrily prancing and sauntering. I find myself swept down the street, head thrown back, caught up in this lively, leaderless parade, each of us zigzagging on our own loopy path. The noise, the lights, and the fast-moving objects all so vivid. A cacophony of human sounds whirr around me—chattering and nattering, belly laughs and hollers, giggles and hoots—but there are no intelligible words. I am moving to a symphony of gibberish.

A car nearly hits me and the music abruptly stops. I take a step back. Once again, reminded of how easy it is to get caught up in the flow of New York, without seeing or hearing a thing. I need to reconnect—fast.

Cars are still whizzing by and the red hand of the crosswalk is holding steady. Without thinking, I turn to my right and say, “Hello, lovely evening, isn’t it?” Aside from watching people, I talk to them as well. I talk to strangers all the time. Promote it actually. As far as I’m concerned it is one of the most interesting things to do, especially in NYC. That simple “hello” turns into a tête-à-tête. Over crossing the street and walking two blocks, I learn she is an environmental engineering student who recently returned to Brooklyn from teaching history on one of the Caroline Islands. She tells me of her students coming to school by boat, the frustrations of having to use old American textbooks for course material, but that her biggest challenge was seeing the poverty.

We part ways several blocks later and, as usual, I stop by my neighborhood produce market for tomorrow’s salad fixings. Owner Li is there, which is no surprise. She arrives every morning at six a.m., raising the security gate just in time for my sister to pick up a piece of breakfast fruit on her way to work; Li stays until closing, well after dusk.

Tonight is cold and the open-faced market does little to buffer the wind chill. Li stands at her usual station behind the cash register, green apron over a worn overcoat, sipping tea. Aside from pointing out the choice picks of the day, Li always takes the opportunity to share a quick story she heard earlier that day or a bit of neighborhood gossip. I always leave the market with fresh spinach and a smile.

In 1968, Li emigrated to the U.S. with her husband in search of a better life. At first her husband could not find work and Li took to sewing in a factory. In China, Li was a teacher. Here she worked in a sweatshop earning five cents for each pocket sewn on a shirt. Her husband eventually found work in a grocery. Together they saved their money until they had enough to open their own produce market in the South Slope of Brooklyn.

I cross the street and pop into the corner bodega to grab a bag of cat litter. Amir the bodega man is re-stocking the beverage cooler. In the background, a radio plays a song in a language I don’t understand. Mikey the store cat rubs against my legs to say hello. Amir immigrated from Malaysia to Brooklyn with his family as a child. Today, he takes care of his father who became paralyzed from the waist down, a victim of pesticides. After arriving in the U.S., Amir’s father took a job alongside many other immigrants laboring in the fields, injecting an insecticide called monocrotophos into potatoes. Despite the known toxicity, use of monocrotophos was not banned in the U.S. until 1988. The fumes poisoned him, destroying all the nerves in his legs.

Possibilities
If you ask, and if you only listen, everyday people will tell stories of incredible obstacles overcome, life experiences and new beginnings. On a recent cab ride, a friendly driver told me of the small village in Vietnam he came from—how he was earning money for his family back home. A girl with purple dreadlocks stopped to pet my dog Jack. She works with a grassroots group dedicated to spreading information on the critical need for population stabilization. A woman who lives across the street is an artist. Her canvases are brown cardboard boxes. She shows her work in Dumbo.

In this issue, you hear the stories of strangers—a Coney Island lifeguard who was once a slave in Sudan; a former journalist who now spends her days fighting to improve the environmental health and quality of life for communities of color; a celebrity fashion designer who has taken a strict no-fur policy; and two girls who dreamed since high school of improving the world with vegan shoes.

This is the city of possibilities, of new ideas. This is the metropolis of a million faces. From South Africa to South Dakota, NYC not only attracts people, but encourages the pursuit of interests, of dreams. We must make the most of the vast diversity at our fingertips. We must talk to strangers.

 

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