Mere Encounters

It might be age or a post pandemic phenomenon, or simply a function of being less busy but I am distinctly more attuned to the value of the scores of insignificant encounters I have every day but historically gave little thought to. A clerk at the supermarket who assists the fumblers in the self-check-out lane calls over to me from her station where she monitors blinking red lights above our scanners. “You over 55?” she asks. I have just scanned a bottle of wine so think she’s being funny. She’s just gotten her age requirements mixed up.

“Just barely”, I joke. Again, I’m thinking she meant to say 21. She didn’t.

“Well now, you get a senior discount!” She is clearly pleased to offer this tidy little savings feature. “Hold on.” She arrives at my check-out station; her fingers are a blur as they dance across the touch screen tapping numbers bringing up new screens. Then she scans the laminated card that hangs from the lanyard she wears about her neck. “There you go!” She studies the screen which has a new total owed amount. “You saved four dollars and ninety-six cents” She punctuates this victory with a snappy nod and a satisfied smile and a final “uh huh!”.

“Oh ho!” I exclaim a little too loudly. “It’s my lucky day!” She laughs and I remember she is the same lady that mentioned this discount to me last week when I was checking out. “Wait”, I say. “You told me about this last time I was here!”

“Yeah. You the guy with the big white mustache. That’s right! Sure, I remember you.” She gestures as if twirling the ends of an imaginary mustache.  

“Thank you!” We are both laughing now. The entire exchange can be measured in seconds but elevates my mood not because of the five bucks I saved but simply because the interaction lifted us both to a more pleasant state if only momentarily.

During my morning walk I encounter many of the same people every day. If there is an exchange it is generally little more than a head nod, a smile, and “good morning”. There is, however, an African American man, probably in his early sixties, I encounter most days on my walk. He wears a trucker’s cap, a jacket that comes to his waist and jeans. His stride is long, and his manner intense and intentional as if he’d just gotten off of work and is anxious to get home. For months he has never responded to my “good morning” or wave and head nod. Indeed, he never acknowledges me at all. As we pass one another he keeps his hands in his pocket, eyes down and frowns, visibly. I had him pegged as angry, but now read his frown as a kind of forlorn look – as if he is burdened by much on his mind. Over a period of some months, this micro-encounter has changed somewhat. This change manifested as a curt nod of the head and very brief meeting of our eyes. The frown remains fixed, and his actions seem almost a betrayal of his initial indifference. In time his actions have evolved to include a nod, mumbling a few indiscernible words, and removing a hand from his pocket with a kind of “hey” waist-high gesture.  It always lifts my spirits when we perform this little ritual that suggests a hint of rapport. It’s not much, but it’s enough.

Our days are full of such encounters and the level of attention they get is likely small because even as we may see some person day after day, we are not engaged with them. We do not know them; we don’t really think about them even as we are in the midst of an encounter with them; proverbial ships passing in the night.

My encounters with dentists over the years have generally been memorable only for the work done on my teeth, how painful it was, and the anxiety I recall throughout the course of our encounter. Conversations with one’s dentist are generally insubstantial consisting of answering questions with an “uh uh” or “uh huh”.

Two weeks ago, I visited my dentist for a regular six-month check. It was notable not for any disastrous dental diagnosis or any special procedure. It was memorable for a very brief but emotionally potent exchange shared with Dr. W. Memorable because for a few moments we were not dentist and patient but two men giving expression to what it means to be human. It was, as I have stated, simply an encounter which does not quite qualify as a story by itself. I suppose, as an encounter it possesses the potential to become part of a larger story- his or mine. For now, it is mine and while I have not determined how it shall figure into a broader narrative, for now I wanted to share it illustrates how small encounters have the capacity for big impact.

“Mr. Heaney?” A young woman with long, nearly black hair leans out into the waiting room where six or seven of us are staring at our phones. “That’s me”, I smile. I follow her to the exam room trying to remember whether she was the same hygienist I had for my last visit. I think she may be wondering the same about me. Once I remove the mask the big white mustache seems to evoke from her a sign of recognition. When finished she raised my chair slightly and turned off the dental lamp while I waited for Dr. W.

“Hello, hello.” The voice calls from the doorway behind me. Dr. W comes into view before me his mask pulled under his chin revealing a warm smile. Dr. W. is an eighty-year-old, vibrant, and very personable Japanese gentleman. I believe he is first generation American. He wears his thinning hair slicked back, gold rimmed glasses and a lined face most of the time hidden behind his surgical mask. I am a relatively new patient of his and despite several surprisingly long and what I would describe as rather personal conversations after previous check-ups, I am uncertain if he remembers me. Still, his conversations with me are of a sort one would have with an old friend. I find this to be an especially likable quality about the man. He is reflective which during each of my visits has been the manner in which he commands my attention.

“I find myself thinking about such odd things” he says as he enters the exam room behind me. Still a few steps away, I see he is thinking. Although masked I can tell he is smiling with a hint of bewilderment in his eyes. He dries his hands with a paper towel and continues as he pulls on his gloves. “Thinking about such odd things…” he says again shaking his head as if in disbelief. I am still semi-reclined in the chair having been propped up part way after my cleaning to receive him. It feels like an awkward position in which to have a weighty conversation.

“How do you mean?” I ask. He steps back and pulls his mask under his chin revealing the warm smile now at odds with his furled brow. He pulls his mask back up, approaches me and suddenly the back of my chair is falling away again. He switches on and adjusts the light.

“I have been thinking about where I should be buried.” He chuckles. “I’ve been thinking about what will be said at my funeral. And I worry about my kids, you know?” He shrugs as if to say, “silly me. There is no reason for me to worry.”

I have closed my opened mouth to perform the always challenging task of conversation from the dentist’s chair. Even though we are under way, he has withdrawn his tools to let me speak. “Oh! I do know. I don’t think that’s odd at all! I worry too.”

He nods thoughtfully, then says, “I have been trying to identify what I want them to have among all my things after I’m gone. I’ve been thinking about putting stickers on things with the name of who I thought it should be left to.  Funny, huh?”

“No”, I reply. “I think it makes sense. I actually think about that too.”

He looks at me for a moment, asks me to “open” and begins a series of staccato jabs along my gum line, as he narrates his assessment of the condition of my oral health to the hygienist taking notes on an iPad device. He assigns numbers that, I speculate assign a value to the rate of gum recession he observes. I am wondering if I score well. Then, very businesslike he rattles off a few directions to the Hygienist regarding the units of time required to bond a chip in my bridge that will need to be booked. When she leaves his demeanor visibly shifts back to that which he brought into the room- sunny, reflective, expressive. He sits on his stool, pulls his mask under his chin again, and scoots around to the corner of the room facing me. This all feels very much like my last visit and hints that he’s up for continuing our conversation. Rather than bracing myself for a talker, it’s fine, I think. He’s an interesting man and our two previous talks have been surprisingly enjoyable. He doesn’t bloviate, push his opinions, or just blather on about himself. It is a real conversation because, I suspect, he is genuinely interested in people. I’m really not sure if he remembers me so wonder if things will pick up where we left off on similar topics like how fortunate he feels about the kindnesses he has been shown throughout his life. And yes, this is exactly what he expresses. He qualifies this by suggesting these kindnesses seem especially gracious given his Asian descent. There is no bitterness or irony intended; it is a simple and surprisingly casual observation. He says his professional life in our city has been very pleasant and he has been able to make a good life here for himself and his family. Again, he seems to imply he is especially grateful for this given that he is Asian. This surprises me because the Asian prejudice I recall was largely from my childhood and arising from residual WW II and Korean War resentments. For me these had faded into the past. I suppose I mistakenly assumed they had for him too. His gratitude embarrassed me a little. I felt ashamed that he should feel grateful for having done well when he earned it by hard work and years of preparation the way anyone else did. Our conversation tacks now to higher education because my wife works at Washington University. Oh yes. Now he remembers me and the names of mutual acquaintances we shared. He expresses profound respect for the institution and outright awe for the massive returns the University has achieved on its endowment portfolio. “Do you know how much money they made last year?” The returns are jaw-dropping and have both the university and investment communities speaking reverently about the fund managers. Soon, another young Hygienist leans into the room and tells him a patient is waiting. He is late. He always is the staff likes to tease. “He enjoys talking with his patients too much.” Dr.W comfortably shifts back into ‘dentist mode’, is now on his feet wishing me a happy holiday and promising to see me in six months.

Honestly, I have never really thought about my dentists. I haven’t seen a lot of dentists but enough to know that the favorite part of any visit was when I bid them goodbye toting my little plastic bag with a new toothbrush, floss (make sure you floss!), and a tiny tube of toothpaste. But Dr. W’s demeanor is always disarming, and I leave with kind thoughts for him and little residual anxiety about where I have been.

Just as Dr. W ponders taking leave of this world, so, of course do I. As he worries about his kids and those who will survive him, so too do I. Such thoughts are not in any way morbid or colored by a sense of dread. Instead, they arise organically, much as the approach of any developmental milestone invites us to consider its implications.

I think there is considerable merit in looking more carefully at the encounters we have with others. I don’t know if the man I encounter on my morning walks is aware of his gradual willingness to engage after having ignored me for so many months. The victory in this encounter is simply a feeling of connection, small as it is. The value of the unusual encounter with Dr. W is the connection established as well. They differ only by degree but both bring some measure of comfort and satisfaction to me.

Finally, let me share one recent encounter that further illustrates the value of our encounters. I am consulting on a project for an Australian company partnered with a non-profit in Toronto, Canada. Recently, we convened a meeting in Toronto for planning. On the final day, the CEO of the non-profit invited some of us to go on a hike in a park outside the city. When we completed our hike, someone noted a license plate that said “Woodstock”. People I work with know that I attended Woodstock and as such have archived the distinction of being a relic from an earlier era.

“We have to take a picture. David! Go stand next to the car” (with the Woodstock license plate).

“Okay. Okay.” Everyone was laughing. As I moved into position and the photos were taken I noted someone was in the car. The driver’s door opens and a guy in a tie dye shirt with a dew rag and the requisite facial hair gets out and says, “You know, I usually charge for this.”

Check the license plate!

Again, everyone laughs. “He was there,” someone says.

“Yeah, I was there.” I affirmed.

“You were?” he asks seemingly delighted then adds, “So was I!”

There is more laughter, and we swop stories about a moment we unknowingly shared together with a half million others at a farm in New York fifty-four years ago.

Not every encounter needs to be dissected to discover its value. My colleagues were utterly delighted by the encounter they witnessed between two old hippies who had lots to share about an historical event they experienced together. Again, the encounter…even witnessing the encounter… reinforced a feeling of connection and I (we) left feeling better for it. Maybe that’s what encounters do when we approach them (forgive me) mindfully. We leave them feeling the satisfaction of having been made just a bit better by them. I do hope that we tuck that sensation of feeling better and more optimistic away in some place from which it can be retrieved. For me, finding something that inspires even a small amount of optimism is worth the effort of giving our encounters greater attention. Just think about how much we dismiss as irrelevant and maybe just have a second look. That’s not hard. God knows we could all benefit from a little optimism.

1 thought on “Mere Encounters

  1. I enjoyed this piece. In this busy world, it is a good reminder of the beauty and power of human connection that can come in many forms.


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