Newly arrived in Rome, Italy, my daughter and I came up to a corner to wait for the walk sign to turn green. It had been raining steadily, we had been walking for hours, and we were a bit lost, but our spirits were high. We were just as immersed in the bustling street of Rome at early evening rush hour as we were the rainwater. The shoulders of our winter coats and the legs of our jeans were soaked through and our hair was as wet as if we had just gotten out of the shower.
A man arrived at the street corner next to us, also waiting for a break in the traffic. Turning to look at us, he saw the rain streaming down our faces, returned our smiles, and said something lightening fast in Italian. When we hesitated, he asked, in halting English, whether we had forgotten our umbrella. “No, we don’t have one yet!” was our reply. In halting Italian, we explained that we had arrived four days earlier for a four month stay during which I am teaching at the University of Rome.
As the light turned green for pedestrians, we crossed together, each of us in the process silently transferring those subtle signals that suggested we would not be averse to continuing to talk a bit more as we walked. We enjoyed our conversation until he needed to turn right–“a destra”–and we needed to continue on, to Via Nomentana. With a few happy words, we were off.
A last glance over my shoulder revealed a man, from the back, slightly shorter than average (by American standards), wearing a raincoat and carrying a briefcase in one hand and an umbrella in the other. He was one among many other men on the sidewalk with a similar appearance. I couldn’t even be sure it was him.
I have thought about this contemporary Roman since then, wondering what more I would have us say. I’d ask his name perhaps, and feel comfortable sharing mine. But there’s such a fine line in that first encounter between strangers, when just two of the faceless seven billion of us on earth suddenly come into focus for one another. Three people out of all the well-dressed young professional men returning from work as darkness descends and mothers arm in arm with their teenage daughters, happy to be alive and oblivious to the elements.
It’s a delicate moment anyway, and when you add in differences of age, sex, and culture and the presence of a third person, a child at that, and a certain shared sensibility of respect, reserve, and caution, it can become downright fragile. If this moment is the beginning of an ongoing relation of some kind, its nature and quality can be forever affected by what words and actions follow, however innocuous they might seem at first. Everything hangs in the balance.
Yet it is difficult to think I will not see this man again. No, dear reader, no romantic longing, at least in that sense of romantic. It’s purely that one can never have too great a store of sweetness. And I will remember his smile, sweetly curious eyes, and kindness at venturing an exchange–his sharing of a moment with us, in which our moment became joined with his.
In this heyday of technological communication, this moment might not have stayed with me. While that moment was full of buoyancy, there have been other long hours–especially between three and five a.m., undoubtedly worsened by jet lag–in which the loneliness of separation from my birds of a feather back home has been almost too much to bear. Just a taste, perhaps, of what true exile must be like. We are trying a for-the-most-part electronics-free period in which we exchange old-fashioned letters, forsaking the crutches of instant gratification, soundbite emotional exchange, and omnipresent distraction from the real, lived moment, with all it might have in store that could deepen our connection, leaving room for meditation and time for the full playing out of feeling.
What if a deepening of connection only comes with acquaintance with pain, suffering, separation, …loss? Who needs it, we might think in our dimmest hours. Or do we still crave it?
What does this have to do with the man on the street? Well, for starters, I don’t know if I would have given him a second thought if I could have plugged into instant communication with people I already know. With them, I have already successfully navigated that fragile opening moment of our lasting, even lifelong acquaintance–those whose names I do know; I have a new appreciation for the phrase contact information. If I were not momentarily unplugged, would I would have felt so deeply something for someone I will never see again–the piercing realization, with the fullness of lamentation, added to my already significant loneliness of being without friends in a strange new place, of not having the chance ever to soak in his particular one-in-seven-billion sparkling, warming glance? It would be easier, for sure, as this sorrow is as drenching as the freezing rainwater that day.
This little everyday parting, the relinquishing of my acquaintance to undifferentiated humanity, really feels like a momentous loss. But it makes my appreciation of those few, unique souls with whom I am privileged to have ongoing contact that much greater.
For their sakes, the man on the street deserves a second thought.
Or perhaps not. Maybe this is just a hard lesson to get real: it’s the modern metropole. Anonymity threatens and beckons. Be sure next time to get his number and email address and enter them in your cellphone’s list of contacts. And then maybe you can forget about him, in a certain way, now that you can be in contact with him anytime you want.