It is finally Thanksgiving — a time to celebrate and express gratitude for our most familiar faces. And yet, as per usual, I’m thinking about strangers.
I got coffee this past weekend with two of my closest friends from high school. We all stayed home this fall, but hadn’t seen one another much — school accelerated, as did the pandemic. Aside from our masks and the distance between our chairs, I felt as though I was catching a glimpse of some non-pandemic alternative universe, where we were just old friends home from college, catching up.
French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville traveled around the United States in the mid-19th century, meeting with prisoners and politicians alike, and writing observations about American culture and governance that would become his two-volume work “Democracy in America.”
Tocqueville prized the conversations he had as a stranger in a strange land: “The stranger often learns by the hearth of his host important truths, that the latter would perhaps conceal from a friend; with the stranger you ease the burden of a forced silence; you are not afraid of his indiscretion because he is passing through.”
Knowing somebody’s coffee order is one of my favorite litmus tests for familiarity.
By my freshman year of college, I had his order memorized: a small black coffee and a cinnamon bagel, with peanut butter on the side. When we met for the last time before quarantine, I ordered for him; he paid.
The man on the phone was aggressively blasé, as I suppose is wont for many millennials. But after hearing dozens of answering recordings, I began to feel like a machine myself, an automaton mechanically entering phone numbers and clicking buttons on a screen. I craved the sound of breathing; I was grateful even for hostility, because it meant a human was on the other side.