Familiar Strangers

11 Dec

Hey all – sorry I’ve been absent a few weeks – I’ve been really focused on my fitness training, diet and exercise, then of course, Thanksgiving and the week of corporate holiday parties has done some damage to me, but steadily working back to being on track. Overall, feeling great though, and happy with my progress so far. But, this post isn’t about my health – although my activities around it have given rise to this topic.

Familiar Strangers – besides being a song title of a bad Jefferson Starship song from the early 80s – it’s a concept that I’ve always enjoyed observing but have never thought enough about to write about. Until today. I define “familiar strangers’ as people you run into frequently in your life, but by happenstance and circumstance, you’ve never actually met them, or have met them just a little bit. But, because you see these familiar people, you wonder about their stories, who they are, and how they happen to cross your path every day.

I got the idea for this post from my experience with going to Cardiac Rehab the last 8 weeks. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, at 7:00 AM, I’ve been dutifully reporting to the Cardiac Rehab Center at Highland Park Hospital at 6:45 AM for a monitored workout. (This on its own is a blog post, which I’ll do one of these days). Both the class, and, unseemingly, the drive over there, is full of familiar strangers.

Perhaps you’ve also read my Facebook notes item about people watching on the train. That in itself is an exercise in Familiar Strangers. I’m on the train with a bunch of these folks every day – and I enjoy observing them, and honestly, wonder about them when I don’t see them. Occasionally, you’ll befriend a Familiar Stranger – I’ll tell you about that in a moment.

The person that got me thinking about this post and this topic is a person I like to call “Blinky” – simply for the light on his bike. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning as I head off to Cardiac Rehab, rain or shine, nice or cold, I see this guy on his bike – he’s headed westbound on Deerfield Road and usually crosses the Rt 41 Viaduct about 6:30 AM – I see him as I drive eastbound. Depending on how early I leave the house, I encounter him somewhere along that road in either Deerfield or Highland Park – he’s got an intense white LED strobe light on the front of his bike, and well – he’s impossible to miss. I wonder about his circumstances – why doesn’t he just drive? What will he do when it snows? Where is he going – where does he work? Does he do this for fitness, to save money, because he’s an environmentalist? Why doesn’t he take a different route – it seems very dangerous to be at the curb edge of a 45 mph 4-lane suburban arterial street at oh-dark-hundred in the morning. With Blinky, however, there’s been 2 or 3 mornings in the last week where I have not seen him – which of course then concerns me. Is he late? Am I late? Is he OK? Maybe he has the day off? It’s bizarre – I have real human concerns over someone I only see in a fleeting glimpse for just a second each day from 40 feet or more away as I’m driving 40 mph going one way while he’s going 15 mph the other.

My Cardiac Rehab class is full of familiar strangers. You learn everyone’s name as each one of us wears a pouch on our chests carrying a wireless EKG monitor and that pouch has your first name and last initial written in black Sharpie on it. But beyond that, I really haven’t met anyone. At 6:45 AM, no one is talking much. Once we all start waking up and exercising, we do talk a bit, but it’s mostly to joke up about working out. But, I have to wonder – what happened to these folks that brought them to Cardiac Rehab. Now, I have learned a few folks stories – there’s a gent, Gary, who is about 58 years old that started working out to lose weight about 3 years ago and was doing great until he literally dropped dead of his heart going into “V-fib” while blasting away on an elliptical machine. Through the alertness of a person at his fitness club, and a doctor who happened to be working out, plus a well-placed portable defibrillator, he’s alive today. Had bypass surgery and is working out hard and fast again. I learned his story when he talked about how he was going to be in the news and all because of how he was saved. There’s another older gent, about 68 years old by my guess, who rides the train downtown every day after class – he’s on my train. I just learned his story yesterday and told him mine. Have I met him? No. Will I? Not likely.

There’s so many more – for example, there’s a woman on the floor of my office building – her company is the law firm on the other side of the floor from iCrossing. She has a tremendous case of scoliosis – her back literally makes a C-shape starting at her hips. Yet, she seems to get around fine. I see her not only in the office but walking to the train station at night.

At the train station is a very common place for familiar strangers – and well, an opportunity for befriending them. Two familiar strangers, I finally befriended after riding the train downtown for a year – a man and woman about my age, who are friendly and talk on the platform every day. They don’t ride the train together, however. The man, on my first day going to my new job (in 2010 – not so new anymore) at iCrossing, overheard me talking to a friend on the platform and telling him about me starting a new job that day. It turns out he works with my company and works at one of the other ad agencies in Chicago. I said “wow, that’s good to hear, small world”, etc. and never followed through on the conversation until almost a year later when I finally introduced myself. He and I chat on the platform every day now. A few days after I met him, he introduced me to the woman. My friend and colleague, Doug, has met them as well, and when I suddenly became quite absent during my little heart event this fall, they became quite concerned for me. Nice to know they care and I do care for them as well.

One of the most “familiar stranger” things that most anyone who lives in a city encounters is people on the streets who are looking for handouts. I tend not to call them “homeless” because many are not, “panhandlers’ doesn’t seem right, “bums” sure describes some, but not all. There’s this one woman, a stoic, handsome African American woman in her middle 50s. She’s always clean and dressed well and has a smile, a direct eye contact style and well, she is different. She has a laminated, computer-printed sign that says “Hello, my name is Bonnie Franks. I am looking for employment. I can do office administration, bookkeeping, secretarial work and more”. Interestingly, her story came out this fall – in the news. A man had lost his wedding ring by accidentally dropping it into a cup of one of the people seeking handouts near the train station. The next day, the man was trying to find the guy he accidentally gave the ring to – and he talked to Bonnie Franks. Bonnie then over the course of a couple of weeks, found the man who had it – he also didn’t sell it as he figured the guy who accidentally gave it to him would want it back. That guy gave it to Bonnie. A few days later, Bonnie spotted the man among the thousands walking by her every day on the Madison St. bridge and stopped him and gave him his ring back. Amazing story. I gave Bonnie $20 the following day.

There are hundreds and thousands of familiar strangers we see every day. As most people know, people watching is one of my favorite hobbies, and when I see the same person repeatedly,

Does this story have a moral, a meaning, a conclusive thought? Well, yeah, I guess. Familiar Strangers are sort of human landmarks. They are people whom you see, you don’t know about, but you think of and wonder about if you don’t see them. That to me is my definition. And in that, there’s an interesting touch of humanity. It is good to get to know familiar strangers when you can. Doing so broadens your world immensely.

As you were,



2 Responses to “Familiar Strangers”

  1. Linda Covert Campbell December 11, 2012 at 9:56 am #

    But….by your definition “Familiar Strangers” are those you see often IN CONTEXT. I have many times run across one of those Familiar Strangers out of context and it is very disconcerting. For example seeing a woman at the airport who smiles and nods at you and you know her face but don’t know how you know it. So you say “I’m sorry but i can’t remember where we met before.”…And she tells you she used to tend bar at…. Or you are sitting in a Dentist’s waiting room and the person next to you seems to know you….and finally you find out that he works part time at the green house during summer planting season!
    I think the most disconcerting example of a Familiar Stranger out of context was when I saw a Dental Assistant in her scrubs when previously I had only seen her in a bikini, poopoolside.

    • Stew's Brew December 11, 2012 at 10:01 am #

      That is a really funny observation and it’s totally true. I ran across this guy that I see every day at the train station on the weekend once at the grocery store and had to think for like 5 minutes until I figured out why his face was so damn familiar.

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