When I graduated college and moved away from Atlanta, one person was the hardest to leave behind: the cashier at the Whole Foods on Ponce de Leon.
I came in every morning before class for a large coffee and a chocolate chip muffin. I’d wait in his line no matter how long it was. He always smiled and teased me if I wasn’t wearing pink. I’d pull up my sleeve to show off my pink watchband, and he’d tip his head back laughing. I teared up the last morning I came in and told him I was moving. He walked me out and gave me a hug goodbye. Years later I still find myself racking my brain, trying to remember his name. I’m pretty sure it started with J or G. There was nothing romantic about any of it—but it’s always felt like a meaningful relationship. He was a friendly and familiar face at a time when I felt incredibly alone.
For years, I’ve been drawn to the near-strangers in my life. I feel a little guilty about that sometimes. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a loving family and caring friends, and I don’t want to minimize the importance of those relationships. They’ve saved my life, time and time again. But my memories are filled with the familiar faces of strangers.
It started 25 years ago, with the PICU nurse who came into my hospital room with a copy of Teen Magazine and asked to braid my hair. She sat on the edge of my bed, running her fingers through my hair as we leafed through the magazine. She said she hated school too, and that it would get better. I didn’t believe her, but her warmth made me safe and beautiful.
And the boy who taught me all the Mortal Combat cheat codes on Super Nintendo. We sat in the rec room of the adolescent psych ward that afternoon, playing for hours. I was scared to be there, scared to be anywhere, but he made me feel okay. I remember the room, the misshapen plaid couch, his face, his smile, his story—I wish I could remember his name.
Then there was the super cute guy at the Blackstone Brewpub my first night in Nashville. I was 16, and devasted my family had just moved halfway across the country. We never even made eye contact but seeing him made me feel like maybe things wouldn’t be so bad after all.
The Nine West sales associate who convinced me to flaunt my height as I nervously looked in the mirror, commenting on how I’d be over 6 foot in heels. I left the store with a pair of killer black boots—plus a new-found sense of self-confidence.
The fratty guy in the packed Hell’s Kitchen bar during the World Cup. He noticed me fighting back tears as I tried not to panic in the crowd, gave a knowing smile, and subtly moved his rowdy friends a few feet away so I had room to breathe.
The woman at the W. 31st St DMV who helped me register my car. She laughed and smiled the whole time, and when she learned I’d just bought my first car outright, she said she was proud of me. I laughed and smiled and beamed at her words.
The Bluestone Cafe worker who left a handwritten note in my takeout bag. “Thanks, mate! I hope you have a beautiful day :)” I teared up reading it, as my morning had been far from beautiful, but the kind words were a catalyst for turning that day around.
The put-together blond behind me in the crowded elevator, quietly zipping up the back of my dress when I was exhausted and rushing to work. Every impatient New Yorker who patiently held doors and hailed cabs when I was on crutches. Every person who passed me toilet paper from under the neighboring stall. Every stranger who spotted me a poop bag during a late-night walk with my dog.
These relationships may be on a no-names basis, but they remind me that our experiences are shared. They provide a feeling that we’re all connected, a sense that even a fleeting interaction can have a lasting impact. A hope that maybe we’ll be a friendly and familiar face to someone else.
So to anyone who feels alone, who feels like they don’t matter, please know you are not alone and you do matter. You are among strangers who care deeply. And you matter, sometimes profoundly, to people who do not even know your name. We all need your friendly and familiar face. I need you.
And to the cashier at the Whole Foods on Ponce de Leon, I truly wish I could thank you by name.
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