Dear Nice Man on the Park Bench,
It was just a pedestrian head-nod greeting last Friday morning, at Madison Beach in a thick silver world. The smoke was beginning to clear, the AQI was in the lower end of “Unhealthy”, the clouds were billowy and grey. But a mirror-flat lake was scattered with swimmers saying screw you to stay-indoor warnings, and I figure you’d had enough as well. You seemed comfortable here, like this was a familiar bench.
I nodded at you as I stepped out of the water, you nodded back; as I toweled off you sighed and said, “It’s nice to see across the lake,” and I sat at the edge of my bench and looked across the lake with you. “Yes, it is,” I agreed. Our interaction was pleasant, perfunctory, ordinary.
I toweled off and watched a trio of women swimmers breast stroke and talk, punctuating a quiet morning with random shrieks and laughter. “It’s nice to hear the ruckus,” you said, almost as if talking to yourself. It was a strange comment but I saw your point. “You’re right!” I gushed. I mean, how often do we overhear a group of people laughing and talking too loudly these days? I miss eavesdropping — at my co-working space, at coffee shops. I deflated my buoy and pulled out my keys, continuing to watch the joyful swimmers. I might have been slow to leave because I was enjoying our little citizen-to-citizen communion; it felt like a unique indulgence this week, to be outside in the dangerous air, talking to a stranger.
A mallard walked up to me as if he had something to say. “So whatcha got for me today?” I leaned up close so we were almost beak-to-face. I’ve always loved the demeanor of ducks, the way nothing bugs them; there’s nothing that they can’t shake off with a keystroke of quacks. Do you see that, too, Nice Man? When the mallard walked away from me, I saw a smile in your grey mustache. “Ah, coming for me now,” you said and we watched the duck waddling in circles at your feet, like parents admiring the antics of a child.
The shivers were setting in, and I had one last look over the lake. The wind was picking up; micro ripples crossed the surface. The trio of shrieking swimmers breaststroked in silence. I looked past the last condo building facing south, the direction three of my friends swam, without me, on this 174 AQI day that I decided to take easy, by myself. Otherwise I would be off with them and you and I, Nice Man, wouldn’t be here having our little bench time together..
“Have a nice day,” I said to you in nothing more than a polite, mannered way.
“You too, have a beautiful day,” you said. There was something about the way you said it — the way you looked at me — a spot of eye contact, the lilt of your voice like you meant it, like you really wanted me to experience beauty in a troubled world. Our good-bye lasted all of three seconds, but it stayed with me as I walked up the golden-grass hill to my car, and here’s what I saw:
I forgot people were nice.
This surprised me, to see what was happening to my inner world. I knew my friends and family were nice, but the rest of you . . . 😤. With six months of carefully seeing and not-seeing people, and then after being locked in for seven forest-fire smokey days, reading and watching angry news, browsing social media, being with my end-of-days images, feeling the hot breath of an agitated world, I had forgotten something: most people are generally nice. Can I really say that?
Is that what happens to people who isolate and alienate themselves from others — a kind of paranoia and detachment resulting in a warped belief that humans are disagreeable, threatening beings?
Is this what’s happening to us during the pandemic, during these rollicking socio-political times?
What I really want to say is thank you for that sweet exchange. Thank you for reminding me that people are generally nice — and for no reason other than sharing a lakeside view and saying good-bye. Days later, after more bad news and an outpour of public opinion and call-to-actions that stirs more fear, our time together is still fresh. When the AQI is back to “good,” I hit the local streets for a run, passing cyclists and walkers returning to the outdoors. I give them my warmest smile, raise a hand in salute, and wait. There it is, a head nod, a smile returned — the niceness of people alive and well.