Saying Hi to a Special Stranger

I was sitting in one of my favorite coffee shops catching up on some freelance writing assignments. Like any typical person sitting in a coffee shop catching up on work alone, I wasn’t expecting to be bothered. Unless, of course, a friend walked in. Then I wouldn’t mind putting aside my work. But otherwise, it’s a time to work alone.

In walked two people, a woman and a man, about my age or a little younger. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that he walked differently than her in a way that stood out, but I otherwise didn’t pay much attention to them. The two sat in a corner for a minute, and it seemed a bit like they were accompanying one another like siblings.

I was hard at work. You know the kind when you have your mind on a task and if you can just exert yourself for another minute one portion of it will be complete, dropped in a slot, done. That’s when I noticed someone standing very close to my table. I thought he was just going to try to grab a chair, but there wasn’t one. I looked up to see that he was standing awkwardly at the table, looking down. Was he waiting on me to do something?

“Hi,” he said, reaching to shake my hand. “I’m Troy.”

“Hi,” I said, shaking his hand. “I’m Caleb. Nice to meet you.”

As I said hello, I quickly put together that he was special. By this I mean that he seemed to exhibit traits that told me he might have a developmental delay, or that he might be on the autism spectrum. There was something childlike and conscientious about his greeting, eschewing the general anxiety most adults have that keeps them from randomly introducing themselves to a stranger who looks busy in a place not necessarily meant to introduce people.

I felt that tug inside me, the one that wanted to get back to work. Talking to strangers is hard, especially when you have things to do and you’re not in a situation meant to introduce you to new people. And yet here was this man, maybe one with special needs, wanting to say hello to me and tell me his name.

We said a few words about the weather, a safe topic, and he was done with the conversation. I realized that wasn’t so bad, and he must have known that better than I did. In that sense, regarding assumptions about etiquette, maybe I was the one with a special need. All of the conscious baggage I carry about human interaction made it feel out of place to shake hands with a stranger. Not for him.

How absorbed we are in our own little worlds! How uncomfortable we are with other people!

Then I noticed that Troy knew the coffee shop employees. Not only that, but they took him back behind the counter, gave him a bucket and a rag, and let him go to work cleaning the tables. I melted a little. I didn’t know the details, but it was clear that they were giving him the opportunity to do some work. When he got to my table I made sure to tell him he did a good job.

Sometimes the world can feel so negative, but if you keep your eyes peeled you can spot the ways in which people with various needs really are being taken care of, whether it be through volunteerism, an institution, or just the right moment for an opportunity to brighten a day and help a soul out.

Search for Opportunities to Be Kind

I can write about kindness all day. But at some point I need to get up and practice it. If I’m searching for an idea, I can start by paying attention to what people around me are doing. Was that girl his sister? What was she giving up to allow him a chance to feel important and belong? Was she a social worker? What other careers did she give up in order to make a difference by serving others?

Seeing all these people interact with Troy, I was inspired to look for ways to assist others. I could have just said hi and then looked back down at my work. But I also could have drawn the conversation out further, gotten to know Troy more.

So next time I’ll be on the look out for Troy, and I suggest you do the same. Look out for the Troys all around you, take the time to meet them, know their story, and see if there’s a way you can extend the kindness.