The Kindness of Strangers
One of my favorite things about travel is the intersection of people's lives. I love the seemingly random mix of being in the right place at the right time to meet someone you otherwise would have never known. It's not that these chance meetings need to be the start of a life long friendship, but for a moment in time, you have an opportunity to have an interaction that in some small way, defines your experience on that trip or maybe even informs your view of life.
And so it happened for us in Anchorage, Alaska. We had rented a car for a day and had a beautiful drive from Anchorage to Seward. Even though it was raining intermittently throughout the day, the brilliant yellow leaves of fall tinged trees interspersed between towering evergreens, immediately reminded me what I love best about fall---a sense of warmth and gratitude on the inside, a gentle nip in the air around me and an abiding feeling that all is right in the world.
The drive itself was the highlight of the day. We stopped at The Bake Shop in Girdwell, Alaska, home to the newly named best ski town in the world according to National Geographic. We didn't actually see much of the ski lift area but had a delicious lunch including their huge signature cinnamon roll which we ate in one sitting. I thought I'd be funny and suggest we get one for the ride home as well but Mr. John was one step ahead of me and suggested we get one for the walk to the car and then another for the ride home.
We caught a bit of rain as we made our way toward Seward and our experience there was somewhat of a disappointment to us. The Sea Life Aquarium was dated and tired looking (I could swear those are the exact same star fish we've touched at the last aquarium we visited). Many of the restaurants had closed for the season and none of the shops seemed to catch our eye for interesting things to take back as a souvenir. That didn't stop us though from trying a "Loaded Reindeer Hot Dog" for a snack with a root beer float chaser at a local brewpub.
The rain let up for the ride home and we had fun stopping at all the designated scenic photo stops to take pictures. We got back to the hotel about 7:30 and started striking out one by one to get a reservation for dinner that night on our short list of restaurants we had heard about. We found one open at 8:30 at a seafood place on the water called, Simon and Seaforts. Being familiar with Stanley and Seaforts in Tacoma, we figured they must be brothers so we grabbed it.
We were seated at a nice table with a view and got settled in looking at the menu. As is our habit, we played our home grown "Community" game where we let each other know if we think we spot someone in the LGBTQ community. John was the careful observer this time and let me know that two young women were seated at a table just next to us. I took a look and decided he could be right. They appeared to be in their young 20s, wearing black tee shirts and jeans, and gave every appearance of being a couple. One sported a flat top style of haircut with designs shaved in the close cropped sides, tattoos up and down both arms and a piercings in her lip and nose. The other was noticeably less adorned and had none of the tell-tale signs of disaffected youth. John gave them a knowing smile and a nod and they responded in like fashion letting us all know that we are not the only gay people in the world.
We continued our evening with a cocktail and a salad but when our entree arrived and the two young women next to us had the exact same dish (split between 2 plates as we did) delivered at the same time, it was too much for outgoing Johnny to bear and he had to start a conversation with them across tables. We did all the requisite small talk about them being from Anchorage, us visiting here for a few days, they're wondering if we liked it here, us explaining we thought it was a nice place to visit but not sure if we'd like to live here . . . you know the drill.
We went back to our collective dinners and finished up about the same time they did. John thought he overheard our dinner neighbors talk to the waiter and point to us when they received their check and it was confirmed when we received our check with our two cocktails removed from our bill. Again, Johnny burst in to confirm that they were indeed our generous benefactors and they politely fessed up. That's all it took for the major getting to know you conversation. Turns out Olivia is a dialysis technician hoping to get in to RN school soon and Leslie is a tattoo artist. (And yes, Leslie is the one with the tattoos and piercings.). They've been together 16 months and while they are thrilled that gay marriage is legal in all states, they are not at a place where they are ready to be making that kind of decision. They are very happy with their life together as is and just want to see where the relationship goes for the time being. They were completely delightful and showed great interest in hearing our abbreviated life stories. Leslie was especially sweet in congratulating me a couple of times about my recent retirement and both were almost incredulous when we told them we've been together 29 years. I'm thinking it's because they were probably not even born then and they didn't know people could live to be that old.
We ended our conversations with heart felt thank-yous and a great feeling about what just happened. John and I talked about it all the way back to the hotel and decided that this particular exchange was more than just about the kindness of strangers. This was about the power of gay identity and visibility and how good it feels to be out and proud of all of who you are. It was about generational age differences and how easy it is to misjudge and discount the possibility of ever having anything in common with someone who looks different than you. And it was about the importance of gay couples seeing other gay couples as part of a support system in a larger community.
Leslie and Olivia were strangers to us and we'll probably never see them again. They'll go on with their lives as we will with ours, but our intersection made a difference. Sure, we'll remember them buying our drinks, but more than that, we'll remember these two young women as helping to define our experience of the people of Anchorage. We'll think of them when we see other young gay and lesbian couples in a crowd of strangers and remember how important it is to be out and proud. And we will remember them when we are tempted to err on the side of exclusion when we interact with people who are different than us. And for all that, we appreciate their kindness.