I have a built in magnet. It works to attract people that I otherwise might not meet. My magnet can be depended upon to pull near to me the craziest, neediest, saddest, and loneliest people in proximity. Tales of woe, distress, illness, sabotage, conspiracy, and government plots all have been the subject of unprovoked sharing. Likewise I hear about triumph over adversity, evil corporations, and politicians. They approach in grocery aisles, department stores, ladies rooms, parking lots, and today in a crosswalk. What is it about me that says “Spill your guts, I can take it?”
Having been told on numerous occasions that I look angry or unapproachable has caused me to believe that my natural face is something of a scowl. But that scowl does little to lessen the pull of my nut magnet. My husband has assured me on many occasions that it is not because I am so nice. So what is it that drives people to tell me how lonely they are, or how sick they are, or how to best prepare those carrots in my buggy?
Their stories can be entertaining, especially in the retelling. A beautiful, but unkempt woman in Times Square once presented me with scraps of paper covered with her teeny tiny scribbling and detailed illustrations on how space aliens were taking over her brain from her television. She was so articulate and sincere that I still sometimes wonder if she could have be right. A man at the gas pump recently told me a detailed story of misfortune that began at his birth and continued until the present day before he asked for money. In both instances they made a bee line for me, bypassing all others, the magnet pulling, pulling them.
Years ago I worked in retail sales in a large mall. I soon had a devoted roster of mall walkers who stopped by daily to tell me their news and often to share a chapter of their histories. For the most part I enjoyed the interactions. The only thing troubling about these folks was the slow realization that all that they wanted was for someone to listen. I heard lots of organ recitals (body aches and functions) looked at lots of grandkid pics (none as cute as my own kids) and too many tales of the good old days to count. The most haunting was an elderly woman wearing a pin shaped like the Eiffel tower on her old winter coat. When I complimented her pin the story started to come out. It was related in bits and pieces over many months. She was so proud of her two grown children. Her husband was a casualty of WWII, leaving her a young widow with 2 babies, a boy and a girl to raise alone. She never remarried. She focused solely on the struggle of raising those kids. And now they were grown, successful, college graduates. Her son had sent the pin from his travels. But for reasons never disclosed they no longer communicated with her. It had been years since she had seen them. Her sadness was palpable and I can still feel it 20 years later.
What draws them to me when there are so many likely listeners around? People without a scowling face and perhaps even with a welcoming smile are all over the place. Is it really magnetic or do they see that girl behind the scowling woman? The girl who was always a disappointment, even to herself. The girl who felt she never measured up to the expectations of others. The girl described in report cards as “does not work to her full potential.” The girl who messed up over and over again. The girl who took forever to find out she was just fine as she was. Maybe it is not a magnet. Maybe it just takes one to know one.