Friday, November 21, 2014

A stranger hugged me on a bridge

Little Rock and Riverfront Park from Junction Bridge

I like to get out of the house sometimes and go on walks around downtown Little Rock. My favorite thing to do is park my car on the less crowded North Little Rock side of the Arkansas River (if you're familiar with the area, which I guess most of you aren't) and walk across Junction Bridge, which is an old railroad bridge that was converted into a pedestrian walkway. Then, I usually weave my way through downtown Little Rock, through Riverfront Park, and then back across the bridge.

The weather was nice a few days ago, so I headed out for a walk in the early afternoon. It's the best time to go because lunch is over and most people are back at work, so the whole place is relatively deserted. Riverfront Park is especially nice to walk through when it's empty because there are lots of statues of people sprinkled around--not famous people statues, but statues of regular people sitting on benches and kids hula hooping and playing, stuff like that--and it kinda feels like time is frozen. I was just beginning my walk and had reached the middle of Junction Bridge when a man started talking to me.

I should mention that Junction Bridge has an elevator and stairs in the middle of it, I guess so half of it is higher and boats can pass underneath it. Or maybe it has something to do with it being an old railroad bridge. I don't know. Anyway, I always take the stairs. I don't trust elevators in general, and the last thing I need is to be stranded in a malfunctioning elevator in the middle of a fucking bridge. I can just picture the elevator car plummeting into the water and then suddenly I'm trying to Houdini my way out of a box at the bottom of the Arkansas River. Oh, and I can't swim, so I'd just be fucked all around.

Anyway, I was approaching the middle of the bridge where it splits when a man got out of the elevator. He held the door and called out to ask me if I was about to get on.

"Oh, no. I'm taking the stairs," I said.

He let go of the door and started heading towards me.

"How're you today?" he asked, when he got closer.

"I'm doing fine. How are you?"

"Well, I'm not doing very well." He stopped a little bit in front of me, and it became clear this was going to turn into a conversation instead of just a passing greeting.

"Oh!"

The conversation didn't seem out of the ordinary until this point. I'm used to the friendliness of people in the South. But it never occurred to me that people were allowed to say anything other than that they're "fine" when you ask how they're doing. Especially strangers. The only people I probably answer that question truthfully for are close family and friends. And even then sometimes I still gloss over things by saying I'm "fine."

The man introduced himself. "I'm [insert name I can't remember because I was still surprised at how he answered the last question]." He held out his hand for me to shake.

"I'm Joe. Nice to meet you." I shook his hand.

"Nice to meet you, too." He continued, "Yeah, I am tired." I figured that was an understatement. He looked emotionally exhausted, too. His eyes were red.

"I know that feeling," I replied. I don't know why I was attempting to be empathetic. It's something I always do with people. I guess I want them to feel comfortable even when I'm not.

"How old are you?" he asked, getting a little closer to me.

"I'm...26." I had to think about it for a moment because I was still really thrown off by his first answer, and a stranger getting close to me on a bridge wasn't making me feel super comfortable. I wasn't, however, thrown off that he was starting up a full-blown conversation with me. Everywhere I go, strangers talk to me. But they don't just talk. Many of them open up to me, which is weird because I'm one of the most conversationally awkward and emotionally concealing people in the world. I think people talk to me because I'm so tiny, which makes me appear very nonthreatening. And I'm also usually alone, so I'm an easy target for starting up a conversation. Even when I'm on public transportation and I'm wearing headphones (which is the universal symbol for "don't talk to me") people will repeat things to me until I turn off my music and respond to them. Maybe I should stop wearing deodorant. That would probably repel people.

"Ah, I'm 43," he said, continuing the conversation.

"Oh, wow, you don't look 43!" I hate when people say things like this, but he really didn't look 43 and I just kinda blurted it out because I was genuinely surprised. He looked closer to my age, and I considered asking him what skincare products he used, but something told me now probably wasn't the time for that. I was also concerned I'd offended him and he'd think I was implying that 43 was old, when it's not. He just looked freakishly young.

He stared at my eyes a moment and asked, "Are you sure you're okay?" He said it in a way that old friends might say that to each other. Like he'd known me a long time and knew that something was actually up.

"Yeah, I'm fine." I didn't expect the question to be asked again, and the way he said it made me wonder if I was actually fine. Like maybe he was picking up on some sort of vibe I was giving off, even when I really believed I was fine in that moment.

"Do you need a hug?" he asked.

"Oh, no, I'm okay." I'm not a touchy-feel-y person at all. There are very few people in this world I would get physically close with, and none of them are strangers (except Zac Efron, who is technically a stranger to me but whom I'd love to get physically close with).

After a brief pause, it occurred to me that maybe he was the one who needed a hug. So I asked, "Do you need a hug?"

"I do."

So I gave a stranger a hug. Or, rather, I guess I allowed him to hug me, because I'm too awkward to initiate that. It was a firm hug. The way he gripped my back made me think he really just needed someone to care for a moment.

After the hug he said, "God bless you. Have a good day," and continued walking on.

"You, too," I said. And I started up the stairs.

The whole situation put me in a strange mood for the rest of my walk. I thought about all the reasons the man might be sad. Maybe he'd lost his job, or a loved one had died. Or maybe it was much deeper than that. Maybe it was a mixture of a lot of bad things. It usually is. Maybe I should've talked to him more, but I'm not a very talkative person, even with people I do know. And being on the Internet has made me a little suspicious of strangers, which probably leads to a disconnect when meeting new people. We were also in the middle of a bridge and I'd be lying if I said it didn't cross my mind that he might want to steal my bag and push me over the railing. I feel bad saying I checked my bag after the hug to make sure my wallet was still in it. (In my defense, I check my bag even after my friends hug me, so it's safe to say I'm just a paranoid person in general.) It kinda sucks we live in a world where we feel so uneasy about giving somebody a hug who probably just really needs one. I guess what really sucks are all the sketchy people out there who take advantage of others and make us feel this way in the first place. Ah, well. I wonder what happened to that guy.

Anyway, here are some photos I took with my phone on that day. Maybe they'll give you a better idea of the area and what the setting was like.

A pathway by the Arkansas River. Junction Bridge is the second bridge in this photo,
with all the beams over it. You can see the elevator and how it splits in the middle.

Riverfront Park and some of the statues.

Facing away from Junction Bridge. I don't know what that bridge is called.

-joe