Dan Kang

Moments with Strangers

Costco Image credit: Steve Fareham

ONE

“Do you mind if I join you?”

I look up and see an older white lady, probably retired. Sure, I tell her. There’s a table for four right in front of mine also with only one occupant, but she chose mine instead. I guess I should feel happy that I’m more approachable, but then again maybe none of this ran through her head and I’m just flattering myself.

I continue eating my Chipotle burrito bowl as she goes to grab condiments for her hot dog. The bowl had started leaking profusely inside my bag when I carelessly started running after a bus earlier, but thankfully none of the contents got out. My bag still had the faint smell of black beans and sour cream though.

The lady returns and starts flipping through a magazine that seems to only contain ads. From the way that she examines the ads, I wonder whether I'm the weird one for never having paid them any attention during my youth growing up on Time magazine or whether she’s the oddball for actually looking at them.

“How’s the hot dog?”

She tells me it’s okay but that she preferred the days when Costco carried Hebrew National sausages instead of their own brand. Ah, I hadn’t even noticed. It doesn’t make any difference to me since I’m pescetarian anyhow.

She points to my bowl and tells me that my salad looks delicious and that she’s never seen it at Costco before. I point to the Chipotle logo on one of the brown napkins I have out and from the way she botches the word “chipotle”, it’s clear to me that she’s never heard of the magical pseudo-Mexican restaurant that has revolutionized my life.

It turns out that I’m wrong about her being retired. After an eternity of fumbling through her bag, she pulls out a business card. Donna, realtor. We talk about what she does and what I do and it turns out that she used to study computer science back in the days and also studied psychology for a while. I confess that while I’m a programmer by trade, I have an almost obsessive interest in popular psychology. I ask her whether she uses any of the psychological concepts that she’s learned while selling houses to people.

“No, I don’t like to manipulate people. I’m much more about helping people find the right place for them. I even tell my clients not to buy a piece of property if I don’t think it’ll make them happy.”

We change topics, and get to talking about our life philosophies and we touch upon an idea that’s been serving as a kind of guide in my life for the past couple months: that every experience, even negative ones, are worth having if you learn something from them. It’s all about perspective. Donna and I resonate on this concept and a bit thereafter she tells me that she needs to go show off a property. She has one last thing to say.

“I’m really glad we talked. Most people, including myself, tend to keep to ourselves but it’s nice to have these kinds of conversations.”

TWO

I walk back from the Costco optical center after having been told that I need a membership card to purchase contacts with them. Drat. My sweet tooth then decides to act up (when does it not?) and I decide to get Costco’s cup of frozen yogurt, one of my favorite treats growing up. My sister and I used to sit in the back of my grandpa’s Buick and share a swirl cup until both of us were completely exhausted.

With a cup of very berry sundae in front of me, I think about where I should go to buy my contacts when a middle aged Asian woman asks if the seat across from me is taken. Nope, I tell her. She sits with a plate of pizza.

I don’t remember how the conversation started, but it becomes immediately clear that she really enjoys talking. I don’t mind. We talk about Costco pizzas, how some members of her family will only eat pepperoni pizzas despite mushrooms being so very delicious as a pizza topping, and how two times before she purchased frozen pizzas at Costco because they were on sale but every time she tried to bake them in her oven the crust was either too soggy or too hard like a cracker.

I never thought I’d enjoy a 15 minute conversation about Costco pizzas so much.

THREE

I’m on the bus headed home. Suddenly there’s a loud bang right outside of the bus on the side behind me. I glance around in surprise but no one seems to care except for the older Chinese man next to me. He laughs and starts speaking in Chinese to me. This isn’t the first time this has happened.

“Sorry, I don’t speak Chinese. Well, except for ‘ni hao’ and 'shae shae’.”

He continues speaking in Chinese to me, and I don’t know how to respond. After a while, he laughs and tells me that he’s speaking Cantonese, not Mandarin. Ah. I still have no idea what he said.

He suddenly yells out some gibberish sounding Chinese phrase and laughs. I smile, not because I understand but because I have no idea what else to do. When in doubt, smile. He repeats the phrase and the laughter several more times and I smile several more times.

Soon he’s speaking English to me, telling me how the building the bus had stopped in front of used to be a Coca-Cola factory many, many years ago. He had come from China in the 50’s, way before I was born. It turns out that he’s 78, 2 years younger than my grandfather, but his birth certificate says that he’s 2 years younger than he actually is because no one kept track of birthdays in the countryside and so he was cheated out of 2 years of beautiful retirement. There is no resentment in his voice though.

He goes on, telling me of the good old days when a cup of coffee was a dime, a refill was a nickel, and a bottle of coke was a quarter. He leans over, and whispers loudly, “You could get pussy for 10 dollars!” He laughs loudly.

I laugh too, but out of surprise, because I never expected him to tell me how much pussy cost decades ago and because I can’t believe anyone would pay for a prostitute instead of getting 400 bottles of Coca-Cola. Oh wait, it’s only 40. My mental math skills have been slipping.

Suddenly we’re at 7th Street and he says that he has to go pick up his newspaper so that he can read about current events, entertainment, sports, and so much more. I can tell that he really enjoys reading the paper. And just like that, he’s gone.