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December 31, 2005

Chance Meetings

Chance acquaintances are sometimes the most memorable, for brief friendships have such a definite starting and stopping points that they take on a quality of art, of a whole thing, which cannot be broken or spoiled. And of course a sort of spoiling is the one thing that seems to be inevitable in an enduring friendship — new aspects of the person become revealed, and that which one had believed to be the truth about a person must be revised. The whole reality of the person must be frequently reconsidered, and so instead of having the stability of art or anything like art there is a constant flux, a continuous procedure of change and surprise, what at its best, if both people are lucky, is far more appealing than art is, for this is the stuff from which art is to be made, from which art is to be continuously enlarged and renewed.

An acquaintanceship, if all goes well, can linger in the memory like an appealing chord of music, while a friendship, or even a friendship that deteriorates into an enemyship, so to put it, is like a whole symphony, even if the music is frequently unacceptable, broken, loud, and in other ways painful to hear.

One encounters acquaintances endlessly, especially on one’s travels.

There is always somebody on the train, ship, bus, or airplane, who wants to tell you his story, and in turn is willing to let you tell yours, and so you exchange roles as you listen and tell. If the duet works well, you say so long at the end of the ride, and you remember the occasion with a pleasant satisfaction with yourself and with this other person who was suddenly as part of your story and of yourself.

Now, if you play your cards right, and this acquaintance is a pretty girl or a handsome woman, you can risk trying to extend the chance meeting to a non-chance meeting, but the rules of this sort of thing, although unwritten and unstated, do not tend to even permit either party to think in terms of anything less than absolute purity, absolute impersonality, total awareness that each represents the whole human race at its courteous best.

You have been thrown together accidentally, total strangers, in order to pass along as if to Truth itself, or to God, or to Memory, or even to Yourself and to Your Family, the essence of your own story and reality. You are not there to acquire more story, to have more material to carry with the rest of the material that still hasn’t been really understood, or certainly hasn’t been used, and you are there anonymously.

The game does not work if you let the other acquaintance know your name or who the people are in your inner life.

What you share is a kind of gentility, sympathy, and charity, not so much for one another, not so much each of you for the other, but rather for the unnamed people in your lives who have been stupid, wrong, unfair, cruel, and altogether human.

And so while the carrier moves steadily toward where you are going, you speak to one another, and you say things you wouldn’t say to any other people, and you know everything you say I understood and will not be used against you, and then when the carrier arrives you look at each other and smile, and say good-bye, good luck, and you move along, and that’s it, and you aren’t sorry that that’s it, you are pleased that it is.

I have had many such acquaintances — literally hundreds, but I remember best going back to San Francisco from New York in January of the year 1929, after I had failed to take the big city by storm, after I had not started my career as a writer just twenty years old. I traveled chair car the whole distance and the whole time, about eight days, I believe it was, it might have even been longer. And then all of a sudden during the last two hours of that long train ride a little girl joined me in a sip of coffee from the Candy Butcher’s urn in the corner of the parlor car, and we got to talking. She was married, she was pregnant, her husband was an office worker in Denver, they had no money, she was on her way home to her mother in San Francisco until he could get a proper one-room apartment, with bath and kitchenette, but she was in love with everything, especially the baby, and her husband, and life. And with me, as well, as I was in love with her. And I may say passionately if also totally impersonally.