People are strange when you’re a stranger.

I didn’t think much of it when an older gentleman with an easy-wheel cart, full of art supplies and sketching materials, pulled up a chair next to me at the coffee shop I was in.

I was working on a couple of articles for my Monday deadline, was intent on staying focused and kept my headphones plugged in to avoid any outside distractions.  It was only Saturday,  but I wanted to send them off to my editors for review before Monday, so I was clearly On A Mission.

My perspective changed slightly without my fully realizing it when he very nicely asked if he could leave his cart behind us and told me he’d move it if need be. When I smiled and said it wasn’t a problem, he said “thank you, my friend,” and I was blown away by how sincere he sounded.

I carried on with my work, but I kept what he said in the back of my mind.

Friend.

We don’t call strangers that very often.

I’ve always struggled stepping out of my comfort zone — asking strangers questions or favours that make me more uncomfortable than them, probably. All because I  lack the courage to get over that hurdle. Once I do, it’s like ripping off a band-aid, and the courage I knew I had all along is exposed.

Let me give you some back story, first.

One of my Monday assignments included photographing someone ‘in their element’ — so, in other words, an environmental portrait, for my photo journalism class.  I’d been struggling trying to find someone to take pictures of  because my schedule doesn’t always mix with my friends’, but I found one who was willing. In a program with an 8 course load this semester (I honestly forget about some of the classes I have sometimes), that was one camel off my back. I was relieved I didn’t have to do much legwork, other than taking the photos.

When I went over to her place, we talked more about it/what we could do for the photos.  Her and her boyfriend (her boyfriend had also taken one of the journalism programs at the same school as me, and had to do the same project when he went), suggested some places where I could take photos of people. He told me he’d taken some of a barista in a coffee shop for his, and understood my fear of asking strangers to take photos of them. He’d literally been there before. But, he reinforced that people are, a lot of the time, willing and happy to do these kinds of things.

I needed to find out for myself.

Which brings me back to my Saturday afternoon at the coffee shop with the older gentleman beside me, working on his art.

I watched him pull out his art supplies from  his cart and place them on the table, and then he dove right in — I  took note of his left-handedness (because I’m left-handed too, and we always feel like we’ve found a kindred spirit when we see One Of Our Own), and I watched him do his thing for awhile — quick glances here and there.

And then it dawned on me. This was my guy.

Friend.

We don’t call strangers that very often.

This was the perfect opportunity. I felt like I’d hit the jackpot.  Now all I needed was that thing called courage.

After I finished writing my articles, I turned my attention to him, but I needed a lead, I needed something to spark conversation. Without even thinking about it, I took my camera out and started playing around with it. Then I saw him, out of the corner of my eye,  take the camera bag off his shoulder and place it on the counter. He took his camera out.

Here we go, I thought. This is it.

“You seem to be quite good with cameras,” he said, and I fist-pumped so hard to myself, deep down inside.

He asked me some questions, and I did my best to answer them — I didn’t have very many good ones, but it got the conversation rolling.  He was taking photos at a wedding the next day,  not as a professional, but because he has a pretty decent camera, and why not. He didn’t have much experience, and I didn’t pretend that I did (because while I believe I’ve always had a good eye with photography, there’s a lot of ins and outs I still don’t know about technicalities). I told him this, he didn’t seem to care either way, and then I zoned in.

I told him I was fascinated with his artwork. He seemed humbled, and I was touched by that.

“I don’t have a lot of friends and I don’t have any family here,  but I have my artwork,” he said, and my heart broke.

It was clear his artwork was his everything; it was literally all he had and I felt a strong sense of empathy I hadn’t felt for a stranger in a long time. He picked up the brush about ten years ago, and talked about how his artwork had gotten him out of some difficult times.  Suffering from a number of mental disabilities, it was a way for him to cope. A way for him to express himself when words couldn’t or when nobody would listen.

He asked questions about me, so I told him that I’m journalism student and that I’m in the middle of a career move. He was just as interested in hearing about my story as I was his, and we exchanged similarities about struggles we’ve faced, about not doing things we don’t want to do, and that even when times get tough, being passionate about what you’re doing is better than doing something you hate.

“You and I, we’re kindred spirits,” he said, and I smiled. It was comforting hearing this from a complete stranger whose name I still did not know.

I felt okay asking him what I’d been wanting to ask.  It wasn’t about me, but about him. He was perfect. He was the person this project deserved, and I wanted to somehow be able to tell his story through a photograph.

I told him about the project and that I was to capture someone in their element. He told me he was ‘definitely in his element’, and the flattery he felt at my asking him if I could photograph him was second-to-none.

“Absolutely. I’d be delighted to, my friend.”

Every friend was once a stranger.

I photographed him for a half hour. He showed me all of the pieces of work he’d been working on lately.

He talked.

He told me about his financial struggles. He told me about about the art of getting by, because sometimes it was impossible. But here he was.

He told me about his family who’d abandoned him and the friends he’d lost along the way because of his mental disabilities. He told me about how he wished he could have somebody to talk to.

I photographed and I listened.

We both got something out of the situation, more than either of us had bargained for.  I thanked him endlessly for allowing me to photograph him. I finally introduced myself, and asked for his name. It was Peter.

He gave me a firm pat on the shoulder and said he was glad he met me.  He told me he had to go.

“I really hope I’ll see you around sometime,” he said.

“Likewise, my friend.”

We don’t call strangers that enough.

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Author: Jocelyn Aspa

early 30-something. journalist. sports fan. puns. cats. mental health advocate. not taking myself seriously (most of the time)

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