Talking with Strangers

monica-oprah_finale-largeAt what age are we supposed to receive everything we’ve ever dreamt of? Not 25 — I’ll tell you that. But for some reason, many of us at this age feel like we are supposed to be at a certain place in life. For many of us, we are gravely disappointed when 26 shows up.

Two Weeks Ago

If you haven’t heard, Oprah is no longer on the air 4 p.m. EST on ABC. Her 25 years came to an end the same time mine did. I would be lying to say I didn’t cry during her last episode. I don’t know if it was her leaving, or the mere fact that I felt like the adult who would say to her kids, “I remember where I was when JFK was shot,” only this time it would be, “I remember where I was when Oprah’s final episode aired.” (Technically I was at Six Flags, but watched it on Tivo as soon as I got home.)

The point being is she was an icon to me — the way Lisa Ling, Diane Sawyer and others are. And I will be sad when they go too. But Oprah was always something different to me, someone who gave me a constant reminder that I should commit to who I am because that is the only thing G-d would be happy with. It’s definitely a hard rule to live by when, sometimes, what people think matters more than what G-d thinks. When I watched her show — and the strangers she introduced to us who stood up for who they are — I, for a second, felt I could be brave too. In her last episode, she said she was 30 when she landed her first journalism job. Here I am, only 26, losing faith that I will ever become that journalist I imagined I could be. Patience.

Somebody taught us that we are as good as our success, not our character. It’s given me subconscious anxiety since high school, as I’m sure it has for many others. The truth is, the only reason Oprah was ever successful is because of her character. People fell in love with her because she fell in love with people — strangers. And she told all those strangers that she was molested as a child so that other strangers could speak up too.

Last Week

Last week was Shavuot, one of my favorite holidays on the Jewish calendar, when we stay up all night and learn. We listened to gay Orthodox Jews talk about the importance of their faith despite their sexuality — and how, yes, you can be both gay and religious.  I watched as two panelists debated Jewish identity and the many ways one can be a Jew. I ran into friends in the Jewish community who I’ve willingly lost touch with. I remembered why once it had all been so important and meaningful to me.

The next day, I decided to take a walk to Central Park after work and noticed a big fight break out between the guys who run the bike rentals and the police. Naturally I sat nearby because my curiosity really enjoys putting me in semi-dangerous predicaments. You can imagine my alarm then when one of the guys approached me. He just sat down, with a big smile, and said, “Hi. What’s your name?” My first instinct was to tell him to go away. My second instinct was to get up and leave. And my third: “Hi, Monica. Yours?”

Even though I felt a sense of discomfort with the whole thing — his group of friends now on the grass saying prayers in the Muslim tradition — something told me to give this a shot.

I told him I would like to write down everything he said because it is so wise and I will forget. He laughed. I did forget; verbatim, at least. I remember the point though — everything I stress about doesn’t matter.

He asked me what I do, etc. The usual. “Oh, you write? How nice… I’m working on a record when I’m not working here. Sometimes I rap in the Bronx.” The way he told me this story was not to show off, but to let me get to know him beyond what I would have first suspected. After 20 minutes, I told him it was nice meeting him, and a few minutes later, another one of his friends came over and sat down. This is when I start to feel irritated.

“Hi,” he says, with a big shining smile. “My name is Muhamed. I’m from West Africa.” Oh, well that’s interesting. All of a sudden my journalist kicked in. “What are you doing here? Why did you leave?” And so on.

This was one of the best conversations I have ever had. We talked for at least an hour — everything from him being a lawyer in his country, to how he would like to open a travel agency here, to how with $2 a day back home people were happier and richer socially, he said. Reaching for big success, he reminded me, is not happiness. People, life experience, responsibility — that is happiness. “If you have life experience, you are scared of nothing,” he told me. It was like the Dalai Lama plopped down next to me. I told him I would like to write down everything he said because it is so wise and I will forget. He laughed. I did forget; verbatim, at least. I remember the point though — everything I stress about doesn’t matter.

He told me how his father gave him the Qu’ran and the Bible at age 16 and told him to choose. He said he even read the Torah too. “So why did you pick Islam?” “It was the easiest to understand.” I laughed out loud and shook my head like I understood. “Otherwise, they’re all pretty much the same,” he said.

I told him he should be a motivational speaker or write a book. He laughed this time. He said people tell him this every day. I suspect this is what Elizabeth Gilbert felt like when she met the medicine man in Eat, Pray, Love. If you are ever in need of inspiration, you can visit this medicine man at the bike rentals on 59th.

I went home that day feeling a little less scared of the world. We are all scared of what we do not understand, right? (Many wise people have said this, at least). Maybe that’s what Oprah did for us  — she allowed for strangers and their stories to become less scary. Now that her show has ended, and so has my first 25 years, I’ve decided to take over for Oprah in my own life, meaning to no longer hide behind a notepad and pen as an excuse to get to know someone. I will be open to everyone (OK, there are exceptions here, but go with me) and listen to what they want to say. There very well could be a reason that person sat down where they did and wanted to take the time to speak.


Today I write this post over a glass of wine and two Shabbos candles. It’s been a while since I even had a desire to light them. But it came instinctively — like here I was putting up a front and now I’m open — so welcome.

When one door closes, another opens. I would also add that when one door opens, many more follow. I look forward to what the next 25 years bring.