Don’t talk to strangers

Anyone who has flown with Lifelongnewyorker knows of her aversion to striking up a conversation with seatmates on planes. To avoid the chance chitchat, Lifelongnewyorker prefers to fall immediately into unconsciousness, usually before takeoff. Should sleep elude her, she puts on headphones, studies the Skymall catalog or stares catatonically out the window.

Not that she condones rudeness. Lately she has taken to greeting her fellow traveler and engaging in Limited Small Talk (LST)

This week’s trip to Washington, D.C. was typical: sleep on the Montomery-to-Atlanta leg, on the next LST with my seat mate in first class.

Perhaps because I was feeling pampered and expansive after enjoying my upgrade, perhaps because there was no danger in being trapped on an escalator, I let my guard down on the moving stairs in DCA.

Here’s how it happened. I approached the escalator as an unending line of eager and excited teenagers, all wearing yellow wool caps and festooned, like matching luggage, with yellow nametags, flowed onto the steps. A man in his early 30s–clearly one of the chaperones–
paused so I could go ahead of him onto the escalator.

Once on, I turned, saw that he was a priest (no collar, but he too had a name tag). Frankly I was surprised to encounter a priest that young, given that the average age of American nuns is reported to be about 74. Fondly recalling the times I chaperoned student trips (a clear example of time adding a rosy lens to memory), I asked where they were all from.

“Louisiana,” he told me, and I responded that I hoped they were prepared for the cold. “They think they are,” says Bing Crosby, adding, “I’m not so sure.” Stepping off the escalator we laugh together. Since we’re walking in the same direction, I to the taxi stand and he to the baggage claim, I break the cardinal rule of LST: upon completion of a successful exchange, do not introduce a new question.

So, I ask, are these all juniors? I’m totally inside my own, ancient frame of reference — 40 years ago in NY, where the trip to Washington was a common feature of junior year. No idea if it still is. “No,” he responds, “they’re freshman to seniors.”

Now I’m puzzled. Can’t be a curriculum-related trip. Maybe they’re in some kind of competition, or members of the school band slated to perform at a national event. I forge on, “Really? What brings you all to Washington?” I ask, gamely.

“We’re here for the big pro-life rally.”

And now I’m speechless. I recall that a colleague’s daughter who is a ninth-grader at the local Catholic high school is also going to this rally, not because she personally has strong views on the issue, but because it’s a school trip to the nation’s capital with her friends. She’s excited: They’ll stay in a hotel, see the sights, and talk all night long. Oh, yeah, and go to this rally. Colleague wasn’t thrilled that her daughter was being enlisted as a foot soldier in a political cause that Colleague doesn’t support.

I can’t tell him I support the cause, and the rules of LST are clear: do not invite controversy with strangers. ” Humma humma humma,” I imagine myself saying, but it comes out as “I hope they don’t freeze.”

And at that very moment, mercifully, the door to to taxis is on my left. Baggage claim pulls him to the right. I head outside.

The big rally is the next day, and it’s getting going as I arrive for an event on a street that has been blocked off to traffic because of it. As others arrive, everyone comments about the march. Mostly, these fall into the same category as comments in New York when the prez is in town or the UN is in session– it’s all about traffic and metro delays.

One person remarked upon the fact that he saw mostly groups like the one I encountered at the airport; young people in matching outfits full of energy, and as excited as if they were going to a football game. He also reported seeing a lot of young priests, and we joked that every priest in America must be at the National Mall.

And that led me to another memory. I, too, was in the company of a priest for an event in a bitterly cold Washington once. I was 17, out of high school and the official bus captain for one of three buses of people from Staten Island headed to the capital on the day of Nixon’s second inauguration, which we protestors were calling his coronation. We were there to march against Nixon’s odious expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos, and to demand peace.

On my bus was a groups of students from a local Catholic boys school, led by a priest whose name, I believe, was Fr. Tosh. We spent most of that very long and very cold day together. One thing I remember: we were somber. We were there for a serious purpose; it was no party.

Back at the airport today, I saw and heard people from the rally heading back home. Meanwhile, on the overhead televisions, CNN was reporting on the protest planned for today, in which people will rally against gun violence and in favor of stricter gun control.

And I couldn’t help but hope that at least some of those young priests led their charges to today’s rally,too.

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