A piece of hair falls into my mouth on mile four, swept out of my ponytail by that dry wind that comes right before winter. It’s the first day of November and I’m attempting to run out of a hangover. I’m operating on two hours of sleep and my head feels like it’s being squeezed by Clayton Thorson. But hey, I tell myself. I’m running.
When I allow myself to think about it, this run feels horrible. Luckily, there are plenty of distractions: The carpet of fallen leaves under my shoes that makes a sound like ASMR. The spice store somewhere on Davis that momentarily reminds me of a really good loaf of bread. The shadow of cold when I run under the Purple Line tracks, quickly followed by the warmth of the sun when I come out the other side. A stop sign appears, and even though there are no cars in sight, I wait to cross the street. In that moment, I spot a man approaching on the sidewalk. Old, round and unshaven, like a Wilmette Santa Claus. Without touching his beard, I know it’s so coarse that his grandchildren flinch before he kisses them. It’s 40 degrees, which is arguably warm for this season, but he’s wearing a thick black coat with the hood pulled over a knit hat. He’s still far when he raises his hand to wave. I wave back.
“Hey there,” he calls.
“Hi,” I say back.
For some reason or another, I was born with the type of face that makes random people think they can start conversations with me in public. Passengers on planes will interrupt whatever book I am reading to recommend a different one, rappers hand me their mixtapes on the CTA and children I’ve never met will ask what I think of their light-up Sketchers. I can be walking in a group and a lost person will approach me, specifically, for directions. I don’t know what it is about me. The green eyes? The youthful face? The oozing aura of Midwestern hospitality?
You’d think that I’d grow frustrated with this attention, but I was also born with the curse of politeness. No matter how little I want to take part in these conversations, I never stop someone before they’re finished. Sometimes I tell my friends that I do it out of respect, but at the end of the day, I have to admit that part of me is curious: What could be so important for someone to tell another person that they feel the need to break the paradigms of personal space?
This time, the man waits until he is a few feet from me to begin. “You a runner?” he asks.
“Yeah. I’m on the track club at school.”
“I have a suggestion for you,” he says. “You do your normal pace – your jog – for three blocks. And then on the fourth one, you go a little harder. Not fast, but just get some turnover. You won’t feel like you’re working much harder than usual, but you’ll be surprised. You’ll get stronger, really fast. Trust me on this one.”
I take a deep breath and do as I always do in this situation: I grit my teeth, I thank him, I say I’ll try it. I make no intention to actually follow him up on his workout. After all, I get unsolicited advice like this all the time: Homeless men critique my running form, construction workers offer workout suggestions. It would drive me crazy to listen to all the unqualified coaches I meet on a long run.
“You a student around here? Where do you go to school?”
“Northwestern,” I say, pointing across the street. “I actually should get back…”
“Northwestern,” He repeats. There is a long pause. Later, when I look back on it, I will understand this pause, but in the moment, I consider making a break for it. It is what he says next that makes me stay.
“Northwestern University. I know that place. That’s where I almost died.”
I was raised Catholic. At YoungLife camp, I remember my counselor gathering all of the girls in one room of bunk beds to ask us all if we’d ever met God in a stranger. Ever since then, I wonder if I’m meeting Jesus Christ in the dude giving out mixtapes on the Red Line.
I question why, after being taught never to speak to strangers, I continue to break the rule. Maybe, in my busy life, I figure the least I can do is take five minutes out of my day to let someone say what they want to say. Maybe we all deserve to feel like someone is listening to us.
I’ll complain about random people approaching me, but at the same time, my journal is full of Instagram handles, scribbles of book recommendations and quotes from people I’ll never meet again. I make something sacred about the randomness of our interactions. After all, in a world with seven and a half billion people, what are the odds these people run into me?
It is possible this is a fault of mine, some modern-day sortes virgilianae where I flip the book to a random page and take the advice I find as if it was preselected by someone who understands what I need to hear more than I do myself. Maybe I want to believe there is some divine power out there who sends these talkative people as messengers to tell me what I need to hear even if I don’t want to hear it.
Sometimes, I think the opposite. Maybe, there is no destiny or fate; maybe I meet these strangers by absolute random chance. Two passing ships in an ocean the universe wide, and I’m philosophical enough to think it means something.
Or maybe, that’s just what happens when you start to listen.
Standing in the 40-degree weather in my running shorts, I cross my bare arms to keep warm. After a while, I forget the wind.
“I had a brain surgery, while ago now. When I woke up, I didn’t remember anything. It was like I was a newborn. My wife was standing beside me. I didn’t know who she was.”
He says the last part with so much emphasis that I can tell this hurts. I wonder how many times she’s described the pain of being reduced to a new character after spending a lifetime with him. I wonder if he feels guilty for something that wasn’t his fault. I wonder if he blames Northwestern. I wonder what he did to lose this part of his brain in the first place.
“It took me two years to remember everything. I have three kids. I didn’t know I had them when I woke up, but my wife, she explained it all to me so I wouldn’t be shocked when we got home. But my memory is different now than it used to be. I have three kids, but I don’t know their names. I know everything about them – every single detail, every single memory – and in my mind, these things come to me immediately when I see them, but I cannot for the life of me recall what their names are. I never mix them up, though. Never.”
It occurs to me that he could be making all of this up, but I choose to believe every word.
“In the past two years, everything has come back to me. I just can’t remember any names – of people, of places. I’m not allowed to travel on my own anymore, because I never know how to say where I went. I only know I’m in Wilmette now because it’s the only place I’ll ever be.”
He tells me that he took a road trip in college, back when he could remember which state he was currently in at a given time. He and his friends played the Graceland album from beginning to end. They liked it so much that they didn’t listen to anything else for the whole trip. He tells me to look it up on the internet when I get home, and I do. Paul Simon sings that Graceland is in Memphis, Tennessee, but to me and the man with the hole in his skull, it might as well be anywhere.
The longer he talks, the more I forget the wind. I forget that I’m hungover. I forget that I’m meant to be on a run. I think about the vacations my family used to take when I was a child. I remember the soft sand on the beach, gathering shells in the folds of my dress, running up the shore when the tide came too high. But I cannot, for the life of me, remember where I was. Like this man, I remember only the memories. I guess, as time passes, the labels are the first to fade.
“You seem to remember the important stuff,” I say to him.
“I’m lucky. When I left Northwestern, they said that most people who go through my procedure don’t remember anything at all. The important stuff, like you said, came back to me.”
There’s something to this. Maybe, names are the least important things to remember. Maybe, this man has a backwards sort of gift in the hole in his skull. Through some accident or surgery, he only remembers the things that matter. Every watercolor memory of his 75-year life, all bright hues and startling images, but never the edges. Nothing to grip onto. Just pictures, beautiful pictures.
In the moment, I do not know how long we stand there. I do the math at home. I left for this run at two o’clock, I run ten miles and I get home at four. The run itself only took eighty minutes, which meant I stood on a Wilmette street corner for approximately forty minutes.
But, like I said. Forty is just the label of the number. That wasn’t the part that mattered.
When I get home, I have a list of requests. The man has told me to listen to Graceland, Cat Stevens and a fourteen-year-old orchestral pianist named “London.” But I Google something else, too, and I find it right away.
Anomic Aphasia. That is the correct term for the hole in his skull. Everything the man told me is outlined right there, in the article, with perfect clarity. It is fitting, really, that he never told me the name of the condition, but instead told me everything about it. I wonder if he knows this term. I realize things would not have been any different if he had.
That’s the thing about names: They only stand for something else. It’s like a variable in an equation or a pointer in computer programming. It directs you to something else you’re supposed to think about, but you have to make a leap to get there. We all have the schema to gather the various bits of information surrounding one person. Some of us categorize these beneath a label, but when this label is gone, the vast bank of underlying data is impossible to explain to anyone else. In this case, you become frustrated. Perhaps you begin talking to strangers.
You hope they listen, but you worry they won’t. We all walk around in our own bubbles believing our own lives are so important that we cannot stoop so low as to talk to anybody else. We take the train and walk to work and pass thousands of nameless faces in a crowd, never going so far as to offer them a good day because to us, it’s too big of an investment.
It’s taken a lifetime of run-ins with randoms, but I have forced myself to stop and talk when the occasion arises. There is an innate joy in speaking to other people, a genuine connection in conversing with another human being even if you have no stake in the outcome. I like to think that there is enough to learn that you can find something valuable – whether it be advice, positivity or joy – from anyone you meet. We cannot possibly know everything, ever. After all, I turn to Snapple lids for scripture and I find sanctity in strangers. The entire world is constantly offering me advice, so long as I am open to taking it.
After a while, the man tells me that I should start jogging again; he’s talked to me for too long. I forget that, initially, I was itching to run away. I almost want to keep talking, not sure what he’s going to tell to me next. This man is fascinating. But he’s right – it’s been forty minutes. Crowds of people have passed us on the street, looking back and forth between the girl in a t-shirt and the bearded man wearing a hood over his hat. A couple people look almost pitying, as they eye me, as if they think I am being harassed by this man. I want to tell them that it’s OK, that I don’t mind talking to strangers.
Before we leave, we shake hands. He tells me how much of a pleasure it was to meet me, and I promise that I’m going to look up the music artists he told me about. We shake hands, his covered in a thick glove. I cross the street, and I keep running. I will remember him, and I know he will remember me.
It does not occur to me until later that neither of us ever asked for the other’s name.