“Mind if I join you?”

“Mind if I join you?”

Startled, I looked up from my psychology book. An older gentleman, with a white wool-knit sweater over a plaid button down, was waiting for me to respond.

(I couldn’t really say no, could I?) “Um, sure.” I sorta smiled, awkwardly.

“Why thank you.” He smiled, genuinely. He left his leather briefcase on the chair and headed to buy some lunch.

I’m not sure why I was so startled by his request. As soon as he left, my mind started racing. Do I have to talk to him? Why is he sitting with me? All I wanna do is my work… is he going to leave me alone? I had such an adverse reaction to a kind stranger joining me for lunch, which sort of disgusted me. When did I start rejecting company and conversation?

The gentleman walked back over to me and set his lunch on the table. He had a cup of soup and a fruit bowl on his tray, and I immediately thought that I never knew there were trays available. I could have avoided clumsily carrying too many lunch items this whole time. This guy was smart.

“You know, I’m not just sitting here because you’re a pretty young girl,” the man chuckled. “Frankly, there are no empty tables and I just really need to eat some lunch. I hope you don’t mind.” He had kind eyes, like ones you imagine a literary grandfather having. I smiled for real this time.

“No, I don’t mind.” I set down my high-lighter and closed my book. Maybe I needed some company after all.

I learned that my lunch partner is named Bill Brookes. He’s a retired high school chem teacher (he taught for 40 years at a very prestigious private school) and now he sits in on Villanova classes twice a week, just for fun. He even does the homework, even though he’s not required to. His favorite classes this semester are Quantum Physics and some other sciencey class that makes my poor Communication-major head spin. He tried to convinced me that it was just like simple trigonometry and calculus, but I didn’t believe him.

When he’s not in class, he’s learning how to play the clarinet or spending time with his wife, Linda (and his two girlfriends on the side–kidding of course). He’s Jewish and served in World War II. He told me to look up all these old war songs that he’s learning to play on the clarinet, but I’ve forgotten their names already. Bill has traveled the world, mostly solo, and told me about all the concentration camps he visited in Eastern Europe. He has a few daughters, some grandkids, a son-in-law whom he really doesn’t like, but deals with anyways. He rather eat a hoagie than a bowl of fruit, and prefers sparkling water to flat. Sometimes his old students contact him on Facebook. He gets frustrated when he can’t figure out math problems on his yellow legal pads.

I sat with Bill for an hour and a half, sometimes talking, but mostly listening. He’s a sharp guy with funny stories. I appreciated his company a lot more than I thought I would. Before I got up to go to class, he gave me one piece of advice.

“After graduation, don’t get married. I mean, get married eventually, but don’t get tied down too soon. Go see the world instead. You have time to get married later.” Coming from a guy whose generation is categorized by early marriages and tons of babies, I think I’ll take his wise words.

As I got up to leave, I told him that it was a pleasure meeting him, and truly meant it. He simply tipped is drink at me and smiled.

Walking to class, I realized that spontaneous conversations and familiar strangers is lost on our generation. We’re too plugged in and tuned out to be open and appreciate someone’s company. For Bill, he’s been asking people to join them for lunch for decades. For me, this was the first time a stranger approached me with that question.

I’m not saying that we should make friends with every stranger we meet. (That would go against every “Stranger Danger” lesson we learned in preschool). I think we should just have the courage to chat up the business man sitting next to us on the train, or ask the young mom in Starbucks a question about her day. Talking to Bill was probably the highlight of my week. I got to learn so much about him, no strings attached. We chatted for the sake of conversation, to be a little less lonely for an hour of our day. We’ll probably never run into each other again, but at least we had a nice lunch together.

Who knows what you can learn from people. But if you don’t ask, you’ll never find out.

Here’s to Bill & the gift of company.

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