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The Scrivener: Talking Toward The Lunatic Fringe

Talking to strangers is risky reports Brian Barratt - but it can be more rewarding than walking in wide arcs away from them.

I can never understand why my friends some of them, that is are embarrassed when I strike up a conversation with a total stranger. This can happen in a lift, in the street, or in a supermarket. Admitted, it is somewhat risky, as you never know what sort of response you are going to receive. Not everyone is friendly, let alone responsive.

One evening, armed with my shopping list, I was negotiating the obstacle course of a local supermarket. You know what it's like: they put cardboard display cases of chocolate biscuits right at the point where you want to turn right when someone else wants to turn left, while a third person is trying to get into the aisle. Everyone wants to be first, of course, but no one wants to knock over the chocolate biscuits, which are cunningly stacked in such a way that the whole heap will collapse at the slightest knock with a trolley.

Anyway, I was halfway between the chocolate biscuits and the baked beans, carefully minding my own business, and avoiding buying anything that I already had two of in the cupboard. That's an easy mistake, and that's why a shopping list is a good idea. It helps you to avoid finishing up with half a dozen cans of the same item in the cupboard. A shopping list is an antidote for absent-mindedness... as long as you remember to read it.

Having found the brand of cereal that took my fancy, I turned round to put it into my trolley, and there was a small, grey-haired, bespectacled lady placing a bag of white rice into my trolley. She did so with great care and earnestness.

'Oh dear, oh dear!' I said to her, in a friendly, consoling sort of tone, 'They've let you out by yourself again, have they? You know you get confused when that happens.'

I was probably lucky not to receive a swipe across the face with her studded black handbag. Instead, I received a gentle smile, and a gentle response.

'Good gracious!' she said. 'I'm so sorry. I thought it was my trolley.' As it happened, there was no other shopping trolley in sight.

'Have you been taking your tablets?' I asked.

She laughed. 'You know, it must be the hot weather. Or else I'm getting old.'

'I'm sure it's the weather,' I assured her. 'You don't look as if you are getting old at all.'

'Oh, thank you, that is good news. I sometimes feel very old. I don't usually use other people's trolleys!'

'Not to worry,' I said. 'I'm sure you have a trolley somewhere.'

'Yes, but I wonder where I left it? It can't be too far away, can it?' And off she toddled, armed with her bag of rice, looking for her trolley.

This gambit, however, does not always pay off.

On another occasion, I was studying the cheeses on display at the same supermarket, when a man came to select from the same shelves. I had to communicate my good news to him.

'I'm so pleased to see they sell Nimbin [a brand name] cheese here now. It's low-fat and supposed to be very good for you. And it tastes very nice.'

He looked nervously at me, wondering if I was some sort of salesperson, or a lunatic. I was not put off.

'It's been on sale at delis for some time, but I never thought I would see it here.'

The conversation failed at that point. Without a word, he grabbed his plastic packet of sandwich slices of plastic processed cheese and beat a hasty retreat.

Another time, another place. I was helping to unload some cartons at the main door of an exhibition hall. We were struggling with our burden, and a kindly woman offered to hold the door open for us. My colleagues disappeared up the lift, while I continued unloading the car.

The exhibition centre was housing a conference of specialist teachers, of whom I assumed she was one. She wore a name badge, telling the world that she was Glynis. It did not, however, list her profession. I did not have a name badge on my lapel, as I had only just arrived.

'Hello, I'm Brian,' I said. 'You're Glynis, but what are you?', meaning 'what do you do are you a teacher?'

'I'm a human being,' came the prompt reply.

'Aha! So you are a male or female of the human species?'

'Yes,' she said, 'and I am a female. There are far too many of those males about!'

'I'm sorry, I'm a male. I can't help it. I was born like this. I tried to get it fixed, but to no avail.'

And thus we continued to enjoy a conversation that edged towards the lunatic fringe. It was good for the soul.

I'll continue talking toward the lunatic fringe. It's risky but it's more fun and also more rewarding than walking in wide arcs away from people.

Copyright Brian Barratt 2012

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For a richly rewarding experience why not delve into a huge stock of articles by Brian http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

As a further reward to yourself visit his Web site
www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

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