September 20, 2009

There are hazards to going out. One of them is the unexpected run-in. Even worse, the unexpected run-in where someone tells you something that is emotionally significant.

The other day I was leaving my apartment in New York when, in the lobby, I ran into an elderly woman who lives in the building.

Over the years, whenever I've seen her and her husband, I've stopped and had a casual, amiable chat. The sort of conversation you have with neighbors you don't know very well. Friendly but without any noteworthy investment. Above all: brief.

I hadn't seen her for about six months, and even though I was stressed because I was already late for a work-related appointment, I had to stop to say hello. "How's your husband?" I asked.

That's when she said: He died.

He died? This was not run-in conversation. I didn't know what to do. Suddenly, an informal encounter that I didn't have time for in the first place became a situation.

Whenever I run into someone and don't have the time or inclination to talk, I've always found it a challenge to get out of it. Usually I end up creeping away, slowly, indicating I have to go. Sometimes this works, and the person will get he hint. They'll say something like, "Well, I'll let you go-" and I'll apologize and take off, feeling relieved.

But other times, they don't get it at all and begin walking with you. Especially if the run-in happens while on the street. Then you're stuck walking and talking. I'll ask which direction they're headed in so that I can announce I have to go the opposite way. If they're going uptown, I'm going downtown. If they're headed East, I'm going West. But on occasion there will be someone who responds with, "I'll walk with you until you have to get where you're going."

What do you say to that? No? No, I don't want you to walk with me. That's hard to say. So what I'll do is, I'll pretend to hail a cab. But even then, sometimes they'll wait. I'll state they don't have to but they'll say it's no trouble. Then I have to get in the cab that I didn't need just to get away from them. I've done this a couple times and I've told the cab driver to drive me around the corner. One time, I actually ran into the person again as I was exiting the cab 5 minutes after saying goodbye to them. It was a little uncomfortable.

But back in the lobby, when this woman told me her husband had died, I was stuck. There's no good way to exit a conversation when someone tells you their husband of 35 years has died.

"What happened?" I asked. As she told me the story, I began to get upset. It was sad. And yet, I was also distracted. Because I knew there was also someone sitting in a restaurant waiting for me.

It felt wrong to say I had to go, given the subject matter. But on the other hand, it wasn't lobby conversation either. It was my own fault. I did ask how he was. What was she going to say? It's not like she could give any answer other than: dead.

After ten minutes I told her I was so sorry, but I had to go. The look on her face - it was like he died all over again. Everything about this exchange was miserable. I told her that if there was anything I could do to let me know but knowing I was leaving for London in a few days I added this - just so she knew I wasn't ignoring her. Here's a tip. When you tell someone you're there for them - it's probably best not to add: until Tuesday.

Then, just as I as parting she turned to me and said, "You remember my name, right?"

I didn't think it could get worse, but at that moment, it did. "Of course," I said, giving her a hug.

There was a pause. She looked at me. I looked at her. I was concentrating so hard on trying to remember her name that I worried I would have an embolism. Thankfully. I got it right. If I'd gotten it wrong, I would have had to move. Her face relaxed and we said goodbye.

Run-ins are draining. There's a reason I don't leave the house.