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Playing Pretend with Strangers

My first November in New York City, my roommate and I bundled into our sweaters and scarves and headed to a spot in the Upper West Side to watch the start of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I remember a few things from that day very clearly.

First, it was the kind of cold that a bodega bought hot chocolate can’t fix. In fact the internet tells me that the temperature on November 24, 2016 ranged from 39 to 48 degrees Fahrenheit. It certainly felt like the low end.

Second, the balloons were even bigger—and more unruly in some cases—than I could have imagined. They’re also shockingly difficult to take selfies with.

And third, and most importantly, I remember the waiting game we played. We arrived so early, there was nothing to stare at but each other and with chattering teeth, we made a game of storytelling. But this wasn’t your average airport people watching. We were building sagas.

Blue hat. Right next to the man in the beige pea coat. Yes, her. So she’s visiting from Arkansas. Her name is Jenifer. Her son, Billy, plays the trumpet and his high school band is marching today. Billy’s a sophomore and he also plays trumpet in jazz band and in the school musical. He’s never been to New York so after this, they’re going to go to the Bryant Park Holiday Market, Grand Central, and 30 Rock. Jenifer is also thrilled because they got tickets to see Phantom of the Opera tomorrow.

We stared at the faces across Central Park West and made up story after story about people whose features we could barely make out. It was charming and fun and sometimes on busy runs through the park or long layovers in an airport, I’ll find myself weaving stories for strangers and thinking of that Thanksgiving.

But the other day, I took it just a step further. I was scurrying through the tunnel that connects the Port Authority subway station to the Times Square subway station—42nd street is just as harried underground. It was the kind of day where every person was, frankly, getting on my nerves in this crowded city where it can, at times, feel impossible to breathe.

And then I saw two men walking side by side, talking and laughing like they were at a summer cookout instead of a grimy train station. Their joy was infectious and I found my brain filling in the blanks. They grew up together and haven’t seen each other in a while but somehow bumped into each other on the subway platform. What a perfect coincidence! One of them just landed a dream new job and is absolutely crushing it. Good for them!

My brain was off. Before I could process what I was doing, I started shooting silent mental compliments at every person I passed. They’re a really great uncle. They are the first person someone calls when they need advice. They just got a great deal on a plane ticket to go visit family. They are going to be the maid of honor in their best friend’s wedding this weekend. They love their partner so much.

In the span of that tunnel, with loud music and rain soaked floors, I felt my entire demeanor change. And sure, maybe they aren’t an uncle or a maid of honor. But for a brief snippet of time, I wanted to believe all the best things about them. I wanted to hold them on a fleeting pedestal before they faded into the shuffling mass of people… before we lost each other on our respective subway lines.

I think there’s a lot to be said about playing pretend. I think there’s even more to be said about playing pretend when that pretend forces you to imagine good things.

If you’re making up the story, why not let it be beautiful?

If I’m writing my own life, why not fill it with joy?


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