It’s probably true that we interact less with people face-to-face than we would have eighty years ago. We have other ways of interacting: through cell phones, email, iChat, Facebook, IM, Twitter, even Worlds of Warcraft (you know who you are). Despite all that, we sure do see a lot of people in a day. Think of our swelling population, of the strangers you see on buses and airplanes, in elevators or malls or movie theaters. You probably see a hell of a lot of people in a given day, even if you don’t stop to chat with a single one.
If you look closely, you’ll find a surprising amount of intimacy in these unintentional encounters. I’m reminded of this whenever I sit down and find the seat still warm from the person before me. I can’t help thinking how that heat was in their body and now it’s in mine: a strange biological closeness, even though we’d never said a word. This kind of small-scale intimacy is common, from colds and flu, to the noises you hear from the person in the bathroom stall next to you, to that surreptitious fart you smell in a crowded room. It always bothers me to think about how the molecules that were just in that person’s colon are now drifting up my nose. That’s real intimacy.
And then there’s intimacy with strangers on a larger scale, like when you hear your neighbors having sex. In my old apartment, I’d hear a man throwing up in the apartment next door every morning at the same time. At first I thought he was in a fraternity, then I thought he was an alcoholic, and finally, after months of it, I figured he had a medical condition. Whatever the cause, I was with him everyday, privy to his mysterious pain without him ever knowing.
But I’ve never experienced greater intimacy with strangers than I did on a small island in the British Virgin Islands. My friend and I followed a local man from the tiny airport to the boat that would take us to another, still smaller island. We followed him past a few people huddled on the dock, stepping around them. I barely noticed.
My friend and I got on the boat and discussed the outfits we’d packed. We sipped champagne and settled beneath the deck. Through a window, I noticed that people were still clustered on the dock. A family of tourists huddled in bathing suits, their snorkel gear scattered around. The father lay on his back, motionless and blue, while the mother and the little boy clung to each other. The emergency workers stood to one side, waiting to take the drowned man’s body away. We all watched as the woman and boy kissed him goodbye.
Right there, on the boat, I almost threw up from shame and sadness. And as we pulled away from the dock I realized that I’d probably witnessed the most personal moment of their lives. That in a way, I’d shared more intimacy with them than with most people I actually knew.