This past Saturday I visited the Burlington farmers market with the intention of buying sweet peas, looking at flowers, reading a good novel and drawing plants in the park. Secretly, a fantastical part of me imagined some cool person would catch the title of my book or notice the flower species I was drawing and comment and then sit and we would find that we both loved dinosaurs and were new to Burlington. We would be quick friends that would end up conquering the world and dying our hair and learning how to simultaneously be young and have all the same hobbies as our grandmas, all while always having a Calvin and Hobbes book to read together. Far fetched, but not impossible, right?
I parked in my usual spot in the Cherry St. Parking Garage and scampered down multiple flights of grimy stairs, desperately avoiding the thought of how many drunken people have peed in here. Out on the sidewalk, I nod at the green graffiti face of Albert Einstein. I make a daily, secret promise to a cartooned dead scientist to be smart.
I say good morning to the homeless woman who always sits outside this garage but don’t drop a coin. Each day I see her sitting on a plastic crate, with a backpack and a rainbow umbrella. Each day I feel guilty and altogether like a priveleged ass. That Saturday was no different as I continued on into a perfect market day.
The farmers market is everything that I find lovely. Hand made artifacts, vibrant vegetables, fresh baked bread, radiant flowers, people with baskets, and fully clothed kids splashing happily in the water fountain, with other kids whom they have never met. I walked along in a euphoric state, getting sunburnt, taking photos, and thinking of how lovely it would be to have a friend to be giddy with.
With this in mind, my goals shifted towards the proactive. I scanned the crowds, looking for common ground. I have been wondering how the heck adults make friends recently. Work is basically the simplest answer I’ve come up with, logistically. But common interest is at the core of friendship. All of this seems rather grim when your hobbies include primarily solo activities like reading, and crafts and long walks with your headphones in. And then, what if you don’t connect with the people you work with, outside of chopping broccoli in tandem? I am almost convinced those of us in this position are screwed.
Hope resides for me in beginning to notice people that I pass every day. For instance, there is a person I share a smile with on the street a few times a week, I think because we carry the same Klean Kanteen. Its not likely we will speak about it, though. Everybody in Vermont carries the same Klean Kanteen. Or there is the barista, who recognizes my mug as the one I bring when I simply want espresso. I thought of the homeless woman outside the parking garage and felt another guilty swoosh in my stomach.
I decided not to set up camp in the park as I’d planned, despite its loveliness. On my way out of the market, I bought a blackberry almond scone from a cart loaded with gorgeous pastries. I marched myself back to the parking garage with the intention of connecting with this woman I see every day. I squatted as if I was talking to a child, unsure if this was better than standing. In the matter of a glance, I noticed for the first time what she looked like- not what stuff she had. She is bones in tightly wrapped skin like creased caramel leather. She has icicle blue eyes and no eyelashes. She wears a tattered sweatshirt, jeans, and a baseball cap which hides her grey hair. She doesn’t smile.
“Hi. My name is Gretta.” She looks up at me for a moment nodding. “I pass by you here a lot and I thought maybe, since we have this sidewalk in common, we could be friends. Also I wondered if you would like a scone?” I held out the paper bag.
She laughed a little, revealing a toothless grin. I’m positive that I looked and sounded ridiculous to this woman- but hopefully enough so that it’s charming. She took the scone without looking at me and responded with a raspy, “Thanks sweetie, I’m, uh… Susan.”
“May I sit with you, Susan?”
“Sure, if you want.” she said continuing to avoid the sight of me and and the scone in her hands. I wish she knew she was doing me a favor as well.
There was an awkward stretch of seconds where both of us sort of nodded, squinting at the sunlight without words. We remarked on the weather, as one does when conversation doesn’t flow. We talked about where we were each from and why we were here in brief sentences. I don’t think either of us really wanted to pry so we just sat watching people pass by and glance down at us- made quickly uncomfortable by the sight of someone new to the usual landscape of this street corner. Susan caught me smile at the birds nibbling at a pile of bread crumbs nearby and explained to me that she comes here to feed the birds every day.
“I figure its small enough for me to feed and it’s the food karma I want. I don’t know too much, but I think karma is pretty real.” She broke off a piece of her scone, studying it before carefully putting it in her mouth.
I returned my gaze to the birds, smiling and shaking my head. I got more or less what I wanted today- a picnic and a friend. Susan and I, a scone, and the birds all just enjoying the sun. I didn’t stay too long, and I still don’t know much about Susan or how I can help her. I don’t think we will be the dye our hair and read Calvin and Hobbes together, type of friends, but I hope we can share a Saturday pastry every once in a while, learning that common ground can quite literally be the ground we tread upon daily and that can be all it takes to connect.
I walked past Einstein again and nodded a second time. I wonder if the scientist nods back from wherever he is. And then I remind myself, I am nodding at a bit of vandalism on the crumbling concrete wall and say silently, “Gretta, you are one odd gal.” and I shrug, and I laugh.