There is this guy I occasionally play basketball with at the gym. We met on the second-floor courts, the empty ones people use to shoot around on their own to avoid the pick-up games on the first floor. Nevertheless, he corralled me and four other disparate players together for a game of half-court three-on-three. Since that day about a month ago, I have run into him three more times, and each time we have played casual but intense games of one-on-one. 

In addition to his first name, Joel—I think, though I’m not confident enough to address him as such—here is everything I know about him: 

I know he’s better than me at basketball, but my youth and height allow me to beat him most games; I think he is in his mid-forties. I know he will always put up a good fight, even if he forgets his athletic shoes and is slipping around the court in his Chucks. I know he’ll keep saying, “You got one more in you?” and I’ll say, “Yes,” even though I was ready to fall over in exhaustion three games ago; he must take some joy in being more fit than I. I know his wife is a professor in the English department and that’s why they moved out here. I know he is a staff member at UW and has bounced around several offices. I know he’s also from southeast Michigan and that my Detroit City FC shirt helped us strike up a conversation that first day. I know he studied Chinese for a semester in college but has forgotten everything. Most importantly, I know there is a good chance of running into him at the gym from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays.

Short of scrolling through staff pages on department websites to find his picture, I have no way to figure out his full name and no way to contact him. Of course, it would be natural to suggest that I simply ask him. I’ve been on the verge of asking to exchange numbers several times, but in the end I have always refrained. There is something pure and uncorrupted about our relationship—a charm and simplicity, with perfect understanding between us as basketball friends—that I don’t want to lose.

In the introduction to Talking to Strangers, which is a freewheeling, often rambling, but at turns insightful book that is almost never about talking to strangers, Malcolm Gladwell offers this line: “Sometimes the best conversations between strangers allow the stranger to remain a stranger.” 

That’s where I am with Joel.

There is a paradox behind the art of interacting with strangers, a demeanor that exudes friendliness and engagement without making any demands on the other person. Sometimes, this can border on the cringeworthy, like the time my grandparents were so very delighted to tell our waitress all about their granddaughter, whom we were on our way to see perform in a school play. “Grandpa, the waitress doesn’t care!” I wanted to scream. It can also be annoying, like when a fellow airline passenger talks your ear off the entire flight despite the fact that your earbuds are in and you just wanted to listen to a podcast.

On the other hand, I’m reminded how appalled I was two years ago when, as a master’s student, I sat down in a silent classroom filled with undergrads staring at their phones, waiting for class to begin. I was at most five years their senior and yet I had never felt a larger generational gap. Maybe I was to these kids as my grandparents seemed to me, or maybe, as a society, we are losing something inherent to the fabric of social interaction.   

When the gym opens again after winter break, I expect to find Joel on the second floor courts, probably attempting to scrounge together a few people for a game. Who knows, maybe someday soon we’ll finally exchange information. Maybe we’ll become Facebook friends, which could lead him to this post. Maybe we’ll become more than strangers.


  1. Lee H VandeBunte

    Sadly, I am probably more like your grandpa than I care to admit, though I try not to be annoying.

    I believe we have been declining for years in the human interaction category and it has ramped up considerably the last two. It is sad that facial expressions have been obscured, and interaction is discouraged by virtue of pandemic precautions. I have spoken with many who expand on this by saying they are happier not interacting. It’s safer.
    I can’t help but think something is lost however.

  2. Laura Sheppard Song

    I love little interactions and stranger-relationships like these. Your description is wonderful regarding how it’s “pure and uncorrupted” and you’re not sure you’d like to take it to the next level of friendship. There’s a delight in these small encounters.


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