It was a sunny fall morning in New York. Not too hot. Not too cold. I went for a long run. Point to point with a ride back home on the subway. I’d only done this run one or two times before, but it was one of the things I enjoyed about running in the city, and one of the things I enjoyed about my new home. You can go for a run and not have to loop back and see things twice. You can do a long run and take the subway home.
I ran through several different neighborhoods all the way to Central Park where others were enjoying the last beautiful days of fall. I made my way to Columbus Circle, trying to calculate how many miles I’d run, realizing that I was super thirsty and dehydrated. I found a Halal truck that I had visited before. I grabbed a water and- looking up the train schedule I figured I should grab a Gatorade too. Same truck. Same friendly face. I took apart my phone case where I had kept my ATM card and metro pass safely tucked away.
I grabbed the drinks. Started to open the water and as I went to guzzle it down–
“Card says it doesn’t work.”
The man handed me the credit card swiper. I put my pin in. Again and again. It would not work.
I apologized. I went to put the drinks back. But he stopped me.
“It’s ok. I know you. Take the drinks.”
I refused. I said I could not do that. He insisted.
“I know you. I know you’ll come back. You pay me when you come back.” He said.
I tried one more time. Picking credit instead of debit. It worked. Whew.
I thanked the man profusely and told him I would indeed be back.
Before I moved to New York I worked a lot of jobs, and I drove A LOT. By profession, I am a writer, actor, director, teacher and producer. Which means I also worked in other things like marketing to make ends meet. For years I drove about an average of two hundred miles each day. On this daily commute, I would pass through the same tolls on the highway. I never got EZPass. People thought I was nuts. At first, my financial situation was such that if my debit card was connected to any kind of automatic billing, it would most definitely be overdrawn on a monthly basis. Eventually though, I just didn’t want EZpass.
On these long journeys in the car by myself I had three companions: my thoughts, the radio, and the tolls. I became friends with NPR personalities like Terry Gross, the lonely desperate characters in Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town album, and the people who literally took money out of my hands. I got to know the toll collectors- some by name. The morning toll collector was a man who treated me like I was his granddaughter.
“Be careful, sweetie.” He’d say after we talked for a minute, if there was no traffic.
At one bridge there was someone who always told me I had beautiful eyebrows and asked me about the color of my lipstick. He brightened some of the worst days of my life.
One night I was jammin’ out to The Police’s “Roxanne”. The woman who was taking my change had the same radio station on.
“I named my dog Roxanne because of this song,” she said smiling.
And then there was a cute guy about my age who would flirt with me. I always drove away grinning.
Man- if there is something I miss about a pre-covid world, it’s interactions like these. Times when talking to strangers made some of the loneliest days of my life…well, less lonely.
For a long time I thought my love of talking to strangers was kind of weird. In quarantine I have started listening to this podcast called “The Happiness Lab,” with Dr. Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist and Professor of Psychology at Yale. In the fourth episode of the first season, Dr. Santos talks about our interactions with strangers, and how technology has reduced the amount of face to face interaction we have with people we don’t know. Science shows that these small, daily human interactions actually make us happier. That episode was published pre-covid.
I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to pulling out my cell phone on the train. And when I listened to the episode of “The Happiness Lab” I started to wonder. Have we all been slowly slipping into a social distance for years? Have I been denying myself of potential happiness? I consider myself a rather spiritual person, but there have been moments where I’ve really struggled with my spirituality lately. Maybe I’m going through a crisis. Or maybe I didn’t realize something about my interactions with strangers. Maybe it was in those moments when I was able to capture a glimpse of the Divine in the human spirit.
Whenever something bad happens on a big scale (like, say, a pandemic), I’ve noticed that the phrase “Biblical proportions” gets tossed around a lot. Hurricanes, for example, really get me to pull out all the jokes about arks and gathering animals. Recently I’ve heard about hoards of wasps (just a 2020 AD version of locusts, you know?). It feels as though these events were fabricated by some divine force beyond our control. Hence, Biblical.
But why don’t I characterize these small day-to-day interactions as Biblical? I was literally thirsty and someone offered me water to drink. (That’s a passage somewhere, right?). The good news often gets buried under the headlines but it’s still there. Stories of healthcare workers sleeping overnight at hospitals to care for the sick. Neighbors that put a refrigerator out on the street for the hungry to take the food they need. People standing up for people they’ve never met, even if it means getting persecuted. Is there something Divine about people caring for each other?
Right before quarantine I heard someone say “God is love. If you strive to show love for your neighbor no matter what, then you will be in the presence of God.” I’ve thought of this a lot in the past five months. Especially when I struggle to define and come to an understanding of my own spirituality. Whether or not you believe in the Bible or God or Divine forces beyond our control, we can always fall back on love, right? These are all real questions, by the way. Not rhetorical.
Last night I was driving down the highway. I approached the toll and I went through a ritual of “hand sanitizer, mask, money, hand the money over, get change, sanitize hands, remove mask,” each and every time. Even when I do interact with people now its hurried and sterile, because it has to be for the greater good. I don’t really drive much anymore, but it was the first time I wished I had EZpass.
We are collectively living through a really difficult time. There are things and places and rituals and people that we miss. Hope, for me, lies in those small moments of love. Those small, everyday interactions, brightened some of my toughest days. By Biblical proportions. Maybe it’s the science of happiness. I believe it is Divine intervention. I also like to think the two go hand in hand. Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to the day when I can stop and talk to strangers.
Iraisa Ann Reilly is a Jersey-born, New York-based theatre artist with artistic roots in Philadelphia. Growing up in a Cuban-Irish-American home shaped her passion for telling stories that are bilingual, bicultural, and work towards addressing social concerns. Iraisa Ann studied Theatre and English at the University of Notre Dame, after which she began her career as an actor, writer, director, and producer. While pursuing her own artistic dreams, she also held several job titles, like cashier, tour guide, marketing manager, mascot, and teaching artist. (She actually loved a lot of these side hustles). Iraisa Ann is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Dramatic Writing at NYU. She hopes to continue writing plays that make people say “Oh my God, I thought it was just my family….” She also hopes to do the same one day as a TV writer. Iraisa Ann loves the beach, the Phillies (still carrying a torch for that ’08 team), and Notre Dame Football. She realizes that this is suddenly beginning to sound like a bad online dating profile, so to learn more about Iraisa Ann and her work visit https://iraisaannreilly.com/.