2.7 Hello, Goodbye

Recently I moved into a small condo development. The area is a series of three story townhouse-like buildings. It is located off a busy major street and once on the property, the noise dissipates, almost reminiscent of quiet suburbia. The day after I moved, I walked along the pathway connecting the various buildings and another tenant approached. She looked at me, smiled and said, “Hello.” I lived downtown Toronto for the ten-plus years since calling this city my home. No random person ever said “Hello” unless they were selling something, promoting a religion or mentally unstable.

The “Hello” freaked me out.

This was not a small town and even though I made certain comparisons to the suburbs, the suburbs it is not. I still live in the city and in the city we do not say “Hello” to each other. The last neighbourhood I lived in was friendly with many local businesses and with consistent faces I would see walking along the streets several times a week. But we were not friends or acquaintances and held little desire to make our lives a little easier and lighter by smiling at each other in the streets.

After two days, three people, three “Hello’s” and two “Have a nice day’s”, I decided on conducting an experiment. I would take this novelty of talking to complete strangers beyond the confines of our little progressive urbane development and bring it to the urban core.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does it everyday. I’ve watched their members play a public transit busload of people like a musical instrument. They’ve probably spoken the word “Hello” in every language the population of this multi-cultural city has to offer. I watched and listened to one young nametag-wearing man solicit in fluent Mandarin, French and Italian. Perhaps this church truly is finally taking over, accomplishing their world-dominating goals with a multi-lingual series of polite “Hello’s”.

If they could do it, so could I. And people would appreciate that I’m not forcing a religion on them. I’m just being friendly. And I didn’t even need a nametag – my smile would be enough.

On the subway ride to work, I stood beside a man that looked to be in his 40s. He was reading the newspaper. I stared at him for a while, working up my courage. Finally, I leaned over and said, “Hello.” His eyes did not move from his newspaper, but he had that automatic uncomfortable look. His body tensed, he was aware of me but if he ignored the crazy person (me) saying “Hello”, I would hopefully go away. I said again, louder and this time with my nametag smile, “Hello." He walked away to stand at the other end of the subway car.

I was waiting in line at a coffee shop. A woman was behind me with a kid in a stroller. The kid was throwing various items on the floor and screaming loudly. The mother was in obvious distress and I decided to try out my greeting on someone that had not yet been taught the confines of our strict societal norms. I turned towards the mother and her child. I leaned down so I was at the level of the kid in the stroller, smiled and said, “Hello.” The kid instantly stopped crying and we stared at each other for a second. I saw it start in his stomach – a scream so piercing that it vibrated his entire body, traveled up his throat, and like a battle cry, opened his mouth and he let rip a yell so loud that I had to cover my ears.

This was not going well. My hypothesis was failing. Maybe I did need a nametag.

Walking home from the subway station near my new place, there was an old woman standing at the corner of the street. She was not waiting for a light to change in order to cross the street, she just seemed to be waiting. She was shriveled, stooped, the weight of a grocery bag in each hand pulling her down. Now, here’s someone I could greet accordingly, after all, she was old and vulnerable.

I stepped up, tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Hello!” She turned, confused more than anything. She looked down at the grocery bags and back at me. I asked her if I could help carry the bags. She handed them to me and motioned for me to follow.

We walked slow and we walked long. How was she going to do this alone? Was she waiting for me at that street corner to help?

Finally, we made it to a tiny house on a residential street. We walked so long and made so many turns that I was totally lost and not sure how I was going to get home. I put the grocery bags on the front porch, ready to say “Goodbye”, but she wouldn’t have it. She motioned me inside the house and I followed her into the kitchen. She smiled, put the kettle on for tea and introduced herself as Flo.

“It’s quiet around here,” Flo said. “Not many visitors since my husband died. Perhaps you could help me put these groceries away. It’s difficult for me to reach, you see.”

Flo directed where each item went. Every time I put something into a high cupboard, I wondered how she would get it back down. But then I noticed many of the same items already on the shelf, except they were much older and had probably sat there for far too long.

We were done putting the groceries away and my “Goodbye” waited on my tongue. But the tea was steeping and I couldn’t leave now. There were two bags of garbage beside the back door. I suggested taking them outside and Flo’s eyes brightened. When I returned from hauling the garbage bags, she gave me a tour of the house. Flo showed me photographs of her grandchildren, her children and her husband. In the living room, there were pictures leaning against the wall on the floor. Flo sighed. She meant to hang those pictures years ago. I found a hammer and together we made sure they were hung straight.

I called work and told them I would be late. I called them again later and told them I wouldn’t be in for the rest of the day.

Flo and I moved furniture, cleaned the house, made dinner and talked into the night. I finally did say “Goodbye”. At the base of the porch steps, I stopped, peaked through the front window. Flo sat alone on the couch, hands clasped in her lap. She just sat. I watched her for a while, a picture of a woman through a picture window.

As I found my way through the maze of side streets, I thought I would come back to say “Hello” to Flo again, but I haven’t yet. I will tomorrow. Or perhaps the day after that. As I wandered home, I thought about her sitting, waiting. I couldn’t help thinking that the word “Goodbye” held an entirely different meaning to her.