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A man says to me, “How do you like that car?” I’m standing by a little green Kia. “It’s not mine, it’s a rental,” I say. I’m in the town of Okeechobee, Fla., parked on the main drag in front of Nutmeg’s Cafe. “Where you from?” he says.
“I hear they just got more snow up there.”
“How do you like that car?” is a classic opening of a casual conversation between two men who don’t know each other and it can lead in various directions, if they have the urge to talk.
He’s from Connecticut, I find out, and has lived in nearby Fort Pierce for several years. He thought when he moved to Florida that he’d be spending a lot of time on beaches but he hasn’t been on a beach much at all. He drives a 1947 Packard convertible that he fixed up himself. He moved here because Florida is better for the Packard and also to see to his father, who is 87, and also to get away from a broken romance. He and his dad have breakfast together every Thursday morning. He misses the North, the big winter storms, the bracing chill in the air, but Florida is okay. He is thinking of buying property in Okeechobee. He likes small towns. He recommends I see Fort Pierce and drive the Indian River highway down the coast.
He offers all of this in one brief encounter standing on the sidewalk, and when we say so long, I have no idea what his politics are, if he attends church, what he does for a living, how he feels about climate change, but I do feel warmly about Okeechobee.
These common social moments aren’t as common as they used to be. For one thing, so many people wear headphones and you’d have to tap them on the shoulder and have something serious to say, like “Your pants are on fire.” An older man avoids striking up a conversation with a younger woman for fear it will be misconstrued, or with younger men because their default response is “Hnnph.” You stand in line at a store counter, people are busy texting, Googling on their phones, checking their inboxes, and you hesitate to say, “Beautiful weather we’re having.” Or “Those are good-looking boots you’re wearing.” Or “How do you like that car?”
I hitchhiked a lot in my teens and remember the men who gave me a lift and how talkative they were. I was a shy kid, so older people opened up to me. It was a hitchhiker’s job to shut up and listen: That was how you paid for the ride. They complained about their jobs, talked about the war, gave you advice about women and life. But nobody hitchhikes anymore, and thanks to the universality of gizmos, small talk has become rare, and a person comes to feel he’s living in a hostile world, which is not true at all.
When I lived in Denmark, small talk with a stranger was the hardest language to get a handle on — the big declarative textbook sentences don’t work in that context — so much is conveyed by tone, by harrumph and sigh and nonsense sounds, the Danish equivalents of “oy” and “uff da” and “yikes.” Flying back to New York and walking through JFK, I felt immersed in small talk, like a sea lion returning to the herd.
My dad loved Florida. His Minnesota life was constrained by family and church and job, and in Florida he went into business as an itinerant knife-sharpener, working a long route of restaurants, meeting strangers, making small talk, which he dearly loved. He was a Christian fundamentalist, bound by strict doctrine, but on the knife route, he could talk about weather, children, sports, cars, without reference to the Rapture and the Millennium. It was the freedom to be ordinary.
The Indian River highway was a disappointment: a two-lane road along a solid phalanx of mansions behind gates and no place to stop and admire the Atlantic. But the conversation with the guy curious about the green Kia was memorable. Two weeks have passed since, and I haven’t had another encounter like it. They say the country is bitterly divided. Maybe so, but that’s no reason to be rude. My mailman likes to banter, and so do the guys at Lloyd’s Automotive and the cabdrivers. So what’s going on with you? Cat got your tongue? Where’d you get that sweater? What’s that product you put on your hair?