At the Laundromat, people start to come in around 11 am. I am tending my three driers and intently folding hot clothes with the huge doors open. An old man stares at the washers for a while and then goes through the procedure to start them going. When they are agitating, he takes off his shirt and throws it in. He returns to his seat in his undershirt and puts his winter coat on over it. I am deep in thought over the novel I am reading and folding clothes with an alertness for any residual moisture.
Suddenly he comes up and asks heartily, “How was your Christmas?”
I give him a long look and answer neutrally, “Fine.”
“And New Year’s?”
Again I pause before answering “Good.”
“You’re from Charlottetown, are you?”
On the Island, if you are involved in some sort of stationary pursuit strangers will come up to you and grill you with a series of personal questions. Once I was waiting for a bus and a man of about my age wanted to know where I was from, where I worked, where I lived—the whole deal. I have never gotten over my suspicion and reluctance to answer such things though it really is just “The Island Way” to ask them. And I am at my least friendly while doing laundry at a public Laundromat.
“It’s a nicer day than they said it would be.”
The weather! About that I am happy to converse. So I offer my comments about the weather in several descriptive sentences, and, satisfied for some reason, he goes back to the plastic seat and a newspaper.
The next evening, I am walking on a snowy sidewalk on the way to my friend’s home. I am walking carefully because of the fresh snow and also because I have recently had a dizzy spell, something that happens from time to time. Ahead of me and coming in my direction, I see an old man near the huge tree the sidewalk has to bend around on Fitzroy. He sways, or so it seems, his walk is unsteady, and as I come up opposite him, he is talking quietly and looks startled by my approach. Yet he says,
“Are you okay?”
This question goes to the heart of things—I am not feeling like myself, I am not feeling quite okay, yet I don’t think there is anything in my appearance to convey that to a stranger. But I am glad, for some reason, that he has asked.
“Yes,” I say. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” he says. “But there is a bit of ice here—it surprised me. I don’t want ice.”
“Oh. Well I’ve come from that direction and it’s fine.”
I can’t remember what he replies to me, but he touches my arm lightly in friendly gratitude or comradeship.
This sudden conversation feels intimate and warms my heart. It is also “The Island way”. To care about strangers. To talk to them on the street. It’s one of the reasons I instantly felt so at home and safe here when I moved to Charlottetown nine and a half years ago.
As I walk the rest of the way to my friend’s, I resolve to try to be more gracious, less prickly, the next time I’m at the Laundromat.