“Twenty cents,” said the librarian. She was new, so there wasn’t the usual banter about the amount of books I order (a dozen at a time) or how much space they take on their shelves until I pick them up.
I opened my coin purse that held a variety of change for this purpose—paying the occasional fine. I plucked out two dimes and thought how odd they felt. These days, I rarely use cash for purchases. My husband still does, but relies more each day on our credit card to accrue points used for travel. Every six months (or longer now) I roll his coins and bring them to the bank.
“Twenty cents?” The gal repeated. She held her hand close to mine.
I placed the dimes in her palm. My fingers touched her soft warm skin. The sensation was as foreign as fingering the coins. How long had it been since I had physical contact with a stranger?
We live in a day when a teacher cannot hug a student for a job well done. You’re definitely a mugger if you offer a helping hand to an elderly woman. And talking to children in the grocery store gets you mistaken for a molester.
So, this brief skin-to-skin encounter seemed forbidden and yet pleasant. I’m a stoic Scandinavian. Hugging does not come natural as it does to my Italian girlfriend who bear-hugs everyone she meets. But our world has changed.
Back when I paid in cash, I stood closer to the cashier across the counter. Our hands met as we exchanged bills. A penny or quarter might slip from the mix. We laughed and fumbled for the stray coin— a finger, a hand, or an elbow would collide.
Now, I slide or insert my credit card into a device on my side of the counter. The glowing screen instructs me to wait. The device approves the sale then tells me to remove the card. I spend a considerable amount of time interacting with the digital companion instead of chatting with a real person about the weather, or the price of pomegranates. The cashier and I are so far apart, we resort to shouting,
“Have a nice day!”
“You too!” I yell.
I barely look in her direction as she helps the next customer in line.
And don’t get me started on the growing number of self-checkout counters.
The gap between a stranger and a future friendship has widened. Our intimacy with our credit and debit cards has grown along with the machines that complete our transactions.
I miss those days of small talk—tiny conversations about nothing, or sometimes something—advice on hurricane supplies or tips on cooking flank steak.
There is no going back. But nothing stops me from trying to engage a fellow shopper as we peruse the makeup aisle.
“Beauty isn’t free,” I say.
She’s wearing headphones.
Do you miss casual conversations with strangers?