“You are not like these other people,” the young man says in his heavy accent.
Great, I say in my head. Another day, another sage. I put on my best anthropologist face and respond, “Now, tell me what you mean by that. I’m a traveler, just like all the other people at the Orlando airport. And you are not from here, so tell me what you see that makes you say that.” We are hustling with the rest of the line, to the baggage claim, and we need to ride the train-like shuttle between points at the airport.
“Lithuania. I am from Lithuania. But I live on Nantucket, and you remind me of people from there. What you are wearing,” he raises his hands in a shrug, as if what he is saying is evident. I am wearing a nice black skirt, a little long but very practical, and my favorite nice-ish shirt—it’s made by Grimicci, a climbing company, but it’s stylish, interesting. “What?” I say, shaking my head. He’s right, though, it’s neither office wear, as some travelers are wearing, nor jeans, which some travelers are wearing.
“The skirt, it is long, no? Not like anyone else. And the backpack. You look ready for anything. And that bag!” He points to my very unusual bag, which certainly is an eye-catcher. It’s a messenger bag crafted from a Cambodian fish food bag—bright orange imprinted with carp and the label, “Golden Feed” in red and yellow. “Looks like… from a (he is looking for the word)… a health food store!” He is congratulating himself for describing it just right. “’Ippees. There are people, I think you call them hippies, on Nantucket. Your face looks like them. Like you are happy to be here. Like you are friendly to strangers. Like you would talk to a couple of guys from Lithuania.”
“Okay, then,” I laughed. “I am in fact happy to be here. I’d like nothing more than to talk to a couple of guys, half my age, from Lithuania. If you think I am a hippie, you should see my hair!” It is twisted up in a loose French twist with hairsticks, and I have no idea how it looks, but there are probably corkscrews of hair escaping from the pile on my head.
“It is unusual. I see it.”
“This bag is from a health food store—you are exactly right. I work at a health food store. You have lived in the US maybe six months, and already you can tell these small nuances—you are a good anthropologist.”
“But will it help me find girls who will dance with me, on Key West? That’s where we are headed, Key West. No night life on Nantucket. No one is wearing t-shirts here—am I dressed okay, I want to ask?”
“It’s a chilly night, by Orlando standards, outside. You will be cold in a t-shirt, but I’m sure once you get to the Keys, you will find you are dressed just right. I can see you are a very smart student of people. I bet you will find girls who will dance with you.” He is so vibrant, so merry, so fresh for whatever is going to happen. He says goodbye at the baggage claim and I wish him luck.
I live in my own skin pretty comfortably—I have no idea on a day-to-day basis what might make me stand out from a crowd, except my hair and my Cambodian fish food messenger bag. Maybe I just don’t know how to dress myself, as one friend said of people who don’t watch a lot of television: maybe we just miss all the cues of what we are “supposed” to value and do. But I’ve lived with a string of these kinds of encounters, people who need to tell me something they see in me, some truth about me—that’s been happening my whole life, even when my hair was short, and long before the bright bag. I expect it to slow down, now that I am clearly middle-aged and nothing special to look at. I’ve always been trying to understand what it is people see when they speak to me this way.
So now I know. Although I’ve been traveling in what I considered perfect anonymity, I look like the kind of person who would talk to a guy from Lithuania. Which is absolutely true.