September 29, 2011

My best conversations are with strangers

In the past two weeks, my best conversations have been with strangers. During the off hours of my yard sale, I chatted with a man in crutches who happened to stop by because he was taking his weekly stroll to Main street. We jabbered on about the sport of fishing and renovations going on in Alhambra. Everything boiled down to the simple answer "It's the bad economy." A few hours before, Mohommad came by again looking for a water boiler, the one that whistles when its ready. He had stopped by earlier that morning to pick up five dollar speakers (my dad had them in the garage for 10 years). I forgot what we talked about, but it felt like I've known him for years. But out of all the conversations I've had with these new faces, my 5 minute meeting regarding vinyl application printing turned 2 hour meeting about the idiosyncrasies of life with the Femi is my favorite.

"Hi, are you Sami?" I asked the man at the front desk. "Ah, yes it's Femi," he responded with a huge smile. I loved his Nigerian accent.  I showed him the samples we wanted for him to print, and he laughed the whole time because I really was very ignorant about the printing process. "That," he pointed to a poster of three dogs' butts in bikinis, "that was a strange project. These customers invented diapers for dogs. I tell you, Americans love their pets! Where I come from, he feed them and had them to eat the bugs around the house, but we don't sleep with them. If you want to make money, work in a business with pets!"

It's a great conversation when you can't pinpoint exactly how you got to the topic. We went from talking about dimensions and cost of the printing to talks about education, dating, life mantras, technology, tailoring, and many other topics. When I drove back, I kept trying to think how we even went off topic. Most conversations I have with vendors are direct Q and A's. How much will this cost? Do you know how long it will take? How long have you had this shop? With Femi, stories seem to sprout and we both were inspired by each other's recollections.

Femi was born in Nigeria and came to southern california when he was 24. He studied at Cal State Long beach and transferred to UCLA majoring in some type of Health field. I was surprised at how many things we had in common. He also worked in Alhambra for 10 years after he graduated. Well hello, I'm from there! At first, I thought he was just being a great businessman, telling me what I wanted to hear. If that was the case, he was a great businessman. I was reassured that he was simply conversing to converse when he mentioned the Chinese Islamic Restaurant on Garvey. How can anyone make that up? I've always driven by this restaurant called "Chinese Islamic Restaurant" and I couldn't understand how that worked. I didn't know Chinese people knew Islamic people even existed.

"My daughter lived in the dorms for one year and moved out because of me. All the friends she met there lived in mansions in Beverly Hills! I told her I couldn't go and buy her a new BMW. Meet new people!" His daughter, who is now 33 years old working with clinical social worker something (I'm not very good with medical professions) in Nevada.  She's married to the greatest guy on Earth (he cooks, cleans, takes care of the baby, does chores, and anything you can think of that men never enjoy doing. And he does it without her nagging him. )

"Her boyfriend in college was a bad one. He had no job and no respect. He would drive her car, drop her off of school, and go somewhere. I said, if I'm paying for this car and the insurance and this kid is driving it, I will not allow that! I ask her, Honey why are you dating this guy, you deserve so much better." He looked at me and asked "How old are you?" His daughter was 24 when she finally broke it off - 6 long years.

"You are young. I learned that I couldn't tell her what to do. She will learn herself, from her own mistakes," he said expressively, his arms motioning towards his chest, "She did not listen to me. But I knew if I stopped nagging her, she will eventually learn on her own."

Femi began telling me about his first girlfriend, who he wanted to marry, but couldn't because of racial issues. He didn't want to be with a mother-in-law who disapproved of him because of his color. Now, at the age of 55 (I say add 5 more years because colored people age sp gracefully) he's living in Long Beach and his girlfriend lives in Cincinnati. He dreams of ending his career at the sign shop and wants to open an adult daycare center.

"People now are very selfish, that is why relationships don't last. You have to gain trust, and that takes time. Find someone who will be patient to grow with you. Be secure, independent. You both can have your own lives but don't be selfish. Give to give, not to expect something in return. All you want is love in return, right? What else do you need?"

He began to laugh when he gave an example of what he meant. "I love football, so I go to bars to watch it with other fans. She calls me on my phone, so I step outside to talk to her." He put his hands over his ears and speaks into it like a phone "I'm at the bar watching the game right now."

"See, instead of accepting it and asking me what I'm doing and how the game was, she told me to go back inside and to call her when he is done. So I call her later, but she was asleep because of the time difference." He began doing a texting with his hands, and with a laugh, said "And so I texted her "honey  I'm sorry I called so late I will call you tomorrow!"

"You need to know how to live your own life. When your partner is gone, you don't need to talk to them every second and know exactly where they went, who they went with. You need to trust that they are living their life and you live yours. This trust, it does not start at the beginning. You gain it, and it takes years."

Maybe his wrinkles aren't apparent not only because he has great genes, but of his whimsical, some might even say illogical look at life. "Don't worry too much. What will happen will happen. I never stress because I know things will be good. Have faith, embrace the cultures of life, and form meaningful relationships."

My stomach began to growl and I realized lunchtime had passed an hour ago. A customer walked in, which was my cue to end my talks with Femi. I thanked him, grabbed the airplane acrylic models, and walked out the store. If it takes 2 hours to get a quote from Femi about a project, I'd go back and do it all over again.

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