He startled me. Looking up from my bright pink park bench I peered out of my thought cloud to see a man in a fedora taking off his suit jacket. I was thankful, though, that he had rested his bagged burrito on the bench next to me before settling his body into the same space mine was occupying. It gave me a chance to prepare myself. It reminded me of my vulnerability, of my humanity.

ImageThere we sat. Side by side, staring ahead while absorbing the sunshine. Me, finishing off my lamb gyro, him, digging into his bean and cheese burrito. All within 18 inches of each other. I had been so startled that I didn’t greet or even acknowledge him when he sat down. I had looked away, attempting to give a false sense of privacy in a situation when there was absolutely none to be had. Like in moments when people silently cram into an elevator and awkwardly pretend that they’re not standing so close together.

I was also thankful for the armrest in the middle of the bench that separated our bodies; the armrest that was probably designed so that the homeless wouldn’t be able to sleep on the bench at night. I felt a pang of guilt realizing I was benefiting from something intentionally structured to prevent others from giving into a basic need of their humanity.

The silence continued. He looked early 50’s, mixed — Asian and White perhaps? — graying hair peeking out from under his hat. Well dressed but not stylish. There was a steadiness about him, as if this was his usual lunch routine and I had interrupted it. I began to think how sad we were, abiding in the same space, participating in a common meal, but pretending as if we were in different realities.

“What has humanity come to?” I wondered, feeling the weight of my part in it as I remembered that I hadn’t initiating speaking to him. I began to think of ways to make a brief connection. Too late now to try to start a conversation, it’d be too awkward. Maybe I will wish him a good afternoon when I leave.

“What brings you to downtown?”

Startled again. I chuckled to myself. Yeah! Why do we attempt to heed these ridiculous social norms anyway?

“Oh, jury duty,” I answered, glancing at the looming building next to us.

The man with the fedora introduced himself as a judge, but one that doesn’t work with a jury. He described how essential jurors are to the judicial system and expressed his appreciation for my willingness to serve. I shared that I had already learned a lot about the process.

He asked what I did for a living and I obliged with my condensed version of I-went-to-nursing-school-but-now-work-in-Higher-Education.

“…at a private Christian institution.” I tacked on. He looked down at his burrito, half eaten. I launched into part two of my story: I-had-a-love-hate-relationship-with-nursing.

“It surprises me how many people go into nursing just for the money. I wouldn’t be able to handle that level of stress and politics just for that. I need to enjoy what I do,” I said. He perked up as I glanced over at him, wondering just how stuck he had become on the mention of Christianity.

“Yes, we always think we’ll find happiness in a retirement account or a nice car but they don’t seem to satisfy.”

“So true!” I nodded and paused, aware of the Spirit’s guidance. I took the plunge.

“What makes you happy?”

He nodded slowly, gathering his thoughts. His red tie was flung over his shoulder, out of the way of the burrito, exposing the tag for me to read. I studied his profile.

“Books. Quiet. And it sounds kind of weird, but solitude. I like to be able to just be alone with my thoughts. I’d like to travel more but it’s difficult when someone has to cover your caseload. But sometimes I just want to jump on a plane and go somewhere,” he answered. “What makes you happy?”

I chuckled. “A lot of the same things! I love to read, I love to learn. I’m beginning to appreciate solitude more as of recently.”

“I want to visit an abbey or one of those places where they don’t talk. I’m not religious but… spiritual.” He went on to say how much he would enjoy a structured experience of solitude. “They give you time to pray – I mean, you don’t have to pray – but I think I would.” He waved over a man in a suit walking by who greeted him with “Hey! Your Honor! It’s been a while!”

His Honor introduced me as a potential juror. They chatted about grabbing lunch, and the gym, and moving neighborhoods. We said goodbye to the man and I glanced at my phone, hoping I still had enough time to go through security without being late.

“Well, I should run,” I said, gathering up my purse and trash.

“Yes, I think we should to make it back in time,” he responded.

Should I call him “Your Honor”? Why are judges called that anyway? Hoping I wouldn’t offend, I decided against making reference to the authority he carries from his position and address him as I experienced him: a fellow human with whom I had made a connection.

“It was a pleasure meeting you,” realizing that we hadn’t exchanged names as I stuck out my hand. “I hope you get the chance to go to an abbey sometime.”

He shook my hand and smiled, bidding me goodbye. I left him on the bright pink park bench in all his humanity, but carried away a new reflection of the image of God with me.