Magnet of the Masses

Last fall, the editors of FM assembled in the alleyway behind Herrell’s for a photo shoot with the campus’s most ...

Last fall, the editors of FM assembled in the alleyway behind Herrell’s for a photo shoot with the campus’s most stylish students. I hung towards the back of the group, amused by the apparent difficulties of getting people in nice clothes to stand next to dumpsters. Suddenly a man holding a laptop appeared from thin air at the closed end of the alley and approached me.

“Hey man!”


“You wanna talk to my friend?”


“Yeah, he’s right here.”

The man thrust his laptop into my face, revealing a video chat in progress. Another man in a bright red sweatshirt greeted me from cyberspace.

“Wave to my friend!”

I waved, and the man holding the laptop walked out of the alley looking fairly satisfied.

“Who the [redacted] was that???” asked one of the few people paying attention. “And why aren’t you freaking out??”

I had no clue who he was, but I can’t say I was surprised that he came up to me. I don’t know how to explain it, but for as long as I can remember, complete strangers have been treating me like an old friend. Maybe it’s something about the way I smell, or maybe I hold eye contact for just a second too long, but I seem to have the words “Tell me anything!” tattooed on my forehead.

According to my mother, I’ve been prone to these odd interactions with strangers ever since I was little. There was one particularly alarming incident at the airport when a strange man got a little too interested in my 5-year-old self’s stylish shoelaces (in his defense, they were woven like a checkerboard). Somehow our conversation drifted two gates away before mom and dad saved me. After that I watched a PBS special on “stranger danger” at least five times, and my parents bought one of those embarrassing child leashes. I maintain that I never wore it in public, and luckily there are no pictures to suggest otherwise.

But even recently, strangers still can’t help but to strike up conversation with me. I’m not talking about the standard stuff—I know we all have to walk through Harvard Square daily. I’m talking about much weirder stuff like women who tell me how much I look like their grandson and randos that will sit down next to me at Pamplona. I’m talking about that one time that a group of homeless people brought me in on a 45-minute discussion of the shelter’s staff members.

It’s like I’m a communal Twitter account for the masses: just waiting to be filled up with inane thoughts about personal crap. Once I asked a building’s security officer which elevator to take. By the time I found out where to go, I knew the name of her daughter’s daycare facility, what color weave she was putting in that weekend, and exactly how many men and women she was going to let grind up on her.

I’ve experienced all of this unwanted friendliness in some of the least friendly places in America: New Jersey, New York, and Boston. So I was a little terrified to spend this past summer in San Francisco, on that other coast where people supposedly have fewer boundaries about almost everything. I knew I was in over my head as soon as I stepped off of the plane. The flight attendant offered to personally escort me to the baggage claim, which I thought was really kind. About halfway there she asked me to help her make a video to help her win custody of her estranged sister’s son, which I thought was really bizarre.

Ten minutes later, my first cab driver in the city was explaining how O.J. Simpson had broken his arm as a child (“I’ve always known he was trouble!”). Later cab drivers would spontaneously confess to regularly stealing from handicapped passengers and refusing to pay hospital bills. But there was something different in San Francisco abut my magnetism to weirdos and it wasn’t just the frequency.

Almost every time my summer roommates and I went out, we met someone no more than one degree of separation from us. The girl chatting us up at a bar turned out to be a fellow Harvard student’s sister. The twins we met the next night went to high school with a friend of ours. The random bro who we iced at a house party was best friends with my high school dormmates. And the cool girl on my floor at work showed up at that same house party. And she graduated from Harvard in ’08.

Being in San Francisco felt like being in a dark room with a large machine. The more the flashlight revealed random individual parts, the more we could see the connections tying everything together. The whole thing became like a game; it was suddenly fun to be approached by people on the street because we just knew they had some secret connection to us already. Maybe that’s why people say it’s nicer on the West Coast; everyone over there has already figured out that being cold or rude to strangers just prevents you from making new friends, or recognizing that in a way, you might already be friends with someone you’ve never met.

Already, my new approach to strangers has started to pay off. I was invited to a Fourth of July roof party because my roommate happened to run into someone in a bathroom at the beach. We actually got kicked out of that party because one of our friends caused a minor scene—she threw a bag of limes at a beer pong table—after a bro muttered something about Harvard kids under his breath. As we hurried down the stairs to leave the party with whatever dignity we had left, the host came out to publicly shame us.

“You! What is your problem?!?” she screamed at the lime-thrower. “You can never come back here! You are not welcome!”

Then she looked at me. “You’re fine, I guess. You can come back or whatever.”

Charleton A. Lamb ’11 is a Literature concentrator in Kirkland House.  Whenever Charleton says that he is “going to a friend’s place” he means that he is going to pace around the Pit in Harvard Square.