Brief Encounters


Our lives are filled with brief encounters. We meet strangers for a moment in time exchanging words, ideas, directions, insults, encouragement, or inspiration. Often we forget the hundreds or thousands of encounters we’ve shared throughout our life. Other times we recall those memories as scenes in a movie with dialog and drama. Every other soul crosses our path for a reason. No brief encounter is meaningless. Every moment of our life holds significance.


Think about the brief encounters on your journey in life. Which ones made an impact on you? Which ones made you wish you could go back and continue the conversation with that stranger on the train, or plane, or subway platform? Which ones make you wonder, what if?


Here are a few of my brief encounters:


Conversation with Frank McCourt in the lobby of John Jay College after he stepped off the stage as host of the Irish Arts Center’s 25th anniversary in Manhattan:


Me – (Extending my hand) “Mr. McCourt, Tara O'Grady, retired English teacher.”

McCourt – “You’re too young to be retired.”

(I was 27.)

Me – “I’ve had enough of high school. The flirtatious students, the lack of parental support, the demanding administrators.”

McCourt – “My first nine years were hell. Teachers get no support from administration, that’s true. It’s a tough job, but you should go back, they need you.”

Me – “I may go back later in life, after I’ve written a few books, perhaps I’ll teach at a university.”

McCourt – “That’s a great racket, college professor. You should get your PhD. So what are you up to now, then?”

Me – “I’m pursuing the performing arts.”

McCourt – “You are a very brave person. Brave to teach, brave to quit, and brave to pursue such a hard career.”

Me – “Can I take a photo with you?”

(I ask a woman standing beside us to take our picture. The Pulitzer Prize winning author puts his arm around me and smiles.)

McCourt – “Two former English teachers.”


Conversation with a woman in Long Island at a country club:


Woman – "What do you do for a living?"

Me – "I'm a performer, jazz mostly."

Woman – "You look too plain to be a jazz singer."

Me – "Plain?"

Woman – "You know, like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman."

Me – "Like when she's a hooker?"

Woman – "No, when she wears the boring polka dot dress at the polo match."


Conversation with a handsome stranger on September 11th, 2001 as a police officer pushes us into a taxi to escape the city where the towers are burning:


Handsome Stranger – “Can you believe this is happening? It’s like an action film.”

Me – “No, it’s like a horror film.”

Handsome Stranger – “Unbelievable.”

Me – “I saw it happen.”

Handsome Stranger – “On television?”

Me – “No, I was on a bus, going in to work on my second day on the job.”

Handsome Stranger – “You just walked out on a new job?”

Me – “The sky is falling.”

Handsome Stranger – “I gotta get out of this city. Time to move to the country.”

Me – “Where do you live?”

Handsome Stranger – “Astoria, but I’m from Pittsburgh.”

Me – “I wish I was in Ireland right now.”

Handsome Stranger – “I’m Ross by the way.”

Me – “Tara.”

Handsome Stranger – “You have beautiful eyes.”


Ross from Pittsburgh was smiling at me, and it felt like we’d been set up on a blind date, and I couldn’t believe I was flirting with him as the sky was falling, but we were looking into each other’s eyes, and we wanted to kiss like the sailor and the nurse in that famous photograph in Times Square because they were strangers too living in the moment, and it’s the moment of unexpected kisses that we remember most rocking as old women on the front porches of our memories. But I didn’t kiss him, and I wanted to ask him for his card or his phone number, but I thought it would be inappropriate because we were escaping a terror attack. He smiled as he climbed out of the taxi and into his life, and I believe that if we wore halos above our heads I’m sure I would have seen him again on the street or in the subway. But he was gone. The taxi driver took me to my parent’s house in Queens where I ran up the driveway like I used to as a child coming home from school, and into the kitchen where my father had his eyes glued to the images of the planes crashing into the towers over and over, and we heard a sound so loud we rushed outside to the back yard as F-16 fighter jets flew above the house for the first time in our lives.