The welcome return of the run-in

Running into acquaintances used to be a routine annoyance. Now, it’s an unholy rush. (Gizem Vural/The New York Times)
Last month, for the first time in two years, I went to a play. Afterward, on the street, I spotted an acquaintance and felt an unexpected wave of elation. A person whom I knew, hadn’t thought of in months, and did not make plans to see, stood in front of me.

En route to a hug, I gave an accidental nudge to the man he was talking to, his boss, causing the whole group to turn around, but I didn’t care. It was a run-in! What’s more, my dates to the play, my colleagues, all had run-ins with former co-workers and friends as the lingering theatre crowd spilled into the street on this unusually warm fall night.

“Can you believe this?” I said, gesturing at the murmuring group. “What are the odds?!”

Pretty high, actually. We all work in media in New York City. We all went to a play. Hard to imagine a more predictable event. But after breaking the seal on a theatrical outing, and having resumed my twice-weekly commute to the office, I have found myself revelling in subsequent unplanned face-to-face events.

Over the course of the pandemic, isolation has been the route to safety, and any social occasion had to be considered with levels of care usually reserved for presidents or royalty. There is no “bumping into” a beloved (or detested) former co-worker when you go to the corner store and back, at most, in a day.

Serendipity went out the window when the privileged renamed their friends and family as “podmates” and took vows of social celibacy to eat a meal indoors. You saw a lot of your loved ones, maybe, and your own face in a video meeting, but not much else.

In other words, it was all main characters, all carefully curated. But it turns out that side characters are important, too.

Some well-known research on the people we don’t care about comes from Mark Granovetter, a Stanford sociology professor. In 1973, he wrote about the importance of “weak ties,” looking, at one point, at how people get information about potential new jobs from near-strangers as opposed to close friends.

Most, he found, heard about a new job through people they saw occasionally (55.7%) or rarely (27.8%).

“Chance meetings or mutual friends operated to reactivate such ties,” Granovetter wrote. “It is remarkable that people receive crucial information from people whose existences they have forgotten.”

It was his conclusion that there is a paradox in how we think about the people closest to us, and those we don’t think about at all: Weak ties are “indispensable” in a person’s place in their community while “strong ties, breeding local cohesion, lead to overall fragmentation.”

How then can we make sense of weak ties in a pandemic? When Saeed Jones, a poet and writer, moved from New York City to Columbus, Ohio, in the fall of 2019, he did not imagine that his next trip back wouldn’t be for two years, until this fall.

Running into neighbours in Columbus became normal, he said; bumping into old friends or acquaintances in New York feels very different.

“It’s so complicated,” he said in a phone call. “There’s a joy and a gratitude, like, ‘Oh, it’s back, I’m running into friends in the street.’ But it’s bittersweet.”

These tiny, confusing encounters — “your brain just glitches” — make Jones aware of how much has changed. “As a social person, I feel bereft. I feel how acutely small our lives have had to be to survive.”

Others have felt only elation.

“I went to a party recently and met someone I had internet-known for years, and it felt like a miracle,” said Emily Gould, a novelist. “The dopamine carried me for days.”

Comedian Josh Gondelman, who has tweeted about missing run-ins — “Sometimes you don’t need a whole phone call or carefully orchestrated hangout. You just want that 90 seconds of proving to each other you’re both still alive” — said over email that the pandemic has made surprises mostly a negative experience, so having a happy accident is a novelty.

“I’ve also been enjoying chance encounters with random weirdos,” he wrote. “My ticket for the Amtrak home from Thanksgiving got messed up, and the conductor said he was going to ‘hatch a crazy scheme’ to find me a seat. Anything unexpected and delightful has been such a thrill.”

Sloane Crosley, an essayist and novelist, said that during the pandemic “a lot of us were living in one-woman shows, performed seven nights a week. No intermission. It’s nice to be in an ensemble cast again, to see all the players, good and bad.”

Ah yes, the bad. Weirdly, my brain doesn’t bother to register whether I like the person that I’m running into; I am just so happy to see a familiar face. It’s like if Seinfeld and Newman hugged first, yelled later. At the very least, running into someone you don’t like gives you something to take back to the group chat; like a magpie, building a nest from the scraps of gossip, I’d do anything to stop talking about my own dumb life.

For Jones, who said he also had a few instances of warm greetings for people and then remembers their actual “ruptured” relationship, the disconnect is part and parcel of how alien social interaction has become.

“No one would admit it, but we had standard phrases and strategies to navigate the nuances of human life,” he said. “And we haven’t had to use those strategies in a long time.”

Maybe, though, I shouldn’t be so surprised to love an impromptu street chat now. Finding moments where the vastness of the city retreats, and the place feels like a small village, has always been one of the most fun parts about living in New York. Or anywhere, really.

The summer after I graduated from high school, two friends and I got a cheap Eurail pass and went overseas. To pass the time in train stations, my friend Emma and I developed this elaborate ritual where we would position ourselves at opposite ends of the station and walk toward each other through a crowd. When we were about 20 or so feet apart, we would drop our bags.

“Emma Freudddd-en-berger, is that you?” I’d shout, “What are you doing here?” Then we’d run toward each other for a dramatic embrace.

We’d do this over and over, sometimes — wow, this is embarrassing — at the same train station. It’s hard to explain why we thought this was going to get people to talk to — or, please God, flirt with — us, but we were unabashedly amused at the idea that two friends could see each other in a different country. The odds seemed genuinely long. Also, we didn’t have Instagram then.

The future, in all its variants, is unknown. But I fear for further personal social malformation in more lockdowns. My hugging has grown increasingly desperate, and does not correspond to the level of relationship that I have with the people I run into.

While I hope this is relatable, I am not under the illusion that it is normal, especially for people who haven’t, say, been boxed into houses with small children. Most people still dread the small talk associated with “weak ties.” It has been hard to navigate a simple hello with our bodies after so many months of fearing touch or breath.

Crosley, for instance, has a novel coming out next year that she worked on during the pandemic, in which her protagonist is forced to bump into everyone she’s ever dated, every night.

“She thinks it’s a nightmare,” the author said. “I do not.”

Unfortunately, neither do I.

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