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Small Talk

A male nurse did a blood draw on me the other day, and as he tied the rubber strip around my upper arm, I said, “I’ve had this done about seventy times, you’re competing against some of the best, and you know that women are better at it than men. They have the kindness gene. Men are inherently aggressive. In your unconscious mind, you’re stabbing an enemy.”

He laughed, a genuine hearty laugh — I’ve been in the business a long time, I can tell genuine from forced — and stuck me and said, “I’m afraid that was only a C plus. You made me self-conscious.” He chuckled.

In my old age, I believe in small talk as the conduit of civility. I got this from my dad who, though he was a devout Christian, loved to pass the time of day with strangers. The dictates of our faith commanded him to witness to them about Jesus and quote “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” but he didn’t, he talked about the weather and cars and his boyhood on the farm and ordinary things. This was curious to me as a kid, his friendly chatter with sinners. It’s still impressive to me today.

In these times, when identity — race, gender, sexual preference — is on everyone’s mind, we hesitate.

The same day I got a COVID test from a nurse, in which she pokes the long Q-tip up the left nostril and into the cerebellum. I said, “You’ve done this before, I’m assuming,” and she laughed. I said, “You probably have dreams about it at night.” She laughed again. Up went the Q-tip and I flinched and she said, “Sorry, it’s harder to give it to tall people,” and then I laughed.

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I’m from an innocent time when people made small talk with each other, no matter who. In these times, when identity — race, gender, sexual preference — is on everyone’s mind, we hesitate. But so much of civility in America is in the form of light-hearted small talk, in passing encounters with strangers, you say, “How’s your day going so far?” and the stranger replies and you make a moment of it. Life is hard, winter is on the way, the kids are driving us crazy, but you and I, friend, are comrades in the quest for meaning and the struggle to get by.

And so, heading off in a cab to church on Sunday, I notice the driver’s last name, Rivera, and think of Bombo Rivera, the Twins center fielder, and a song I wrote about him (“All the men love Bombo because he loves to play, and all the women love him cause his name ends in E-R-A”) but this is New York and Bombo was back in the Seventies, long before the driver’s time, but I say, “That Series game last night was sure worth staying up for,” and he said yes and mentioned Rosario of the Braves who was a favorite player of mine when he played for the Twins. “He’s from my hometown in Puerto Rico,” said the driver.

And there you have it, a magical connection. Eddie Rosario is a great player to watch, a clutch hitter, known for his tendency to swing at the first pitch, and in the eighth inning the night before he robbed Houston of a double with a dash to the left-field wall and an amazing backhand catch that you had to go online and click the replay six or eight times to believe. And then he trotted, cool as could be, back to the dugout.

The driver had never been to Minnesota but he knew Rosario had played there. He asked what Minnesota is like — he’d heard it gets cold — and I said, “The winters are beautiful and the people are very kind.” The driver said he has four children and wasn’t happy with public schools in the Bronx. I wrote their names down and said I’d pray for them. We pulled up in front of church. He asked what Episcopalians are about and I said we believe God loves us and wants us to be at peace with each other. He agreed. I overtipped him.


An amazing catch in left field leads to a moment of fellowship and a statement of faith. I walked into the hushed silence and the Gospel reading was from Mark, where Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourself. One way to show love is to talk to each other, even small talk. Thanks for listening.

Garrison Keillor
Prairie Home Productions