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Savoring the rare, fleeting instances of small talk and informal public life in a pandemic

For most people who work at home, COVID-19 has all but obliterated social serendipity, probably the thing I love most about living in the city.

Ice skaters on Como Lake on a recent walk.
Ice skaters on Como Lake on a recent walk.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

My favorite thing that happened over the last few months occurred on a walk with my wife around St. Paul’s Lake Phalen on one of the last warm days of early winter. Halfway around the 3.2-mile lake, someone headed the other way stopped in her tracks.

“Is that you, Bill?” said the masked woman, who was out walking with a friend.

It was Maggie Ryan Sanford, a writer friend I hadn’t seen in a few years, and the author of a wonderful book about evolution. Stopped on the trail, we chatted for two minutes about the weather and briefly reminisced about the old days  before I wished her a nice day.

To be sure, it was a mundane conversation, the kind of chat that would have barely registered had it happened in 2019. During a seemingly endless pandemic, the tiny moment of unexpected small talk was marvelous. I hadn’t had such a random encounter in months.

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For most people who work at home, COVID-19 has all but obliterated social serendipity, probably the thing I love most about living in the city. In normal times, there’s something magical about the daily happenstance waves, casual chats, random asides, and chance encounters with old friends or new acquaintances. Together they accumulate and add up to something both banal and important.

A recent sociology study out of the UK on these kinds of encounters, relationships of less formal “weak ties,” reveals the critical role they play in mental health. It’s a conclusion that reinforces the importance of public life, a message that urban writers from Jane Jacobs to Charles Montgomery, author of “Happy City,” have been repeating for years.

The study classified relationships of college students into two groups: strong ties, such as close friends, roommates, family, and often direct co-workers; and weak ties, which is basically everyone else. These latter connections are less intimate, contacts where people might not even know each others’ name. But at least for one sociologist, it was these informal relations that made a critical difference for the “subjective well-being” of students.

The social concessions we’ve made during the COVID pandemic has meant that the “weak tie” relationships have been all but impossible to maintain. Gone is the whole universe of things like chatting with strangers at the market, the bus stop, the coffee shop, or the bar. Especially during a Minnesota winter, the pandemic has put an end to almost all of our everyday informal connections.

A COVID sign warning against conversations at Kim's Market on Snelling Avenue.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
A COVID sign warning against conversations at Kim's Market on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul.
For me, the lack of public connection has gotten so bad that I dusted off my copy of “The Great Good Place,” the 1980s sociologist Ray Oldenberg’s wide-ranging ode to “informal public life.” In the book he waxes about all the wonderful conviviality that occurs in European pubs, bistros, biergartens, and coffee shops. Oldenberg describes the importance of these “third places,” defined as “a generic designation for great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.” Think of every park, sidewalk bench, bar, café, diner, coffee shop, restaurant, or library where you’ve ever had a chat with an acquaintance or stranger.

With so many people working from home, even the distinction between home and work has dissolved into a barely perceptible thin line in the hallway. Meanwhile, as COVID has shrunk social expression down to almost meaningless gestures, public spaces have become rather desolate. And in Minnesota, winter makes everything worse by eliminating the majority of patios and curtailing dog walks to their minimum.

Even with omnipresent social media (or perhaps because of it), Oldenberg’s warning about the danger of loneliness seems prescient. I’ve found myself going out of my way to shop at a grocery store on the other side of town simply because a friend of mine works there, and if I’m lucky, we can chat while I bag cans and vegetables.

But with COVID hanging in the air, even those experiences are plagued and anxious. Like it or not, our ubiquitous and life-saving masks muffle the intricacies of speech and eliminate all but the largest facial expressions from the public realm.

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The result leaves a void of weak social ties that online gatherings cannot possibly fill. For one thing, Zoom calls are nearly always formalized, mostly the “strong ties” of more intimate relations and friends. And even a casual online friend hangout is still plagued by the abbreviations of compression algorithms and audio buffering.

So, what can we do to maintain our sense of urban connection, to foster the serendipity of urban living the long COVID winter?

I reached out to Spike Carlsen, a Stillwater writer and author of the recent book “A Walk Around the Block,” a masterful interrogation of the urban built environment. Carlsen’s book digs into the great variety of physical and social infrastructure that one discovers on a walk through the sidewalks of Stillwater. I was curious how COVID was affecting a fellow urban explorer, and whether he too had been stymied by the lack of serendipity.

“That’s the beauty of walking; you can do it any time anywhere,” said Carlsen, who has taken up Nordic walking, complete with the poles. (He and his wife say that putting up with the funny looks is worth it.) “We get out and walk, maybe snowshoe. It’s a little bit [hard]; most people hole up a little more in the wintertime, and people forget that you can still walk.”

The newly re-opened Stillwater Lift Bridge, a popular walking spot during the pandemic.
Photo by Spike Carlsen
The newly re-opened Stillwater Lift Bridge, a popular walking spot during the pandemic.
After writing his book, these days on his walks, Carlsen’s can’t help but notice all the architecture and infrastructure around him. As he describes it, Stillwater is rich with detail, everything from 19th-century homes to front porches that connect people at a casual distance to a variety of manhole covers. During the summer, he was delighted when the city began blocking off alleys and side streets for temporary café seating, bringing more people out into the fresh air along the St. Croix River.

He still misses the connections and people that you rely on in the warmer months.

“Stillwater patios held on as long as they could, until the weather got cold,” said Carlsen. “We went through the same ups and downs as every other city. One advantage a mid-sized tourist town has is that people come to walk around no matter what.”

Even in the best circumstances, COVID has made informal public life difficult, as just about every exchange is interrogated on a risk spectrum. Any small chat with a neighbor is haunted by the risk of catching a deadly disease, whether we like it or not.

Until the vaccines arrive, the next time you recognize a familiar face under a mask, be sure to savor every moment of your conversation about the weather or the latest Minnesota sports debacle. These kinds of mundane exchanges are all too rare these days, and can be the difference between surviving and thriving during the pandemic.