The day began like many at that particular point in my life… Working three jobs and going to college full-time while raising a teenage daughter means most mornings involved chaos and a long to-do list. One semester I had a Saturday morning science class, which is where I was headed that wintry morning. Although it was less than 5 miles to the university, my commute coincided with the arrival of freezing rain. Cautious about the slippery conditions, I gave myself plenty of room for error at the first traffic light out of town, or into town if you consider my location and proximity to Pittsburgh. Having successfully stopped, I reached to adjust the radio and glanced up to the rearview mirror just in time to see a vehicle approaching, spinning out of control in a disastrous pirouette. I had just enough time to gaze forward at the two cars in front of me before the impact sent all four of us into the intersection under the now greenlight.
No one was injured and it was good to see that everyone was grateful for that. Struggling to maintain our balance and our conversation, we began the business of exchanging insurance information. It was blustery and cold as people searched their glove boxes for vital information. I grabbed the notebook from my backpack and was just about to share paper when a voice called to us inquiring about everyone’s condition and advising that the police had been called. The man’s voice came from the former gas station now a hobby shop garage with a lot full of cars and assorted parts. He invited us inside to use his copy machine and to keep warm while we waited for the authorities.
As we processed information inside, he was kind enough to offer us warm beverages and that’s when I noticed the ornate snake tattoo on his forearm. It was stunning… The colors were authentic and the scale work was so realistic I’d have been convinced it was a bulging python had the arm not been extended with a cup of hot cocoa in it. I expressed my appreciation for the artwork. He revealed a bit more of the tattoo pushing up his sleeve and explained it was his favorite, not only because of its detail but because of his love for the exotic animal. We had a brief exchange of our common appreciation for animals when he posed the question... would I like to see the snake? Then he explained that he had a pet python in the back of the garage.
I’m sure this is when I should’ve said no, graciously thanked him for the kindness and made my way to wait with the other drivers, but curiosity prevailed. He invited me behind the counter then through a stark white door and down a short hallway where a second door led to the area that had formally been the shop. As fluorescent light filled the room, the lined walls full of glass snake aquariums came into view. Snakes of all sizes and a variety of colors. My guide explained that he began breeding snakes years ago after he fell in love with the python represented on his arm. In recent years, he expanded to more exotic (and illegal) breeds in the hopes of preserving some species. We discussed our mutual concern for endangered animals and we returned to the lobby.
That experience impacted my life in many ways. It was one of many unexpected encounters I’ve had with snakes considering my suburban western Pennsylvania upbringing but more importantly, it was a remarkable moment in my empathy journey.
Indulging in stereotypes and unwarranted fear, focusing on our differences limits our potential to engage others in genuine dialogue thereby denying us the interactions, the connection that we crave and that we need to understand our human experience and to recognize our commonalities. I’m not suggesting wanton recklessness… I do not propose that you accept candy from strangers or hop in the back of random panel vans… but I am saying that when the opportunity to genuinely engage another arises, take it.
On another note, when I finally got to campus, a note was posted on the lab door...classes had been canceled due to inclement conditions... Lol