Tom Ross: Exchanging banter with perfect strangers |

Tom Ross: Exchanging banter with perfect strangers

"We could totally crash this wedding," I exclaimed to my wife Saturday night. I had to raise my voice to be heard above the din of a happy hour cocktail party in the Hotel Monaco. And I may have spoken too loudly, because we immediately attracted the attention of three women in their 40s.

As they gathered around our couch in the elaborate hotel lobby in downtown Denver, I observed that two of the women were very well-groomed and the third looked out of place, as if she had dressed to clean out the garage. The hotel was serving complimentary wine to its guests, and the already giddy members of a large wedding party had overwhelmed the wine server. It was a lively scene, to say the least.

We were a little dressed up because we had a dinner reservation an hour later on Larimer Street, and I was pretty confident we could walk into the dining room for the wedding reception dinner and go undetected. But the three women, who I took to be members of the wedding party, were about to bust me.

As it turns out, I was mistaken about the trio — they weren't connected to the wedding at all but were sisters in Denver for a reunion with their mother.

Together, we joked briefly about the possibilities of crashing the wedding then began comparing notes on our homes in Steamboat Springs, Nebraska and Oregon. One of the three sisters, whose name I never got, told me at some length about life along the middle fork of the Santiam River in Sweet Home, Ore. Her husband is a teacher. They feel like they are a little isolated in Sweet Home. I passed that way once before, more than 20 years ago.

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All five of us chickened out when it came to crashing the wedding. The sisters went off to explore the 16th Street Mall, and we cut across town to keep our dinner reservation. Within five minutes of walking into the trendy Tag restaurant on Larimer, we found ourselves engaged in another thoughtful conversation with a nameless stranger.

We were early for our reservation and decided to sit down at the bar and order some of the signature cocktails the Asian/South American fusion dining room is famous for.

There were four vacant bar stools in a row, and rather than seating us in the middle two, Judy thoughtfully sat next to a single man in his 50s, so that the next couple to arrive could sit side-by-side.

I quickly ordered a cocktail called an Amante Picante, while Judy tried to decide between a Jalapeño Kumquat Mojito or a Between the Sheets.

My drink contained tequila, cilantro, English cucumber pulp, jalapeño and lime. It was so spicy it made my lips tingle. I gave Judy a sip, and she thought she might order another of the same.

"You can't order the same thing I ordered," I teased, and she took me literally.

"You two must be married," the man to her left interjected.

I wished that I had been quick enough to reply, "No, but we're first cousins." Maybe next time.

Anyway, we proceeded to have a fairly lengthy and jovial conversation with the man (whose name we'll never know) on topics ranging from the quality of the paintings in the galleries on Santa Fe Boulevard, to the Denver Botanic Gardens to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

He recommended the rabbit empanadas off the appetizer menu, we thanked him and we parted ways.

The conversations at the hotel and in the restaurant bar were among five or six we enjoyed with complete strangers during the weekend. They made me think back over my life to just a fraction of the hundreds of people whose lives have intersected mine just once, and for only a few minutes, before we went our own separate ways.

If you never get over that reticence and never reach out to perfect strangers, you're missing out on one of life's most intriguing experiences. All that's needed is a conversation starter.

— To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail

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