I’m lounging in the elevator, spacing out. I shouldn’t; I’m beginning to notice a pattern that some of my most interesting interactions occur in elevators. Heck – two weeks ago, I met a fellow in the elevator on the way to a research presentation we both attended. He subsequently went out for dinner with my great aunt and uncle, and my grandmother emailed me the honorable mention I received the next morning. (Don’t try to follow that connection. It’s Jewish geography.)
Anyway, I was in the elevator, and suddenly, breaking into my thoughts, comes the question, “Are you Hasidic?”
I look up. A tall black fellow is smiling across the elevator at me. I straighten. “No, just Orthodox.”
“Ah, Orthodox.” He pauses and then explains, “I live in Crown Heights. It’s not often that I see one of my people here in this university.”
I smile at the mention of “my people.” We strike up a conversation. We were going in the same direction anyway. We split when he went to teach a class and I went to do some work in the lounge, but met up again when he left his students to hold a top-secret conference and wandered into the lounge to wait it out.
He was soon chatting with a few students, helping another with a speech, and listening to another complain.
When ten minutes were up and he had to get back, he went around shaking hands and high fiving. “How about an almost high five?” he asked me. I agreed. I won’t do shomer hugs, which I find obscene, but I don’t see any harm in failing to complete a high five. A Caribbean fellow watched all this in bemusement. “What’s that? An almost high five? You can do that?” He was amazed. “You know, I tried shaking hands with her the first day and she flattened my nose.”
“I was wondering how your nose got that way,” the professor grinned. Then he did a double take. “Wait… you mean she almost punched you in the nose.”
“Yeah, stopped just short, but the wind did the rest.”
This was not quite true. I’m a mostly non-violent person, and definitely never punched anyone for trying to shake my hand. Truth is, if the room is noisy, the subject is business, and if I’m never going to see the person again, I’ll shake, based on the “embarrassing is worse” principle. But I do think it’s important to establish with students and people I’ll be around long-term that there’s this no-contact thing. There was one fellow I missed the boat with on that, and he turned out to be the sort who goes around poking people when he says hi. Since then I’ve warded off huggers, back-slappers, fist-punchers, and high-fivers. In return, I accept the reality of air high fives and “I wish I could hug that’s how pleased I am right now but I can’t so I’m gonna hug myself and you understand that it’s for you ok” type of scenarios.