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Writers Talk to Strangers by Eric Witchey
Recently, I wrote an essay in this space about a walk by hugging. Now, I’m writing about the value of talking to strangers. Over the years I have learned that other people’s stories mix with my own experiences to create the power behind my best fiction. The more I try to insulate myself, the flatter my fiction becomes.
How does that fit with our culture of “stranger danger?”
“Never talk to strangers,” my Mom said.
I was maybe four or five.
How many moms tell their children that? How many photos of people focused on newspapers, tablets, and cell phones have we seen? There they are, grouped together and not looking at each other on busses, trains, planes, and streets. In fact, we have so completely internalized this experience that when someone does look at us, we think something might be wrong with them—unless they are very attractive. Isn’t it odd, that their attractiveness makes any difference at all? Ah, but that’s a topic for another essay.
Many years ago, I attended the Writers of the Future seminars in Hollywood. I am forever grateful for that experience. While there, Tim Powers and Algis Budrys sent their students out onto Hollywood Boulevard on a quest to find a total stranger and interview them about their lives. The goal was to get more than the merely superficial, “Hi, how are you. What’s your name? Why are you in Hollywood?”
It did it. Luckily, I was perhaps more prepared to do it than some of my friends. My life at that point had included things like living under a bridge for a brief period, hustling for meals, selling crap door-to-door, schlepping 2x4s, too many drugs, living without food, hitchhiking across the country a couple of times, putting myself through college, and more. All of those experiences included the humility of seeking to connect to people I had never met in ways that would allow me to survive. So, I shook off the pesky film crew that had been sent to follow me around, and I found a well-dressed young man sitting at an outdoor café table reading the want ads. Beside him, he had the kind of well-worn, stuffed backpack that marked him as what we now call “homeless.”
When I was homeless, it wasn’t called that. It was called “transient.” I much prefer that term.
Anyway, the contrast of pack, clothing, and want ads told me he had a story. I asked to sit down, bought him a coke, and just listened. He had a story, which I won’t record here. Rather, I’ll just say that it was epic and heroic. From his story and my own experiences in life, I built a bit of fiction called “Wheel of Fortune.”
Though “Wheel” hasn’t appeared in print, I have actually sold the story twice.
So it goes.
Over the years, I have taken pleasure in the stories of strangers when I can. From them, I have generated a number of powerful tales. I listened to the tale of a man who painted a room for me. He was sixty-eight and had spent 40 years in prison for murder, an act he freely admitted to. I came to like him. That’s another story. The point is that I listened to him. I even transcribed some of his experiences from a journal he kept while living through prison riots. He was very grateful. His memories were, in his heart, his legacy. I agree.
I listened to the tale of a man who travelled the roads of America with his thumb out. He was on his way home to marry his pregnant girlfriend, a woman who had sent him out during her pregnancy to get his adventures in while he could. I have often wondered how their story turned out. She had some guts, and so did he. I admired her courage because she knew what he needed and sent him out to do it when others would have tried desperately to cling to him. I admired his because he was on his way back to her in a situation where lesser men would have just disappeared.
Wonderful stuff for fiction, there.
I listened to a recovering addict who had lost everything, meaning millions, to his ex-wife, lawyers, and bankruptcy. Like the murderer, he owned his actions and choices, and he loved his dog and his new, simpler life managing a trailer park.
Then, there was the man who wanted to create a railroad museum. He had hope even though he was dying. An old friend had given him a home as a night watchman at an abandoned industrial park. There, he dreamed of his museum while his health failed.
The list of hopes and dreams and lives goes on and on.
But sitting still, encouraging, and making a safe space in which another can tell their tale is not the only kind of listening a writer can make use of.
Yesterday, in a downpour that was something special if an Oregonian calls it a downpour, I was on the way to my bank. In the parking lot, I saw four women trying to change a tire. My first instinct was to offer help. That’s how my father trained me. I shook off dear old Dad.
I was in a hurry. After all, a computer crash and lines down had put me a week behind in my personal goals and responsibilities. I had this essay due at midnight. I had clients to serve. I had my own business to attend to in the bank. Their flat was none of my business, right? They should have bought better tires. They should have Triple A like me. They should… blah, blah, blah, selfish, egocentric blah.
Ah, thank God for Dad. His voice reminded me of the time I took shelter from a similar cold, winter downpour. I sat shaking under an interstate overpass in Wyoming curled up in a damp sleeping bag with my equally chilled and whimpering dog. A kind couple saw us, stopped, and gave us a ride all the way to Iowa. We were headed from Idaho to Ohio for Christmas. We took turns driving and sang Christmas carols. Nobody had a cell phone or a tablet to stare at.
At the very least, I could offer the unused umbrella I keep in the back of my car for when I go rain-soft and indulge my Midwestern self instead of manifesting my pride as an unbrellaless Oregonian.
The umbrella is a special, high-wind umbrella, and the winds were high. The women welcomed it in spite of the fact that they were Oregonians. Once I had handed it to the eldest of the four and mansplained how to hold it to take advantage of its special features, two of the women decided I wasn’t “strange.” The third, I suspect, only spoke Spanish. The fourth was busy with lug nuts.
Since they had relaxed a bit, I took a few breaths to check out the situation. They had two jacks, one lug wrench, and a soaked, working floor pad placed to protect their clothing. The flat tire rested solidly on the ground, and the youngest woman was trying her best to loosen the nuts.
I said, “Wow. You’ve done this before. You know what you’re doing.” For those who don’t understand how I knew this, it was because she was loosening the nuts before lifting the car. She was using the mass of the car to provide leverage. The young woman stopped, turned to me, made real eye contact for the first time, and said, “Yes.”
We had a short moment of silence, then she made a decision and said, “But I can’t get the nuts to break loose.”
“Can I try?”
We traded positions. The problem was that she had neither upper body strength to pull up nor the body mass to press down to break the lug nuts free. I had both—okay, well not really. I had the mass, but I didn’t tell the four women that. We’ll just keep it between us.
Once I had broken the nuts free, she loosened them up. I jacked up the car for them. Then, when I saw that they had the problem well under control, I left them with the umbrella and a couple of my tools and went to do my banking. When I came back out, I provided moral and physical support to their efforts until they were finished. All they needed from me was one tool and my body mass.
While I was driving away, the youngest woman, the one who so clearly knew what she was doing, graced me with a puzzled look. I smiled and waved and left. We never exchanged names. We never talked about anything other than her car. She and her friends will tell their version of the tale, which is, of course, different from mine.
On my end, I have new story material about the rain, the cold, the umbrella, and the fear of a stranger approaching. The story, when I write it, will include combined anxieties and reliefs. It will include surprises and uncertainties. It will include confusion and reconsideration of the whole idea of “Don’t talk to strangers.” The story will include kindness and, if I can figure out how, statistics about how truly safe we are and how community is interaction rather than homogenous reaction to perceived threats. If I’m lucky, I might even manage to generate a little hope by displaying how listening to people is sometimes paying attention to what they do and how they do it before interrupting them and showing them how they should do it. We’ll see.
The important bit for me was that I reminded myself that the walk-by-hugging had value. It reminded me to spread the joy and pay attention to the tiny, unconsidered fears that stop me from interacting.
Stories live all around us. Everyone has many. Over the years, I have learned that other people’s stories mix with my own experiences to create the power behind my best fiction. The more I try to insulate myself, the flatter my life, and my fiction, become.