Talking to strangers…

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For this New York Times story, I spoke to this woman and teachers and volunteers and many middle school students

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I spend my professional life speaking with strangers, an odd way to describe journalism — since everyone focuses on the (cough) fame, fortune or fake news that’s the written or broadcast end result.

But if I don’t speak to strangers — and those have included Queen Elizabeth, Olympic athletes, convicted felons, a female Admiral and a few celebrities (like Billy Joel at the very start of his career) — I have nothing to work with. Just as every builder needs bricks and mortar and windows and doors and HVAC to create a functional home, I need to assemble quotes, facts and anecdotes to write interesting stories.

People assume that, because it’s a journalist’s job to talk to strangers, we each find it comfortable and easy. But sometimes it’s excruciating, like speaking to the survivors of or witnesses to rape, genocide, war, mass shootings — meeting people in their most vulnerable moments, sensitively (at best!) managing their tender emotions even as we struggle to mask or contain our own.

But it’s also the part of the work I most enjoy. People are so different, and yet we all want to be listened to attentively and respectfully.

We want to be met with interest, empathy, compassion.

It’s good to find common ground.

It’s great to share a laugh!

I also talk to strangers when I’m out and about — at the gym or grocery store or on the train and, especially, when I sit alone at a bar and chat (when welcomed) to the person beside me.

And because I’ve traveled widely and often alone — Istanbul to Fiji, Peru to the Arctic — I’ve also had to rely many times on the advice, kindness and wisdom of strangers. It does require good judgment and the confidence to suss out a baddie from a perfectly kind soul. So far my only misjudgement, of course, happened at home in suburban New York.

This past week was a perfect example of why, (and yes I’m careful)…I sat at the bar, as I usually do when I eat out alone, at a fun restaurant, and the man beside me was heavily tattooed, had a thick, gray lumberjack beard and was on his second or third tequila. His name was Joe and we had a terrific conversation — he’s a tattoo artist and former Marine.

We could not have less in common!

And yet, a lively, friendly chat ensued.

The power of journalism, in forcing its front-line staff to talk to hundreds of strangers every year, is that it shoves us out of any self-defined “comfort zone” — a phrase I truly loathe. No matter how I personally feel about a specific subject (and, as a freelancer I won’t take on something I know will revolt me), I have to remain polite and respectful to my interlocutor.

If only every teen and every adult would make time to civilly engage with people they don’t know, whose politics they haven’t predetermined and admired, whose race and gender and sexual preference and age and clothing and demeanor and house and vehicle don’t signal they’re predictably and cozily “one of us.”

 

Would the U.S. — or Britain — be any less divided?

 

Do you speak to strangers beyond necessary commercial or medical interactions?

A barstool conversation

By Caitlin Kelly

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Grand Central Terminal; the view from Cipriani. What’s not to love?

Sitting at the bar is where I’ve had some of my best conversations — in Corsica, in Atlanta, in San Francisco and last Friday evening in New York City.

It was about 6:30.

Commuters were rushing to their trains north, to Connecticut and to Westchester, tourists, as always, posing on the steps and slowing rushed New Yorkers down as they raced for the 6:47 or whichever train was next.

Never get in the way of a New Yorker in a hurry!

I settled in at Cipriani , an elegant Italian restaurant in a balcony overlooking the station. I had a magazine and a Mr. C, a citrus-based cocktail. The bartender kindly plugged in my cellphone to charge it.

A handsome young man in a navy suit and white shirt, no tie, slid onto the stool to my left; a slightly older man with a head of wild black hair and oversized sunglasses sat to my right.

“How’s your week been?” I asked the man to my left.

He told me he’d just gotten a new job, and we toasted, clinking our cocktail glasses.

He seemed surprised I was happy to toast a stranger’s success. Why not? Who would be too churlish to deny him that pleasure?

It’s a big deal to flee a job that’s a poor fit for one you hope will be a much better one. Been there, done that.

That’s the beauty, I suppose, of being near the tail end of a long career. For someone only a decade in, every decision can still feel problematic because you’ve yet to make that many of them.

An investment banker, he admitted he didn’t much like the field, but — probably like many people, especially those unhappy at work — he had pretty much fallen into it. If you know anything about I-banking, the income is certainly seductive, but golden handcuffs are still handcuffs.

I urged him to start creating an exit strategy. Life is far too short to stay in a field or industry you really don’t enjoy, I said.

He looked surprised by my vehemence, and my insistence one could actually enjoy one’s work life.

We ended up talking for about an hour, sharing stories of family and work, of dating woes and East Coast snobberies, and the classic diss we’d both experienced: “Where’d you go to school?”, a tedious sorting mechanism. (The only correct answer being the coy, “In New Haven” (Yale) or “Providence” (Brown University) or another of the Ivy League.)

“I’m strapping, right?” he asked me, at one point. He was, actually.

It was a bit awkward to be asked, even though the answer was affirmative.

He was a little drunk.

It made me a little sad.

He was single, and just under half my age, a fact he finally realized but managed to handle with grace.

We had a good conversation with lots of laughter, a few of of life’s more painful challenges and a few high fives.

I like how the right bar and a drink or two can connect two strangers companionably for a while.

(Just in case, though:

  1. Make sure you don’t get drunk; stay safe!
  2. Make sure no one has access to your drink except you (beware someone dumping rohypnol; i.e. getting roofied.)
  3. Make sure you feel 100 percent comfortable with the tone and content of any conversation. If not, move or leave.
  4. Make sure you can leave quickly and safely, if necessary; trust your instincts.)

 

Do you ever sit at the bar?

Do you ever talk to strangers there?

Sitting At The Bar

great dive bar in lower garden district, New O...
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I usually have such good luck.

Not tonight. It was the end of the fireworks — 200,000 happy Vancouverites having thronged the beaches to watch them from a barge in the harbor. I sidled up to my hotel bar and found myself next to the most boring person I have ever met.

Ever.

“I can’t believe how hot it is here,” he said; he being a contractor from a suburb of San Francisco. “I thought Canada had perpetual winter.”

Normally, I smile indulgently. Not this time.

“You’re kidding, right?”

He went on to rave about the novels of James Michener and how great they are, like “Hawaii.”

And, sue me, I hate it when men ask your name right away. Lively conversation first, ask name later. It’s the price of admission.

I make it a point to sit at the bar most of the time, especially when eating alone. It’s usually a lot more fun than reading or watching people read (please) their emails.

Earlier this week I met Homa and Babak, an Iranian couple, and had a great conversation — I had no idea Tehran has a ski hill. (Homa showed me a photo on her Iphone.) Then chatted with a young Australian girl who’s just moved here.

In Atlanta last fall, I sat in a great old dive bar and had an hour-long chat with a terrific local guy, so when it works, it works well.

Do you sit at the bar and talk to strangers?

The Bus: The 11-Year-Old With With Three Hair Tools And Decapitation

A Greyhound bus (bus type unknown, body number...
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I hadn’t taken a long bus trip in ages. You all know why. The Greyhound bus can be really, really, really weird — not the vehicle, its occupants. (Maybe the Bolt buses between major Northeastern cities are cool and hip. Not Greyhound.)

I boarded the bus from Kamloops (interior of B.C.) back to Vancouver, a 5.5 hour jaunt, at 6:45 a.m. I had a jacket for a pillow, an Itouch with tunes, a coffee, a lunch, a book. I was all set.

Then the woman in the very back row coughed almost all the way. I was only four rows from the toilet, so there was a bit of that smell.

Two men sat behind me, one who kept repeating that he was 43. OK, then. His seatmate was 45 and decided to crack a joke about the unbelievable Grand Guignol that happened in 2008 aboard a Greyhound bus crossing Manitoba — when one man cut off the head of a total stranger aboard the vehicle.

(The joke he told: “Did you hear they rebranded Greyhound with a new logo? Where might you be headed?)

Yup. I was a little nervous, I admit.

My seatmate was the best, a lively little 11-year-old named Destiny from Prince George; her six-year-old sister, Eternity was two rows back with their Mom.

“So, are you going to Vancouver?” she asked. And….we were off. She was a hoot. She showed me the 67 (!) blond jokes on her IPhone, some of which we both shrieked at, told me her favorite food, and we loved the fact we were wearing identical clothing — a white cotton sleeveless top and black leggings. She had a yellow and pink manicure, with alternating colors per finger. (I did not.)

The morning was misty and gray as we began, the bus snaking along roads at the foot of hills so steep they had snow-capped peaks. “I’m scared. This is creepy,” she said.

“Just pretend it’s a Harry Potter movie,” I suggested. “Maybe we’ll see him whizzing through the valley.”

“Yeah, as if it’s green screen [she meant blue screen, but I was still impressed]. And his broom is mechanical.”

“How did you get to be so cynical at 11?” I asked. She shrugged.

We saw four rainbows, many trucks carrying logs or trees or wood products. She got hungry and I gave her one of my carrots. We snoozed, joked, and somehow ended up on the topic of hair care. She uses a curling iron, hairdryer, straightener. “I’m not wearing mousse today,” she admitted.

“I washed mine,” I said.

“You didn’t brush it?” she said, aghast.

“Nope.”

We finally made it to Vancouver.

“You were fun,” she said.

“So were you,” I said.

ChatRoulette Misses The Point — Sharing Physical Space

This false-color satellite image shows Manhatt...
There is, I am sure, someone here to talk to ...Image via Wikipedia

Get out of your home. Get off your computer or gadget.

Go sit in a bar/cafe/restaurant/bus/train/airplane/ferry boat/park. Strike up a conversation with someone who is a total stranger to you. Face to face. Share physical space and conversation with that person — unless they are endangering you — for a minimum of 15 minutes.

Can you do it? Will you do it?

It’s cold. It’s rainy. It’s too hot. It’s too windy. I’d have to put my kid in a stroller. I feel fat today. There’s a big zit on my nose and no one will talk to me. They might not talk back. They might be mean or boring or stupid or not even speak English. What if they hit on me? What if they don’t?

Yesterday, I had a business meeting in Manhattan, in the lower 20s at Broadway. There are plenty of fun and cool restaurants nearby but I headed for one of my absolute favorites — The Old Town Bar, on 18th. Street, in business since 1892. The ceiling is dark brown painted tin. The lights are low-hanging and dimly-lit. The booths are battered wood, the floor old tile. The cash register has plastic keys and is made of metal.

I sat at the bar, as I almost always do whenever I am out and eating alone, and read my book and ate my burger. The guy to my left, a 20-something Master of the Universe in his $600 sport coat, Persol eyewear, his skis (?) propped against the bar, spent the whole time staring into his Blackberry. The guy to my right, two stools over, was nice enough to watch my coat while I went to the bathroom.

He looked to be in his late 30s, short, graying hair, wedding ring. I thanked him and started a conversation.

Turned out to be a smart and interesting computer guy originally from Ireland, in NYC as long as I, who came here for work with the same (God help us) stars in our ex-pat eyes. He and I shared notes on our favorite Manhattan 19th-century bars — “geezer bars” as he called them, The Landmark, Fanelli’s, The Ear Inn. Then I told him about my book and he suggested a writer I had never heard of whose ideas will likely be deeply helpful to me.

We both took a chance. I’m engaged and live with my partner, but I talk to strange men, and women, all the time. In person.

The moment wasn’t a flirtation in any way; he was wearing a wedding ring and I was only looking for a bit of chat. Two strangers, briefly and happily and thoughtfully, connecting. We didn’t trade business cards. Not the point.

What is so terrifying about sitting down and talking to someone you do not know in the same room?

You can always get up and leave. (Maybe not on a airplane, but just about anywhere else.) Maybe they will insult you. Maybe they will laugh at your jokes. Maybe you’re wearing the same color or love the same music on your separate little Ipods, but if you don’t take the risk of speaking, you’ll never know.

Even famously grouchy selfish New Yorkers are now — yes, really — sharing cabs. And liking it.

From today’s New York Post:

Who needs Facebook?

New Yorkers are making new friends and business partners in the back seats of shared taxicabs.

In just its second day, the cab-sharing program proved to be a great networking tool for several riders commuting yesterday from the Upper East Side to Midtown.

David Alper, a hedge-fund manager, and Adam Gehrie, a corporate financial-services lawyer, swapped business cards and agreed to set up a power lunch after grabbing a group ride from the stand at 72nd Street and Third Avenue.

“We should get together,” Alper suggested as the two exited their ride at 42nd and Park, the farthest the discounted rides will take up to four passengers

Along the way, they bantered about their educations: Gehrie said he attended Georgetown Law School, while Alper reported on his days at Antioch Law, both in Washington, DC.

“It’s a lot of fun to meet new people. I’d do it again,” Gehrie said.

Human beings are not cable channels to flip through at will and click away from the second they annoy or confuse or bore us. We need to connect. We need to connect deeply and intimately.

We are all going to die, some of us much sooner, some in truly agonizing ways that none of us even want to think about. I want my funeral filled with people who knew me personally, face to face, and cared for me. I want people all over the world — and they exist — to notice my absence, whether Matthew, the ggggggorgeous young man I met in 1980 on the train station platform in Huelva, Spain and traveled with for two weeks or Guillemette, my dear friend from Paris, or Pierre, the French truck driver with whom I shared his cab for eight days driving from Perpignan to Istanbul.

We couldn’t shower the whole time — hotels and motels cost money. My hair was filthy and my face broke out from constant road filth. We slept in the cab, his bunk maybe a foot below mine. I had never spent so much time so physically near anyone, let alone a strange man who spoke not a word of English.

I was 25 and he was 35 and we had never met and everyone I knew (it was for a story) thought I was insane.

Insane. How could I possibly do anything so risky?

Best eight days ever!

The way to make connections with strangers is not in ten-second clicks. The way to meet new people and learn how they think or feel or believe or pray or vote (or don’t) or what they eat for breakfast or who they read is not from the stupid safety of your machine.

Look into someone’s eyes two feet from you. Enjoy their perfume (or hate it) or their choice of socks or notice the little scar over their left eyebrow. Maybe they’ll tell you how it got there.

When I was 20 years old, I spent four months traveling along throughout Portugal, France, Spain and Italy. It was a really, really long time to be alone. If I wanted emotional contact with people I did not know, I had to negotiate it and do it safely. These are life skills.

You will not meet or get to know anyone when all you have to do to flee them is hit “next”.