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"Tell the chef, the beer is on me."
In the bright sun, an old man reads the opening pages of the Brothers Karamazov, then splays the book on the table. He’s got a cupcake the size of a softball in front of him. He slices off the bottom half with great care, breaks it up, and lobs the crumbs a few feet off to his side, as if to feed some invisible animals.
At the other end of the yard, an old woman in a grand sun hat and giant sunglasses whistles birdcalls into the bushes. After a while, she looks up and catches me watching. “Did you happen to find a cell phone?” I shake my head no. “That’s too bad,” she says. “I lost mine.”
“Hey Stranger,” is what my neighbor, the ex-fireman, calls out when I walk by, but it’s been years since we were strangers. I know about the fall that busted his leg, and the pins in his knee that need replacing. I know where he grew up, and that his brother lives across the river. I’ve admired the hot red Lincoln that he stores for the winter and I helped him out of his plain black sedan once, when his knee was in pain. I know he ran track in high school, cross-country. He chides me on warm days when he doesn’t see me in running clothes, and he cautions me to stretch when I arrive home in a sweat.
I told him today that I’m moving. Not far, still in the neighborhood, he said. He shook my hand after all these years and said, “good luck to you.”
“I’ll walk by and see you sometimes,” I told him. It’s something you say to someone you might easily never see again, and I’m not even sure which house is his if I wanted to ring the bell. This is street intimacy, that’s all, I realized, and in a single handshake, I saw the boundaries crystallize. They are tricky, transparent. Like glass, they are solid all the same.
They’re young and spilling over with winter’s pent up energy, shouting and bouncing and swiping at each other. One’s got his hood up, he looks tough. I’m at the corner with them, waiting to cross the street, giving a wide berth to their erratic motion. The hoodie turns to me and says, “It’s a beautiful day, right?”
“Sure is,” I tell him. His face is narrow, his eyes a little volatile. I shift back a little more.
He points up at the house-high pear tree in full white bloom across the street. “You see how the trees are coming back to life,” he says. “That’s God, baby. Ain’t no Mother Nature, that’s right.”
He punches his friend in the meat of his shoulder and they run into the street, racing to cross in the lull between the cars, long before the red light comes.
The men on the corners chat me up. Affectionate catcalls, harmless appreciations. But to the boys who move in rangy packs, I’m invisible, or at least, I have always felt that way. Today the sun’s out, and it’s mid-afternoon, no time for kids to be out on the street. Still, there on the corner, is one of Dealer’s boys. He’s fat in a way I suspect he’ll grow into, and a boy who becomes a formidable man is far more enticing than one who turns out just like you expect. I want to tell him that. But he doesn’t even know I’m there.
Then he surprises me. He squints up into the sun and says, “Hey lady. You changed your hair.”
Across the street, an old man sings in Spanish about his aching heart.
There’s a beautiful passage early in the book The Conversations (a long rambling interview between film/sound editor Walter Murch and writer Michael Ondaatje), where Murch is talking about how intoxicating it was to play with sound when he was nine or ten. He got a cassette tape recorder when they were very new, and would make strange noises by dragging the mic over surfaces, and by recording sounds from out of his (NYC) window. Then he realized he could chop the tape and reassemble it.
“I’ve found that your chances for happiness are increased if you wind up doing something that is a reflection of what you loved most when you were somewhere between nine and eleven years old. At that age, you know enough of the world to have opinions about things, but you’re not old enough yet to be overly influenced by the crowd or by what other people are doing or what you think you “should” be doing. If what you do later on ties into that reservoir in some way, then you are nurturing some essential part of yourself.” [pg. 8-10]
What I remember of that age is that I loved reading, lying, and making things. The lying wasn’t petty, it was rather of the fish stories and tall tales variety. I met a woman recently who I had known for just a couple of years at that age. Her clearest memories of me had to do with the lies, the elaborate and pleasurably accepted storytelling.
Happiness as a byproduct of genuine passion, genuineness measured as a relationship to the unmediated passions of childhood.
What did you love when you were nine or ten–how is it reflected (or not) in what you do now?
I’m moving apartments soon, and today the streets are full of stories I know. There is the man I thought was a spy. There is the woman I always think is someone else. There is the mother who yells at her sons in the sharp snaps of a language I don’t understand. There is my neighbor with the pain in his hip. There is the owner of a closed café. There is a man with whom I danced in a bar. There is the man whose life story I overheard. There are all the people whose life stories I overheard. There are all the people who gave them willingly to me.
My ITP students went out on the street and asked (on video) about 40 people the question, “What are you afraid of?” It was remarkable how many of the respondents gave thoughtful, vulnerable answers.
1. Failure. Most of the people who said they were afraid of failure were young. Also, one older man said if you’d asked him 10 years ago he would have said failure.
2. The future
3. Being alone/loneliness
4. Death/getting old
5. Things that are out of my control
6. Nothing. This was mostly older people, one of whom said, “I’m not even afraid of the Devil.”
1. Clowns (in a serious way)
2. Aliens (in a serious way)
4. The dark (“you can’t see what’s around you”)
6. Buried alive, blinded, falsely imprisoned (same respondent)
Flippant answers: snakes, spiders, rats, people.
Some days it feels like I’ve been through all the strangers. This is a logical impossibility of staggering proportions, and yet the feeling lingers against all rationality. Today is one of those days, and so I set out hunting. I walk slower. I smile at everyone. Nobody’s biting. Finally, in a patch of sun along the sidewalk, I catch the postman’s eye. He’s the kind who drives around in a truck and leaves a trail of dreaded orange slips behind him, requiring trips to the post office, and who wants that punishment. Despite his devil’s errands, he’s cheerful, and we talk about the snow for a while.
“The worst part,” he says, “is after people clean up.”
“Really?” I’m not following his logic.
He winks, and points at the little mountain of packed ice that makes a border between the clean sidewalk and the cleared street. “It’s one of those things, a paradox, right? Everyone thinks they’re doing good, but they’re just leaving these glaciers in my way.”
Then he picks his way over the mount of dirty snow as gracefully as a dancer, boards the truck, and drives away.
There are a thousand ways to make a binary split of the world’s population, and the one on my mind right now is this: there are the kind of people who pick up a ringing payphone, and the kind of people who don’t. I pick it up.
I love those strange, slightly jarring, unexpected interactions with strangers. I write about them on a blog called Municipal Archive and I teach a graduate class about them at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. So, I can tell you a lot about the locations and moments in which strangers interact. About the means and methods. These things have been observed and studied and documented. What we don’t really know with any precision—nor even with much poetry—is why.
Chat Roulette is the newest form of what you might call “stranger chat.” It’s a technology-mediated instance of an old cultural tradition: talking to strangers in public spaces. We do it in an ephemeral, casual way in public places, particularly in the anonymous transitional spaces where proximity is especially temporary: elevators, park benches, waiting spaces, the subway. It’s a fleeting connection, a shared moment, an acknowledgment of your common humanity in the bustling, anonymous metropolis.
Chat Roulette is both the same and different from those encounters. You’re talking with a stranger—which you’ve been able to do since time immemorial in chatrooms—but, now there’s a live video and audio feed to accompany the chat window, and the next random stranger is a click away. Video makes the interaction much more risky and intimate, but also more like a chat in an elevator, except you can make your chat partner vanish at any time. When you talk to strangers in public, you’re making an informed choice, whether you’re aware of it or not. You’ve got social cues like your shared location, the person’s appearance, their clothing, how they carry themselves. When you talk to someone on Chat Roulette, you’re confronted with—if you’re lucky—with the head and shoulders of a stranger, and almost no readable cues. You and they both are making a split-second decision about whether to engage with each other.
Did I mention the part about how it’s an incredibly weird experience? Because it is. What you find when you click start and stop and start over and over is a spectacle of humanity, it’s 10,000 stories in the naked city. It’s also a lot of money shots, people who are looking too intensely at the camera for comfort, people in masks, people in masks dancing around, teenage boys and girls in clusters of three hovering over their computers. Some teenage boys told me they were drunk and bored, the teenage girls wouldn’t talk to me. There are about 4 men for every woman on the site, but it varies by time of day. If you click enough, you also find some people who are genuinely curious about actually talking to—connecting with—strangers. I stuck around long enough to find a few of those, and I asked them why they were there.
They were all young, all male, the ones who talked with me. There’s a tiny smile of recognition that passes between people who actually want to talk. I tried speaking out loud, with the audio on, and found it discomfiting and difficult to sustain a conversation. Text chat is much richer. It’s much easier to be vulnerable in writing, to have thoughtful responses, to ask disarming questions. You have a moment to think, to compose yourself.
All the men I talked to wanted to talk about how many masturbators you end up seeing, and they wanted to know what I thought about it. “You have to look at about 400 dicks for every friend you make,” a man in Chicago told me. Another echoed the sentiment. He thought it was worth the trouble. “I get to talk to people I wouldn’t get to talk to in real life.” I asked why that was good. “It’s an adventure and I don’t have to go anywhere.”
Men in Holland and France were practicing their English (and I practiced a little French) and were talking to strangers because it was “unusual” and “funny.” One told me it was just like talking to someone on a train ride. Another said he lives in a small town and rarely sees a person he doesn’t know.
Three themes laced through every conversation I had. The men I talked to said it was a little addictive. They were intrigued and often joyful about the novelty of the system overall, and the fact that their brief connections felt like real connections.
There’s a grey area on the spectrum between the earnest conversationalists and the exhibitionists where you get flirtatious, suggestive talk of varying levels of intensity. A man I talked to in London told me he thought it was exciting, the strangers, the anonymity, the guarantee of never seeing each other again. I asked what kind of exciting. “It’s exciting like your awareness is heightened. And it’s sexually exciting.” He wanted to know if I felt the same way. I hadn’t felt that way with the earnest ones, but this man was bringing the idea of sex into the interaction. I didn’t want to pursue it any further—it was easy to see that he wanted to steer things into something beyond talk—but he was right. It was visual and anonymous and he was being seductive, and that was a little exciting.
After that I stuck to the innocent looking ones. “You’re beautiful,” one said to me, “what are you doing here?” I told him I was writing about it, and asked him what he was doing there. “It’s wonderful,” he said. “I get to see the whole world.”
I come here a few mornings a week. The clerk knows my face. Today I’m waiting for a bagel to be trussed, and my phone rings. I have a brief, breathless logistical conversation and then hang up. The clerk looks up and asks me how I’m doing today.
I decide to be honest, he’s just witnessed the flurry on the phone. “I’m a little frazzled,” I tell him. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, thanks,” he says, and looks out the window.
I wait until his attention strays back to me. “Would you have told me if you weren’t?”
He’s confused. “I’m fine,” he says again, smiling.
“I know, but if you weren’t fine, would you have told me that?”
He laughs at me, it’s a laugh I’ve seen before, the one he reserves for the florid and broken section-8 housing residents from around the corner who count out their pennies for coffee. “Of course not,” he says, still smiling, “I wouldn’t tell you that.”
One of our friends is late to breakfast. She calls and tells us to order something for her, anything. We pick out one of those fancy dishes with eggs.
“How do you want the eggs,” the waiter asks. He’s got a melodious middle eastern accent. I could listen to him all day.
But this is difficult. Eggs are something you can get wrong. He’s waiting. Finally, he says, “Is it a man or a woman who’s coming?”
“A woman? Ok, then it’s poached. You wait, you’ll see. I’m right.”
It was just like this. A girl on the last page of her book, murmuring the words aloud, I can read her lips only because I know it by heart: it eluded us then, but that’s no matter. Next to her, a woman with a tiny Hebrew bible is mouthing the words of her devotion as fast as an auctioneer. At the other end of the car, there’s a man with thin, unruly hair. He’s slumped over as though he were drunk, or sleeping, one shoulder lower than the other, listing, his chin collapsed to his chest. He’s staring at his open, empty palm in his lap, tapping it lightly with his index finger.
The blind man and his bull dyke guide are back today. He follows her, half a step behind, his hand resting on her shoulder. He moves timidly, tapping his cane in an arc in front of him, his ears attuned to her whispered translations of what it is like to see this room, these obstacles. But when she moves his hand to the back of the chair, the scene changes key. He straightens up and casts a great smile up at the sky. I wish you could see him. He’s wearing slick wraparound glasses and a shiny red jacket. He looks more like a space man than a blind man. He’s got his knuckles on the table, keeping time, he nods along as the woman talks. She’s speaking ardently. You know, with her hands.
He’s skinny and old, shuffling along. He looks like he’s seen better days, but his dark brown face shines. I walk past him and he says, “When I grow up, I’m gonna get one just like you.” He’s laughing at his own joke.
I turn around and wave.
“You hear me? That’s right. Gonna get you in a kitchen.”
Now I’m laughing. “You don’t want me in your kitchen.”
“All you gotta do is boil water. It’s easy. That’s all I ask.”
My neighbor used to be a fireman, and got retired when he fell through a roof. Tonight something is burning nearby, there are screaming trucks and strobing lights around the corner.
He’s out in front of his building, leaning on the fence. “Somebody’s going to work.”
There are people on any block who observe the comings and goings on the street, who keep its pulses. He is one of them, and at first I think he means me, that I’ve been going to an office.
“Every day now,” I say.
“No, I mean over there,” he says, pointing toward the trucks. He rocks back and forth on heels. “I miss it,” he says. “You smell that and the adrenaline gets going.”
Then he closes his eyes. “Smells like victory.”
On this line, you never get that chipper automated voice announcing the stops, and on this particular morning, it’s my favorite conductor. The one who sounds as smooth and easy as a 70s radio DJ, or rather, a teenager impersonating one. His voice isn’t quite deep enough. He speaks as though it were not only his duty to inform you of your location under the grid of the city, but also to ease your hard journey through the tunnels, and by consequence through your life.
Today he says, “Good morning, and welcome to day number four of the work, school, and play week. A big congratulations goes out to the NY Yankees.” And then his voice breaks character and squeaks, as though in parentheses, “Yay!”
We’re rushing into a station, he goes on. He knows exactly how much time he’s got until the doors open. “Don’t forget there’s a tickertape parade tomorrow, everyone come out and cheer. It’s nine am exactly. Have a good one out there.”
Next to me, a woman gasps. “Shit,” she says. “I’m so late.”
"Tell the chef, the beer is on me."
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