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Five Conversations from 2014 (and Why I Dwell on Them)

 

My friends say I have some sort of lagging problem, which obviously didn’t register at first because the initial 300 times it was mentioned I was what I like to term: intellectually unavailable. My “lagging” problem, then, is the direct diagnosis of a wandering mind trapped by a physically stable body and nagging friends (just kidding—I love you all). Of course, you might imagine the cosmic distance between a walking buddy and I when I’m not only “lagging” but really lagging behind, interested more in the way my shoes hit the sidewalk than where we’re trying to get to.

So when I finally got comfortable with this notion of the self-steadying mindset (did you really think I was going to use the word laggard?), I started to appreciate some lesser-known plusses to this whole distraction game, starting with the curiosity factor.

The curiosity factor is best explained by example. Imagine you’re in a grocery store and you’ve come prepared for your week’s buy with a list of essentials like beer, and white chocolate macadamia nut cookies, and cheeses, and if you’re into that sort of thing, mushrooms. You’ve got a list and by now you know exactly where everything is but instead of this process taking you only ten minutes, like it does your Lululemon wearing counterpart, you browse each and every aisle at leisure. The reason, you’ll later find, is because you’re not looking to satisfy an existing need, but forecasting a new one and in the event you successfully recognize what it is you will need you are already attempting to satisfy it. It pleases me to give this a name – the curiosity factor – the major cause of distraction from the task at hand. What will I feel like eating after my swim on Tuesday? Do I really like those peanut-butter-chocolate-chip chewy bars? Am I allowed to say I hate apples?

Curiously enough, I’ve found this experience can percolate into the most offhand and randomly connected parts of my life, where without meaning to I walk in to situations with a prepared stock-list of instructions to give or receive. But once I became willing to answer the call (or wolf-whistle, depending on how full you see your glass as), I opened myself up to the opportunity to experience difference, meandering, moments; so replete and thrilling that they show up in my psyche later, like units of dung-beetle droppings recycled into perspective.

The most you’ll hear spoken about New York City is the places you can go to and the people you’ll meet, and you know you’ve got a real fan when they spend the first half of dinner excitedly retelling you how they made best friends with the person sitting next to the wedged human between them on the subway. I’ve loved all the places and spaces that have had me and all the friends who made a lonely city seem populated. But I’ve also loved some others—should I call them faces? Or names? Or photographs? Or experiences?—they seem like strangers really but feel much more intimate than that. If there was a word to describe the range between strangers and friends I would use it now. I strongly believe one conversation is to a friendship, what a quote is to a book.

It’s difficult at times to separate a person from their character sketch, and being a writer I tend to conflate the two, noticing little habits and tone of voice and the way a person walks after a long day’s work. I am fascinated really at how complete a person can feel to me after one honest conversation, how present they are and make me feel. Connecting with people who don’t show up in your daily life, often by virtue of the curiosity factor—like walking across the street to tell someone you like the color of their pants, or the way they smell, or turning around to face the person behind you in line—yields a fire so warm because of this very necessary notion of presence, of being commanded into a moment you may have been led into by distraction but you stay there, for however long, in true contemplation.

Deep down I think the ephemeral qualities of these interactions were almost as crucial as my dietary needs, and I sought them out on account of wanting-to-know-and-accepting-the-not-all-knowing-of-what-I-know, and because, as I learned, of what they had to say:

 

1.     The artist: 

The first time I met Henrietta, she was sitting down. I had just signed up for my first fiction writing class after moving to the city and walked in with an empty notebook and my watch five minutes late. Time passed, and in class we didn’t talk much except for occasional comments on coffee, homework, and the deliriousness of the summer sun as it greeted us towards the end of our seminar.  It was through our writing that we really connected, a deep sensitivity for each other’s stories. Where I attributed an organic youthfulness and keen turn of phrase to her work, she called my writing provocative, rhythmic, even song-like. I told her that her writing made me feel like she had personally whispered each word into my ear, causing a warm glow, the kind that comes from being tucked into bed. We haven’t seen each other again, but we’ve written to each other and it’s fascinating to me how, unlike anyone else, when I write to her I sound very much like a character in my own stories. We’ve met only a handful of times and yet, she draws out a side of me that’s sometimes hesitant to come alive. We talked of falling in and out of love and listlessness as if they were people who had come to visit us that very day, instead of other daily activities and summer plans. She is over 70 years old. 

 

2.     The accessible stalker:

On my way to Brooklyn one afternoon, I took the subway. When I was waiting for my connecting train to arrive, a young woman walked the length of the somewhat empty platform and tapped me on my back. In a city where brushing shoulders is the norm, you can imagine my sudden fright at being approached from behind. That, and she had caught me mid daydream. She asked me, “How do I get to Brooklyn?” and I said, “Where in Brooklyn do you want to go?” She mumbled a vague response and then without hesitation she asked, “Can I just follow you there?” I remember thinking two things when she asked me this. First, I appreciated my face not for the color of my lipstick but for how approachable it must have looked for an absolute stranger to put and expect such trust from me. The second I marveled at how much of an effort it seemed on my part to say yes, yes-stranger-I’ll-help-you-because-you-look-like-you-need-help-and-I-like-to-think-I’m-the-kind-of-person-that-helps but it was tough for me. I had to quell a beating fear in my heart to do it, but I did, I said yes. And I’m glad I did. She told me she was visiting from Boston and I told her I loved Boston. When we got to the stop, she thanked me. Nothing else happened, and because it didn’t I felt an iota of the fear of being human drop.

 

3.     The cultural cabbie:

It’s not uncommon to chat with your taxi driver, wherever in the world you may be, and I had made quite the habit of it: discussing songs on the radio, the weather, where I’m from, where I was going all in an effort to pass the time especially if my iPod was dead (maybe this is why technology runs on battery). On a drive home from someplace on one evening, my taxi driver and I got into a long discussion about identity, and it started the usual way, with the simple question: “Where are you from?” He talked about Marrakech, I talked about Delhi and we discussed New York City like we were both somehow entitled to it. It wasn’t that our conversation was far removed from the standards of colloquial chatter—we talked about religion, politics, gender equality, human rights (it was a master’s thesis all up in itself)—but it was because the conversation took a personal turn that we both felt like we had so much more to say. He made me listen to “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens and talked about some difficult moments in his life, particularly in his relationship with his father and I talked about family pressures as if each individual is handed them out at birth. Like this, we sat for forty-five minutes even after we had reached my building’s driveway, the meter off, my head already taking a mental picture of this man and deciding how he’ll show up in a story.

 

4.     The pommes-frites pop-up friends:

The music reverberates through the sinews of the body after a point of prolonged exposure, whether you’re up close and personal with the speakers or entertaining a faint flirting with the ears for being close enough. Maybe I was heady with all the events of the day (it was a music festival after all) and there’s something about being in high energy crowds that I find relaxing, but in an overwhelming fashion. What this means is, in a crowd, I become so explicitly aware of where my body begins and ends I start to realize a lot of the little things that make up who I am. Someone once said if you throw a stone into choppy water you’ll see nothing, but try the same with a still lake and you’ll see where and how it touches the bottom. In this analogy, perhaps I am the still lake, or the stone or the crowd is the still lake and the music the choppy water? I can’t say. I haven’t developed that thought entirely yet. But what I can say is that the energy was so palpable, the daringness of being expressed boldly in colors, gestures and attitudes, I too responded to an old voice in my heart. It wasn’t the wildest thing you’d think to do at a festival but for me, it was adventurous in itself. I walked up to a food stall selling french fries and asked if I could help. Before I could even hear them say yes, they pulled me up and had thrown an apron on me. I kept saying, “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” in awe and excitement while my fast friends repeated the same in a tired boredom, but we all laughed. It was perhaps the most banal activity, asking people “if they want fries with that” (I’ve always wanted to use that as a legitimate sentence!) or what sauces they prefer, but there was an estrangement so exquisite in being something different even for a short while—recognizing the possibility of being something different than who you are or what you do—which just by itself is exceptionally humbling.

 

5.     Those men in Manhattan:

A night out in Manhattan is like watching a full-length feature film. Although the end is (relatively) close, there is often no way to guess what it will be, even if you’ve been paying attention all along. This is to say: a night out in Manhattan is full of surprises, especially if your “night out” begins in the day. Flattered and flustered by the sheer number of people (men) we’d spoken to, a girl friend and I decided to take a break from the nightlife and paused for dinner. We ordered our margaritas, but instead a few of the people we’d just met arrived. They insisted we all get a round of drinks together, and because they seemed kind and kindred, we agreed. In one evening, we covered a total of eight bars and the conversation? It ranged all the way from childhood tidbits to our present taste in alcohol to what we would be doing three months from then. Though we were entirely strangers, it took only a few short hours to establish the warmth and familiarity other friendships might take years to evolve. And caught in that blur, I asked myself, “how is this possible?” The answer came to me as quickly as the question when I realized all it took was a sincere desire to listen, a proclivity to share what was on the mind, general politeness and a little bit of guts. When we said goodbye, I felt like I was hugging close friends I wouldn’t see again for years, twinged with a genuine sadness that our time together had just not been long enough. Sometimes its not about lifelong friendships but simply about interactions so potent they are of a lifetime.