It was around this time three Saturdays ago that I flew into Louis Armstrong International and began my 8th year.
“I am large, I contain multitudes.” ~ Walt Whitman
The first month of every move is an, at times, awkward mix of emotions and thoughts. I’m excited to explore a new city, but sad to leave behind good friends from the previous year. I want to meet new people, but I also need to find a sense of stability and that requires periods of solitude in which I can reboot, reflect. I am living the life of an explorer while existing in the mind of a painfully shy introvert. I am all the things that are expected of me, and none of them.
Which is why I enjoy meeting strangers who know nothing about me. There is a refreshing simplicity to the tabula rasa of anonymity. Now, I’m not making any claim to fame. I don’t expect people to have heard of the project or have any bleeding clue who I am. But for the last few years, my introduction to others has usually been augmented by, “He’s doing this project…” I’m grateful to those who spread the word (better them promote it, than me), and certainly the 10 Cities gimmick has endeared me to people faster than if I had just been ‘Random, quiet new guy.’
But some nights I don’t want to talk about myself. Most nights, in fact. I’ve always felt more natural on the other side of the metaphorical microphone. I like to ask the questions, I like to hear other people’s stories. That is, after all, why I started this whole ridiculous endeavor in the first place. Ask most of my coworkers from throughout the years and they’ll tell you that they heard about my project from somebody else, rarely from me first.
Of course, in most any conversation, if I’m asking a person about their personal history they’re going to ask about mine. There are numerous tactics I can use to avoid directly mentioning the project, but eventually it’ll come out. Why, you might wonder, would I want to avoid talking about 10 Cities / 10 Years? It’s cool, right? People will be interested in it, certainly? Well, of course. And that’s the problem. Far too often, once the cat is out of the bag, the entire rest of the conversation becomes about me and my project. I’m no longer the one asking the questions, I’m no longer getting to learn about a new person.
With time, if it’s a coworker or a regular at a bar, the novelty of what I do wears off and I get to go back to being a normal person with whom people will talk about themselves. That is, after all, what most people want: Somebody to listen to them talk about their favorite subject. But, if it’s a one off, a person I’m likely never to see again (and that is, ultimately, the vast majority of people I meet), I may never get another opportunity to hear their story, know their motivation.
Don’t get me wrong, some people are insufferable bores. Not every individual’s story is fascinating or original. In fact, most of us live pretty similar lives with very familiar motivations. One might think it’s all in the details, but truth be told the details are rarely all that different.
No, the interesting points are in the way in which we tell our stories, the self-depreciating jokes or the self-aggrandizing boasts we pepper into the telling, the way we focus on seemingly insignificant details. It reveals the psychological truth beneath the exterior which is, generally, not all that dynamic. We have, after all, been mostly socialized into behaving in a particular way in public. Even among the Bohemians and (so-called) Outcasts, there are norms of behavior that dictate their outward expressions. Non-conformity is just another way of conforming.
The only way to see past the facade of the public persona is to engage in one-on-one conversations. There are certain things I can pick up on by observing a person interacting in a group (who they’re sexually attracted to, for one), but to know who a person is it’s important to find out who they think they are. And that’s why hearing them tell their stories is so important.
So I walk into a bar, sit on a stool and let the bartender tell me about her move to the city. Or I run into an artist selling his wares and ask him how the crowds have been.
One conversation isn’t enough to know a person. 100 conversations isn’t enough to know a person. Just like 1 year isn’t enough to know a city. But it’s a way of peeling a layer off, and then maybe another, and another, and another…
Well, who knows? Maybe they’ll be nothing underneath. We are not all unique snowflakes with beautiful, shimmering cores.
But, everyone deserves the opportunity to tell their story, even if just once to this stranger on a bar stool.
Who knows what they may contain?