Noelle Davis and Rona Yu, Page Editors
We’re squatting on the sidewalk looking up to a drunk man on a bench. Everything he owns is beside him: what we see is all he has. As he twirls a bottle of liquor and puffs a cigarette, he claims he doesn’t drink or smoke--but needs medicine to keep him from going “out of my mind.” He tried to buy a house three times, but was “ripped off” by “them” again and again. As we wait to hear who “they” were, cars whiz by and drown out his voice. When a red light silences the roar, we ask about his greatest worries, eyeing his glass bottle and wondering whether we’re being brave or stupid. He rambles about characters from The Maze Runner and Terminator, who “just about wiped out the whole world.” Strange, but harmless.
We ended up breaking the stranger-danger rule sixteen other times that day. Many experiences were uncomfortable. We awkwardly shuffled away when a woman quickly decided she didn’t want to talk with us anymore. A man bluntly told us that he doubted we would use his words for a good purpose. One woman sitting outside a church simply hung her head and didn’t respond.
Others, like the drunk man, were intimidating. Discussing sensitive, personal topics with a woman who bitterly recounted her experiences in prison was admittedly unnerving. It’s not every day that you speak with someone who has been arrested, let alone behind bars. The line between probing for meaningful information and going too far is a delicate one. Am I allowed to ask her what she got arrested for? What if I find out it’s for something terrible; will I be able to hide the fact that I’m terrified? Does she feel like I’m only talking with her because she looks needy?
But often buried under unwelcoming expressions were fresh perspectives. We giggled as we met the “Smile Lady” who lives on the “cleanest and happiest corner in Pasadena,” and pulled out a broom and dustpan to prove it. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when a man joked, “My brain is too small for me to be happy.” We felt less heroic when one homeless man with a wrinkled face told us he gets many requests for interviews and pictures.
While it was relieving to find out that a person we’d approached was happy to chat, those who held back at first would let go more, if they did at all. It was vulnerability, not quantity of information, that made a conversation meaningful. Often, the people who believed they couldn’t contribute anything were the ones whose perspectives made us think. We encountered issues we had only read about in books. Awkward, shallow questions escalated to personal conversations about politics, addiction, religion, and abuse, which will be covered in future articles.