A little confession here: this project is hard. I set out at the beginning of October hoping to get a bunch of interviews with people, talking about their lives and the stories that make them who they are. It’s incredibly fulfilling to hear about people’s lives. However, I quickly discovered that finding the right circumstances to talk to someone about their life is hard. Finding someone willing to talk about their life can be hard. Finding someone willing to let me record that conversation is even more difficult. And probably the most difficult thing is finding the courage to face all of the above and just do it. It truly is a courage first AND circumstances type of endeavor. And to be honest, mostly I get lucky that someone connects me with someone to talk to, or someone just needed to talk so badly and I happened to be there. But when the stars don’t align, or the courage isn’t quite there, I don’t get audio to share with you, and then I tend to get frustrated.
When I get frustrated I find myself counting the number of people I’ve recorded. I find myself counting the number of people that I’ve talked to and not recorded. I think about the moments that I got scared of asking someone that I was eyeing as an approachable person, and beat myself up for not asking. I start to feel guilty that I’m having fun when I haven’t done as much as I tell myself I should have.
This whole thing is exemplified by how things have been as I’ve gotten to the Eastern part of the US. I had some good conversations in Chicago. I met great people and loved my time there. I went to Western Michigan where I spent some time with an old friend and just basked in her energy and familiarity and kindness. I found myself, in Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. In each of those places I was there only briefly but tried to place myself in positions and locations that have allowed me to get recorded conversations. I went to public libraries, beautiful parks, and I couch surfed. Weather, people being focused on election day, and shy people made it so I didn’t ever get to record.
Next I found myself in New York City. I was positive that I’d get multiple chats with people that I could record. So I did a few things for my own enjoyment. I went to The Strand bookstore when I got to town and took in the smell of the beautiful books. I felt the energy of people there browsing for the next volume that would take their minds to a different world. I went and checked in to my hostel in Queens. Then I found a local corner diner and chowed down on some greasy food and topped it off with a slice of chocolate layer cake. I headed to Brooklyn to watch a lineup of small time bands in a tiny indie venue. The people were weird, the music even weirder. We danced, we sang along, and hugged. There was talk of sadness about Trump. There was hope expressed that we’d unify in our humanity. All in all, I had an absolutely Kyle kind of day. And I felt good about it, because I had a blast and the next day would be spent in Central Park collecting stories.
Central park did not go as expected. I got caught in crowds that made me nervous about asking people to chat with me. I asked people that were about to get up and leave. I asked people that weren’t interested. A few people turned away as I sat close to them—body language seeming to tell me not to bother them. I chickened out from asking others. I had walked 8 miles by the time the sun was fading and I had nothing on my recorder. This would be frustrating normally, but this is the point in the trip that should be my climax. I’m trying to wind down. I’m ready to spend time with family over a few more stops, but I’m also ready to just get back to Arizona and rest for a while. So I wasn’t just frustrated, I felt like I was failing at this whole thing of trying to collect stories and share them with others.
May I just say, I have so much more respect for what Humans of New York is. I’ve always thought it was a well-executed piece of media, but what Brandon Stanton must do behind the scenes to make it happen must be incredible.
Anyhow, feeling as I did, I looked up Cambodian restaurants. Having spent two years of my life in Cambodia, I always want to find Cambodian restaurants when I’m in a city that has them, eat familiar food, and go chat in Khmer for a few minutes. So I hopped on the subway and made my way to one a little further downtown. I walked in and was greeted. I spoke Khmer to the host and she smiled and giggled a little at hearing the tall, bearded, white guy that I am speak to her in her native tongue. She said I spoke so clearly and then seated me at my table.
I ordered a familiar dish and asked for some tea. She came back from the kitchen with my tea and asked curiously about my background that brought me to being able to speak Khmer. We chatted and exchanged back stories. She left and then came back with my food and left me alone to eat the delightful fare. As I wrapped up my meal, she reappeared to ask how it was. I told her it was good, but we mused that it wasn’t quite like being back in Cambodia.
After the check had been brought, another Cambodian waitress appeared and probed to see how good my Khmer was. We chatted for a bit about her journey to America and the education she has received and the continued studies she’s engaged in that brought her to New York. We talked about how amazing an opportunity it is for her to get an education in the States and how she wants to go back and help her small country. She too was amazed at my ability to speak, noting most Westerners lose their ability to speak when they get to their home countries. We wished each other luck and I headed back out into the concrete jungle, leaving behind that momentary safe haven. But I left feeling grounded. Moments like that are why I’m doing this.
This all may sound like me finding something like my ability to speak a somewhat rare language to prop myself up in the face of failure. And maybe it is. But as I walked towards the closest subway station, I realized that more than anything what I’m doing is between me and the people I meet. Ideally, I want to be able to get material to share with others, so that more can feel like there’s purpose and substance in our lives and experiences. I hope for all of us to feel a need to connect more with others and that we can see ourselves in the stories of other people of all walks of life. But when it comes down to it, the most valuable thing is what has been happening pretty much every day between me and the people that chat with me, whether recorded or not. And often times, just being around other people, seeing them, smiling at them, listening to them talk to others is such a boon. It’s all a great gift. I love being a part of humanity.
In that light, re-counting the unrecorded chats becomes a lot more meaningful. I didn’t record the guy at the beach in San Diego, the disc golfer in La Mirada, the Cambodians in Long Beach or New York, my hosts in Ukiah, the Germans at the cheap motel in Crescent City, the couple that hosted me in Portland, the drunk Filipino in Portland, the girl at the laundromat in Butte, the girl that gave me extra breadsticks in Bismarck, the park walker in Minneapolis, the studier in Toledo, the couple that hosted me in Cleveland, the guy that hosted me and his friends in Pittsburgh, the woman that hosted me in Princeton. There have been the intimate conversations with my friend in Eugene, my sister and her husband in Ames, my mission friend in Iowa City, my friend in Holland. Yet each of those conversations happened. Each of those people touched my life either for just a moment, or as part of an ongoing influence that they have and continue to have on my life.
Truthfully, my endeavor at collecting stories to share with others is an amateur one. But it is teaching me so much. I’m glad there are moments that ground me in that reality and remind me that I’m so blessed to be experiencing beautiful people every day. Frustration is momentary, but the beauty of humanity is before me every day.