We’ve all talked about eavesdropping before … about how the richest characters and liveliest dialogue can spring from an overheard conversation on the subway, in a diner, in a movie audience before the lights go down.
But I’m here to tell you about another kind of character and conversation, the kind I indulge in on park benches.
It’s not eavesdropping; it’s participating. It’s asking questions I would never be allowed to ask in the normal course of conversation. And it’s about listening to the answers.
The first of these I can remember happened almost thirty years ago. I was returning to my car after a dental appointment that had left my lips as swollen as a Ubangi. Frustrated by work as a young advertising executive that day, and in pain from the dental surgery, I wiped tears from cheeks as I hurried down the sidewalk.
A middle aged black man sitting on a park bench called out as I walked past, “You know, you’d be a lot prettier if you smiled.” He was clean enough-looking, with a bit of gray at his temples, but the filled shopping cart at his side told the real story. I went off on a rant, as only a privileged, overpaid, San Franciscan can do, yelling about how I’d been in a car accident and my Mercedes convertible had a dent in the door, how the swollen lip made it embarrassing to go back to work, how much I had to do at the office when I returned. “There, there,” he said, pulling a sort of white rag from his shopping cart and offering it to me. “Just sit down here and tell me all about it.”
I did. For about twenty minutes. He listened respectfully, sometimes patting my shoulder and continuing the mantra of “There, there.” It was such a cathartic twenty minutes that I felt like I’d just undergone therapy. I got up to leave and handed him a $20 bill in my thanks.
“Don’t go yet. We’re not done.” He got up and bought two cups of coffee with my $20 then sat back down. “Now, what are we going to do to make you feel better?” He sat with me until I’d drafted a plan on how to get the Mercedes fixed, how to handle the most urgent needs at work, and the advice to suck on a tea bag to help the swelling in my mouth go down.
“See? You’ll live through this. And you really are prettier when you smile,” he said, patting my knee. And he never once mentioned his own circumstances, even when I gave him the opportunity to do so.
I’ve never forgotten him, and now new characters have been added to my park bench pantheon.
Recently, I was smoking on a park bench in Seattle, enjoying the perfect sunshine and the view. A bum about twenty years younger than me approached and asked for a cigarette. I gave him one, in hopes that it would make him go away, but he sat down next to me on the bench to enjoy it. He started the conversation by saying how mad he was that his trip across town to this park had been impeded by protestors and it had taken him so long to get here that he couldn’t use the free laundry provided that day. He did not agree with the protestors, and found a couple of gay members of the group to be particularly hateful.
I asked him what he believed in. Religion? The golden rule? Pull yourself up by your bootstraps? Do unto others? Live and let live? He waffled a bit and was willing to forego most of his stated positions for another cigarette, but finally said, “Look, I’m not a bad guy. I’ve never killed anybody.”
I recoiled. Was this now the lowest common denominator of “a good person? “Don’t tell me what you haven’t done. Tell me what you have done,” I snarled at him. “Have you loved someone? Have you helped someone when you didn’t have to? Have you grown anything? He you fought for a principal not just for a bottle? “
“I used to,” he said. “Now I just try to stay alive.” I nodded. I had forgotten that I had the luxury of seeking dignity as well as life.
On the way home from that Seattle trip, I stopped at a fast food restaurant on I-5. It was too hot to eat in the car and too busy to eat indoors, so I found a bench in the shade outside. A biker pulled up next to my car and went inside to get food. When he came out, he first tried to sit on his bike and eat, but it was clear that the heat and sloppiness of the meal were getting the best of him. “Mind if I share a bench?” he asked. He had a full beard, hanging longer than his chest. His Hell’s Angels’ club patch was the full four-crested version of a senior member, including the death head logo.
We started talking about the weather, and then the reason for our trips. His was to join the annual Hell’s Angels gathering in Idaho, mine to take care of my newly-sonless father-in-law. We talked about bikes, about family, about Bruce dying.
He went back in for two ice creams for us and when he returned, said, “I’m sixty-one. I’m the same age as your husband. And this will be my last year riding to the gathering. I can’t trust myself on a bike anymore.” He held out his hand to show me the tremors.
“What I want to know is: if I’m not a Hell’s Angel, what the hell am I? Who do I become when I can’t be myself anymore?”
I thought about that question for the next three hundred miles, but I was asking it of myself. “If I’m not a writer anymore … if I’m not a wife anymore, what am I? What can I be when I can’t be myself?”
I answer myself the same way I answered the biker. “You’ll be alive.”
So tell me, ‘Rati, do you get into park bench conversations? Airplane conversations? Or do you think I should stop meeting questionable men on park benches across the country this way?
These are very fine questions.
Yes, on occasion I fall into park bench conversations; a bit of a gamble, aren't they?
"What can I be when I can’t be myself?”
At core, I think, still you – as witness these conversations, this thoughtful blog – perhaps a new version, a new kind of writer, a new kind of Louise.
Please don't stop talking to strange men.
You seem to meet them when you need each other.
I'm not a park bench person, but I used to run into this jovial,
white-haired guy when I was a college student.
I had three conversations with him, mostly one-sided, and he kept telling me I was a prophet and a leader.I've yet to become famous, religious, or prophetic. The only time I'm a leader — when friends don't know where to go and let me pick restaurants.
I think the dude might have been a college professor and/or slightly nuts.
I talk to people on airplanes, sometimes.
You have to be careful because you can get trapped for a looooong time on those.
But I met a woman I became good friends with on a flight from Tokyo to New York.
My park benches are grocery store lines, restaurant tables, and trains, but yeah, I've had a few.
I say keep on keeping on — someone has to offer handkerchiefs and someone has to take them. It's a great and good thing.
Man, you guys are poetic this morning.
Thank you, Tom, for your optimism.
Shizuka, lead us on to the next great restaurant.
And Sarah, I'm going to borrow that "handkerchiefs" line, and only give you credit the first two times I use it.
I'm disturbed by the "I'm not a writer" Writers do more than write novels.
Like I said, you could write about rocks and make it interesting. Besides "Dogs of Australia I have known" I am hoping you pen "Conversations on Park Benches."
What are you? You are friend. You are counselor. You are thinker. You are sharer. You are soft summer breezes of sanity. You are words of wisdom floating in the fog. You are inspiration and despression. You are the you behind the face in the mirror.
You are beloved.
I don't usually get into deep conversations with strangers, but I met a five year old little girl once, when I was fourteen. I was escorting my little brother on a field trip to a zoo/water park thing. My mom never trusted him to go alone in these things. There was something about her, I'm not really sure why. Her name was Deborah, and I don't remember how it came around, but I clearly remember her little hand holding mine on the line and her picking the seat by mine on the bus on the way back. I don't really remember how it came about either, but we started talking about family, and she told me about hers. She told me her little sister had just been born and her mom was always stressed because the baby wouldn't sleep through the night and was always crying. Then, she told me her mom beat her up all the time. I honestly didn't know what to say, at fourteen years old. She asked me and even harder question, "Why does she do this to me?" which was enough to render me speechless. I did try, of course, to comfort her, and said, with my teenage inexperience, that sometimes adults are so angry and stressed that they end up taking their anger off at someone who doesn't deserve. So, Deborah looked at me, her eyes full of tears, "Then why doesn't she beat up a doll?" That was enough to shut me up and bring tears to my own eyes." I had to tell her I really didn't know, but that I wish she did, my own eyes full of tears.
I never forgot this little girl, it's been nine years, she's fourteen now, the age I was when I met her. I think about her sporadically. And I truly hope she's okay.
Keep on meeting your men, Louise, just be careful 🙂
And, you know, Louise, though I beg to differ, that you ARE a writer, because I don't think being a writer is a state, but an innate characteristic, sometimes, all we can be is alive. And, sometimes, being alive, is the greatest victory of all, because it takes everything we have to accomplish. That's what I think anyway.
Louise, only a real writer could evoke the emotions this blog did. I'm blown away by your powerful images this morning, and by your willingness to open yourself to such intense and amazing conversations and insights.
This summer I flew to Denver for a Western adventure. On the plane I met a man who specializes in water use, something I happen to be passionate about. We had a fascinating conversation. Then while waiting for my daughter in the pedestrian mall area of Boulder a young man sat next to me on a bench in the middle of Pearl Street and struck up a conversation. I think both of us were surprised to find that neither of our knee-jerk initial impressions were anything close to correct.
Human beings are endlessly interesting, if we just take the time to find out their stories. Everyone has one–some of us have many more than one.
Your empathy and expression, your insight and recall… not a writer? Au contraire, Louise. Au contraire. And note that your biker used "become" in his query: "Who do I become…?" I like to think of "becoming" as "evolving," growing beyond by using the roots of the past.
I love Louise, she writes something like this and then says she's not a writer.
You make me want to hang out on park benches.
I do have airplane conversations, though.
Judy, I promise you more "Dogs of Australia." I'm heading down there again for the holidays.
Barbie, that conversation with the 5-year old would have shaken me to the core. And her question, "Why not hit a doll?" makes it even sadder.
Karen, I love the fact that first impressions are often wrong. And I hate the fact that we rarely get beyond them.
Sandy, yes, indeed, who do we become? I think you've hit the crux of it.
Alex, I can imagine you in airplane conversations. Most men would probably call that a fantasy for them.
Thank you all for such sweet thoughts about writing today.
Definitely keep going for the park bench conversations. I have had these sorts of experiences literally all over the world throughout my life, and never regretted any of them. It's always been amazing to me how people will open up to a stranger the way they might not to a friend. It's a good thing, and like someone else pointed out above, there seems to be a bit of synchronicity going on – the conversations seem to happen when you most need them.
It's interesting who you can meet up with on a plane sometimes too. When I was a little girl living in Kinshasa, my dad took us out to an experimental farm in the bush which was run by a Chinese agricultural group. They were growing some of the first seedless melons and had lots of other projects going as well. The Chinese families working the farm invited us into their homes and we shared some great meals with them and their children. Years later, I was on a plane seated next to a young Chinese man. We started talking about where we were from, and were surprised to have both lived in the Congo. I told him about the experience of going to the experimental Chinese farm in the bush. He remembered it! He had been one of the children my sisters and I played with on that visit! It really is a small, small world.
The anecdote about the biker brought tears to my eyes. Doesn't matter who were are: when we have to let go of what we love, what defines us, we grieve.
Meanwhile: bench conversations! My equivalent is cafe conversations. My favorite cafe guy was the one who, over three-four years, morphed into a transvestite–he might even be going transexual. He started out with just nylons, heels, skirts — full man on top, and it looked odd, but he obviously didn't care. One day, while in the coffee line, I told him he had better legs than I did. The next time I saw him, he asked me out on a date! (But I like my men with unshaved legs, unless they're cyclists.) Over time, his feminity slowly moved up his body. Tight sweater, push up bra. I hadn't seen him for awhile, but a couple of weeks I about spilled my latte on my keyboard. In walked a woman, and I mean a woman. Double take, slighty mannish face, but not bad. Sheeit. It's him! It's Brian! Fully loaded as a woman. He'd learned how to walk in heels (early on, it was humorous — like any straight guy dressing up as a woman for a party or what-have-you), coordinate a stylish outfit, do his makeup and hair. Everything! I was amazed and impressed.
Brian's is a story about embracing who we are — he looked happy, happy, happy.
That's synchronicity, Jenni. Ain't it grand?
And Lisa, oh, to have been part of that transformation, and to have seen it all through your cafe conversations!
Dammit, Louise, that was absolutely beautiful. Such soulful stories, such soulful writing. You are more than a writer, you are a philosopher, an observer, a documenter of life. You, my friend, are present.
I love these park bench stories. You've touched me in a way that few writers can.
You know, you don't have to write to be a writer. You just have to be.
What you've written today is as good as it gets. Better, actually. You're better than it gets.
Keep it up girl. There are park benches everywhere.
Murderati is a great blog and this is a wonderful, thought-provoking post.
When I was in my twenties I tried writing a book about an old man sitting on a park bench. Now I am an old man who sits on a park bench. For the most part I just watch life as it unfolds in front of me — and that is good. But now and then I am blessed with an instructive visit. Also, bus rides in San Francisco are a great way to experience life beyond my front door.
Thanks for your story and for many more in the comments.
Regarding the biker, and other people about whom we might have pre-conceived ideas: No one is single-dimensional, and when we believe others are, whether we are talking about neighbors, racial segments, or political divisions, we lose the opportunity to learn something real and something true about them. And we limit ourselves to believing only broad concepts, rather than the infinitesimally diverse aspects of humanity.
Louise, I love these small stories you tell. I speak to people in elevators (not on purpose but I make comments and people respond), in grocery stores, and on the street. (And at baseball games…) I used to get great stories out of cab drivers. I wished I had written them down at the time, about how they came to the U.S., their families (I came from Somalia, we have six children…), and their lives on the street. I remember feeling especially down one day, worn out, and this guy looked at me, and say, "Gee honey you still got it." I looked at him, he smiled and moved on. Sometimes the message just comes when you need it.
Louise, your posts never fail to move me. The nuance, subtext and emotion that you conjure with your wonderfully lean and restrained prose is just amazing to me.
Ah sweet Louise, you are and always will be a writer. Being published is different, but you're a writer, a wordsmith to your core, now and always.
I always remember your conversation with the black man outside the courthouse, tossing out pennies. You create images that stick.
Mine are bus stop conversations. There's a group of us on our regular bus ride and we've gradually come to know each other, taking chances. I thought I was being a bit brave by letting them know I'm gay, but then I realized that it was harder perhaps for my bus-buddy Joe to tell me that he'd done a decade in prison for dealing.
But now he's got a good job, custody of his 12 year-old-son, a great girlfriend whom I've met, and as a final testament to his lovely spirit, he looks after his blind brother.
I love the handkerchief line, too. Well said, Sarah.
Squarespace has locked Louise out of the discussion momentarily, so I'm posting her responses to the most recent set of comments:
Thank you, Stephen. I'm going to keep my eyes open for more park benches, but in your case it would be cafes, non?
Hi Ronald. It sounds like that "old man on a bench" story story still needs to be told.
Karen, that's the difference between a well-developed character and a stereotype. One we get to know and the other not.
Allison, I remember one cab driver telling me specifically … in great detail … how to lay an indoor ice rink. Man, I wish I had taken notes. And yes, you still got it, girl.
Sheri, lean and restrained prose? Thank you, I think. I fight to make it less lean, but it never works.
And Fran, you and your bus buddy have both got strong hearts.
I too stopped at the line, "now that I'm not a writer." And I share the dismay of those who read your words and say: No, my God, please don't stop.
Who do we become when the world we lived in is destroyed utterly? I have no pat answer. I remember Steve Earle's line, "If your dream comes true, you better go out and get a new dream fast." Is the same true if the dream dies?
The last line of DONE FOR A DIME, when Toby faces the death of his father, the destruction of much of his hometown to fire, and the possible end of his first meaningful love affair: "He needed so badly to dream a convincing dream."
And yet, as I've said before, I'm ambivalent when it comes to hope. An agnostic, if you will. And I know you have no patience for easy answers. Which is just as well, because I have none to give.
But we begin again. We wander in the desert until an oasis appears. Or a fellow traveler passes, and we share something we had no idea we would remember for so long, or need to.
Louise, that is so gorgeous. I love the park-bench angels and sat with many on Boston Common.
One or two always came to sit with the ringing of midday bells at Park Street Church. One would cross the street with me to King's Chapel and down Tremont to tell me what used to be Scollay Square before the government stole it from "regular" people. The litany was amazing, as he always started with the strippers and the mob, the cafés and hotels, the great molasses flood, the Boston Tea Party, Crispus Attucks, Benjamin Franklin's brother's printing Press, and ended with the market that got moved to make Quincy Market look better for the tourists.
David, here's to travelers, park benches and new dreams.
I truly look forward to what you write about in your blog, and your remarkable ability to make something so alive and real. Youare a writer, and a remarkable, lovely woman.
Reine, I have a couple of bench sitters like yours. Two guys yesterday (one Ethiopian and one Afghan) disputing whether the photos of celebration in Libya were real or faked.
And Lil, you are a joy. Thank you.
I have to confess, I'm one of those people who will often avoid conversations with strangers, mostly through paranoid fear! Although taxi drivers do have some interesting stories to tell.
Great post, Louise. And you've inspired me not to be so paranoid about strangers 🙂
PD, talk to strangers!
Oh, Louise. You're so wise and observant that sometimes I just want to smack you upside the head (affectionately) when you persist in not seeing yourself clearly. Then again, I understand. There was a time, not so very long ago, when I decided I was not a writer and that it would be best if I stopped with the delusions and gave up trying to be one. It was right about the same time I was no longer a wife, though not by way of literal death. But I was still a mother and a sister and a daughter and a friend and I think those things saved me from utter despair. And I realized somewhere along the way that my relationships with others, or lack thereof, are not necessarily the things that define who I am. Just as losing faith in myself didn't change the fact that I am a writer (good, bad or mediocre).
It's a lifelong struggle of discovery, but who you are is not determined by those around you. It bounces off them like a reflection in a mirror or an echo off canyon walls. Sometimes those surfaces shift or disappear altogether and then you need to look a little closer or listen a bit more carefully to regain your bearings. But you are still you.
I can't remember the last time I even saw a park bench, let alone sat down on one. But I have those conversations all the time. I've tried, but I can't seem to avoid them. People just seem compelled to talk to me. And tell me things. Private personal things. I want to say, "Do you know that I'm a writer? Do you have ANY IDEA what I'm going to do with these details?" But I don't. Those connections enrich us, even if we're just the ones who listen.
I'm with David and Alex. If you're not a writer, nobody here is.
KD, it sounds like you've lived through this, and you're proof that there is something on the other side. Thank you.
Gar, I want your bibliography behind my name, sweet man.
Weighing in late again. Was trying to reach a stopping place in my gnarly manuscript. Louise, I'm not sure writers stop being writers even if they're avoiding the blank screen. I have a hunch ideas and shapes and shadows are circulating, waiting for the moment that feels right, and the venue that feels okay. (Murderati right now? That's cool.)
I've never had great bench luck – I get the dribblers and the barkers and the aggressive panhandlers or the lady from North Carolina who cannot stop talking about her sister's husband's great aunt's former brother in law or whatever until I'm begging her to let me leave.
And I know we lose some part of who we are when we lose our lovers for good this way. But, like you said, we're still here and at some point, a little sprig pops up and says, "Hey, the sun feels good." You're doing the right thing – just wait for it and stay surrounded by friends in the meantime.
Louise, after reading the comments above I reread your post to look for where you said you weren't a writer anymore. I reread each word – the whole blog – 3 times over and couldn't find it. I think the idea was too different from my concept of you for me to see that.
I did a search of the document to see where you said, “I’m not a writer anymore," and found, "If I’m not a writer anymore . . . ." So you didn't say you were not a writer anymore. You said IF you weren't a writer anymore . . . or a wife . . . , and I took that to mean you were searching for a clear sense of self separate from labels and relationships.
Work and relationships are identity giving. When these are disrupted we usually step back and have another look at our vision of ourselves. Am I being too . . . ah . . . "relational" here? Or is that how you were approaching the thought?
My dear Louise
Sorry to come late to this as usual – travelling yesterday meant I was away from my computer all day. I weep to hear you say you're not a writer, when you present, yet again, such incredibly compelling evidence that you are. You may occasionally be a writer who is not writing, but you always will be a Writer.
I talk to people on benches and in planes all the time. It's amazing what you learn.
Damn it, Louise I hope you really don't see yourself as not being a writer! You are. You just are. That's all there is to it.
After reading the comments yesterday, I had the same reaction as Reine: did I miss something? I read the aforementioned sentence as a theoretical question you posed to yourself in response to talking to the biker — as in, what would I do if I couldn't write anymore? What would any of us do? It's a bottomless pit of a question. Who am I anyhow?
I assume you are still writing, will still be writing for awhile to come. 🙂
Love this, Louise. There's a book in this. You ARE a writer. You will always be a writer. Please don't forget that.
Thank you, Late Commenters. I appreciate your sweet words and support. I hope some day to live up to them. (And Susan, you are my hero.)