It was a long week, one that started well in another state, but long just the same. From Disneyland on Sunday, to the knowledge that my team’s work was being reviewed by our CEO on Monday. Like Schroedinger’s Box, that meeting held some important revelation but none of us could see it. Positive news came in Tuesday morning en route to the airport. Back at home, a shortened but significant work week in preparation for another major review.
Friday was another major checkpoint, where I ended up doing demo support in a review meeting with no less than 5 Vice-Presidents in the room. By the end of the day I was relieved but also looking for a little solitude in preparation for several social hours at my theatre that night, judging TheatreSports and watching a show I’ll be starting in next week.
But this weekend had other ideas. There are days when you give off a halo encouraging human interaction, and this weekend my aura was in full force. I pulled up in the only open seat at the bar at the restaurant next to my theater, just in time for the Happy Hour last call. With my Kindle out and a glass of wine, I settled in for a bit of calm.
About 5 minutes passed before the elderly lady in the bar seat to my right asked me, “Can I ask you a question?” A part of me wanted to just brush it off, dig deeper, turn off. But here’s this kind looking elderly lady in a business suit, drinking a gin and tonic solo – I was also curious. I asked her of the question, and she asked me what the device was that I had – was it a phone? A tablet? “A Kindle, actually – I suppose it’s technically an e-reader, it’s just for reading books.”
The fact that it was a specialized device seemed not to be the answer she was looking for, and she shared her self-consciousness about technology as she’d just started a new job. A surprising revelation, given her age (she later revealed it to be 71, though she looks good for it) – how often do folks at that stage in life take a chance on a new job? She walked 12 blocks to work that morning because the bus would have gotten her there 2 minutes late, and she hates being late.
She shared the story of how she came upon the job, how she tried to retire but couldn’t take the boredom or the decreased income. She mentioned that one new technology she HAS embraced is Netflix – between Mad Men and the new old-school BBC Poirot mysteries, she’s “in heaven” with the binge watching potential. “I’ve met Don Draper,” she says, “there was one at every office. Oh yes.” I feel as if I’m perhaps speaking to Peggy later in life, though in the form of a legal secretary who won’t take anyone’s crap.
I wonder if she has a husband, but I don’t ask, because two professional ladies should be able to connect on those merits alone without dragging family into the picture. As if reading my mind later, she mentions being childless but the “cool aunt” to children of friends and family.
Every once in awhile, the 3 highly inebriated men at the end of the bar toast in her direction. They’d clearly made contact before K (we’ll call her that) reached out to me, maybe even bought her this drink. They are meaning to be friendly and respectful, I think, but I also think the attention isn’t what K is after. She doesn’t need to be reminded that it’s rare to see a 71-year old woman in a business suit sitting alone at a bar.
We talk about signs from the universe, the way she found this position. The Native American art in her boss’s office that speaks to her heritage, though he couldn’t know that. I tell her my current job filled me with trepidation at first too, but that I got my own signs along the way – like my vice president asking if I’d be available to travel to New York the same week my husband was opening a show in New Jersey. It sounds like she’s going down this path for a reason.
“I have a present for you,” she says, and takes a photo card out of her purse. It’s a blank card with a photo of a bright pink flower on it. “I love photography,” she explains, and she feels it’s important to keep in touch with her creative side. I tell her I empathize and explain my work at the theater next door. She also mentions her contact information is on the back, so I give her my business card in exchange with my thanks. I don’t know that it’s meant we’ll ever be in touch again, but it’s that acknowledgement of the human contact.
During a break in the conversation, one of the three drinking men comes over to the bar stool to K’s right, seemingly to continue a conversation. He’s at least 20 years younger than her; she’s still got “it”, I think, and wonder what she was like when she was younger. I wait for a few minutes to make sure the conversation is mutually welcome, and once it seems like they’re in their groove I take my leave of K, wish her well, and head to my second life at Unexpected Productions.
A day later, I’m back at the theater for rehearsal (I’m in an improvised tribute to Tennessee Williams plays that opens in a week or so.) While walking from the bus to the theater, I pass what appears to be a pro-marijuana rally in Westlake Plaza, the hotbed of public demonstration in Seattle’s downtown core. In this case, it’s a pretty peaceful situation.
During our rehearsal, we discuss Williams’ work, and “A Streetcar Named Desire” comes up, naturally. Blanche’s line about “the kindness of strangers” is mentioned – in the context of her mental illness, but it strikes me in a different way. Isn’t the connection between K and myself last night a bit of mutual kindness, a chance for external perspective and connection?
Hours later, I’m walking back, this time not to the bus but actually to the monorail to meet my husband for Othello at the Seattle Center. Traffic is terrible downtown, I notice – the flower festival plus an early Mariners game must have led to gridlock.
Walking down Pine, one must pass some strange sights – I sped up as I passed a drunk homeless person playing a song from a phone whose lyrics seemed to consist of “Fuck you” over, and over, and over again. A black lady to my right also speeds up, and we connect in a moment of silent solidarity, both confronted with a brief reality of the city, solo women but not alone.
As I stand at the streetcorner beyond, waiting for the traffic light, this lady turns to me and says, “Aren’t you glad we’re not in cars right now?” I tell her, “In Downtown Seattle, I almost always feel that way.” We turn out to be walking the same way, so discussion starts about the reasons behind the traffic.
I mention the pot rally I saw, and she jokes that they can’t possibly disrupt things too much, and startlingly roleplays for a moment as a stoner. Then she asks, in character, if I have the munchies (since I’m carrying a Piroshky bag from the market.)
What ensues for the next 5 blocks is essentially an improv scene, us taking turns back and forth, roleplaying stoned activists, having this strange moment of connection, with tiny bits of personal stories thrown in. I don’t bring up improv, but it seems to me that she’s apparently a natural. We’re laughing all the way to Westlake, still essentially strangers, and reach the stairs to the bus tunnel, which appears to be her destination. She puts her hand on my shoulder, says, “I like you!,” making eye contact, while still laughing. “I like you too. Have a good night!” I call after her as we go our separate ways.
Immediately after parting, I look to my right and realize the pot rally has been overtaken by another rally – the return of the Seattle #blacklivesmatter protests. I believe in the cause, but I wish there were more opportunities for people on both sides of the matter to just connect as human beings. It’s so easy to tune everyone else out, but the divide is so much smaller than it seems when you let yourself look up for a few moments, to look someone in the eyes.
Listening to This American Life recently, there was a story about changing people’s minds – in particular, the results of several longitudinal stories where voters against contentious rights (gay marriage, abortion) were significantly more likely to permanently (as in, lasting a year or more) change their minds ONLY when a canvasser directly affected by said right made direct personal contact and shared their story. It puts a great responsibility on those affected by injustice – an unfair burden, really – but also casts a hopeful light for those willing to make the connection.
It also strikes me that both of these connections were with women. I wouldn’t be as easygoing with strange men, I don’t think. Too distrustful, a product of a culture underlined by fear. I suppose the only exception has been airplanes. I’ve had all sorts of conversations on the many planes I’ve traveled these past few years.
In improv we tell largely fictional stories to connect with other human beings. How can we use our true stories to change minds? And when are the people around us just the people we need to hear from? Or when are we the people that the others around us need to connect with? There’s only one way to find out.