Monday, November 21, 2011

Talking to Strangers

When I was a kid, I was afraid of talking to strangers, especially under certain circumstances. I was scared of picking up the phone to call someone, or of knocking on someone's door to sell Girl Scout cookies or what have you. Even recently, working on political campaigns that involve phone banking or door knocking fills me with dread. When I was in college I tried to write for our school paper. I remember interviewing a professor of mine - not a stranger, but close enough - about a new policy on student-faculty dating. I remember sitting there trembling while he said something about how student-teacher relationships were inevitably erotic, but you couldn't get such a subtle point across in an article, so please don't include that. (Yes, he was an English prof.) I didn't include it and the story went on the front page and soon after I switched to writing reviews.

I've always looked at this as a kind of political as well as a personal failing, as if a little timidity was all that stood between me and becoming Studs Terkel or Anna Deveare Smith, two folks whose work fascinates me probably partially because the thought of doing what they do is so terrifying to me.

One thing about being pregnant is that it involves a good deal of talking to strangers. I haven't had the experience people talk about where strangers try to touch you, but lots of strangers and casual acquaintances will engage short conversations with the standard questions - the answers are easy enough, and it's not like you had to initiate - but there's something about it that takes me back to that fear.

Miranda July is no Terkel or Deveare Smith. Like other indie filmmakers, her work is apolitical in a specific way - it's a world where people exist in the thinnest of social environments. In her collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More than You, this isolation works to brilliant psychological and existential ends, but it feels like a fun house mirror version of the world, where everyone's ultimate unknowability becomes literal. They can't really connect - ok, fine who can - but they also can't have a normal conversation.

So perhaps the high concept premise of her new book It Chooses You - interviewing people who place ads in the Penny Saver while procrastinating endlessly over the completion of her new screenplay - isn't so odd or surprising. It's exactly what you'd expect when a performance artist tries to force herself to overcome social phobias and normal taboos and make herself into an existential Studs Terkel. At first glance it's an odd book even for her - she describes her own struggles with the screenplay in the same elliptical, beautiful, searing weirdness as we get in No One Belongs Here. Except that fictional characters have a reason to speak in heightened metaphors; it's odd to hear a somewhat public figure use this for her own state of mind. Except, you realize, it's not a literary conceit: she actually thinks things like: "it was as if he'd just thrown some confetti in the air and called it words."

July says at the beginning that it's a book in part about L.A., which makes a lot of sense. A lot of the obsession with atomization in indie films might have something to do with that city. There you have to seek out strangers to talk to; here in N.Y. you have to dodge them. And not only when you're pregnant. It's also in part about older people in a younger world - the people who sell things in the penny saver don't have computers. July seems to think they exist in a different emotional space than the rest of us - I'm not so sure. If nothing else it reminds us that the internet sure as fuck didn't invent shut-ins. July works hard at being her best Terkel-like populist self. When she interviews Andrew, a seventeen year old trying to sell tadpoles, she seethes when he tells her how he was shunted into special ed classes for no reason he understands and encourages him to see his obvious gift with animals as something he can use, test scores be damned. But then she runs up against Ron, also known as the kind of person who makes you think you're right not to talk to strangers:
Ron was exactly the kind of man you spent your whole life being careful not to end up in the apartment of. And since I was raised to go out of my way to make such men feel understood, I took extra-special care with his interview. But as he talked on and on (the original transcript was more than fifty pages), I realized that I don't actually want to understand this kind of man - I just want them to feel understood, because I fear what will happen if I am thought of as yet another person who doesn't believe them. I want to be the one they spare on the day of reckoning.
Later she notes how much more willing to run from the situation she is than she was at sixteen, when she corresponded with a prisoner. But it would be too glib to say, ah yes, well, there's talking to strangers and then there's going to the houses of strangers when you're a woman and when it's the latter you know where the fear comes from, and that it may be a gift, like the self-help books say. What is being an artist or a creative person if not the fantasy that we will be something other than another person who doesn't understand, and that the understanding may spare us? Ron may not deserve it, but we do.


  1. What a lovely post.

    I recall hearing -- it must have been in a sociology class -- about one of the pioneering American sociologists, Robert Parker or Harvey Zorbaugh (ah Chicago!), that he found talking to people almost physically painful, which is why he'd ended up doing research that required interviews with a whole cross-section of the city -- that it was only when he was playing the role of the interviewer that he was comfortable talking to people at all.

  2. Huh. I wonder if those stories are of the same vintage as the one about Irving Goffman doing his research by hiding behind the couch at dinner parties.