Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Other People's Lives

There's an essential paradox to being a writer, at least for a lot of people. It's supposed to be our job to understand what other people's lives are like--to empathize with everyone, and find the common humanity in a diverse range of characters. At the same time, many of us are hermetic, ingrown little weenies who just want everyone to go away.

Well--maybe we're not quite that bad. But most of us are fairly private people, and like a little silence, a little solitude, and a little detachment from the rat race. With a few notable exceptions, most of us are not personally adventurous--making up experiences is often as satisfying as, sometimes more satisfying than, actually having them. Furthermore, a lot of writers are educated people, and a lot of educated people come from the middle and upper classes (and again, there are lots of exceptions), and end up breathing fairly rarefied air their whole lives. Though my own family has run the gamut from factory work to finance, and my home town was largely down on its luck, I still pretty much reside in this category. I work at a college and live in a nice neighborhood, and most of my friends are college graduates with good jobs.

But it is my responsibility as an artist to try to see through this stuff, and understand both the universality of human emotion and, simultaneously, the diverse specificity of life as it's actually lived. And this is a challenge.

Lately, most of my contact with people outside my social sphere has come from...eBay and Craigslist. Funny as this sounds, my hobby--writing and recording music--cuts across the whole social spectrum, and when I find an instrument I'm interested in, it often leads me to glimpses of lives I might not otherwise have seen. I bought a crappy old Yamaha guitar from an African family who, against the odds, found themelves shivering in upstate New York; and a tube amp and lap steel from, believe it or not, an eighty-year-old Judeo-Christian mail-order preacher (he reminisced about sitting in on C&W dance parties at the grange hall back when there was such a thing, and learning to wire his home's electricity from a now-defunct trade school for Jewish youths); and a combo organ from a pawnshop in Rochester where, less than a mile from one the finest collections of art photography in the northeast, guys shaking with DT's at nine in the morning were lined up waiting to cash in on pocketsful of stolen wristwatches. The people who sold me a reel-to-reel tape deck last week were a jolly couple from Jersey for whom it is routine to buy four tractor-trailers full of rusting audio gear from a defunct music store and hawk it to total strangers on the internet for a living.

Needless to say, these are not especially impressive excursions outside the social comfort zone. But they're enough to remind me that not everyone is a blogger or college professor, that the possibilities for living are infinite, and infinitely interesting. Yeah, I already knew that, but it's all too easy to forget what you know.

What do you do to get out of the bubble, if in fact you're in one?


Anonymous said...

I usually try to meet somebody off Craigslist or go into a scary neighborhood. Talk to homeless people, go into brothels, and find the tattooiest person around. Standing around street corners at night can score you a drug dealer or two, and maybe even a transsexual prostitute. Teaching at a youth prison. Find someone with no money, put yourself near them, and find an excuse to be there.

moonlight ambulette said...

I think this is maybe one of the great joys of living in NYC -- you're constantly bumping up against all sorts of people. Not that this means you have any meaningful interactions with them (in fact, you get so good at ignoring things that it's a little scary) but still.

rmellis said...

I don't feel much like I live in a bubble. Maybe because I do all the grocery shopping and read true crime.

5 Red Pandas said...

I was eating at a Mexican restaurant in the Bronx today and a middle aged man, a bit jittery, asked me what I was reading. I showed him the copy of the New York Stories of Edith Wharton and he then started telling me how he sometimes reads just to get the knowledge and people sometimes look at him "sideways" because of it. Then he told me he studied nursing for two years even though he knew he couldn't become a nurse because he had "a felony". Then he said he'd let me get back to my lunch.

So, what I'm saying is that a visit to the Bronx is usually promising.

Diana Holquist said...

Hey guys!

Great post.

I got one for you--become a romance author. Holy cow, you won't believe the places you'll go and the people you'll meet. It's another world out here, far from the literary fiction shelves...


Anonymous said...

Oh, the places you'll go!

Oh, the euphemisms for penis you'll devise!!

E.W.J. Mulch: said...

Montréal is a great spot for friendly beggars who will tell you their life stories if you feel like listening. Plus before they ask you for change they'll invariably offer the choice of which official language you'd prefer to be begged in.

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