Sunday, September 14, 2008

Beware Solitary Eaters in the Food Court

Current Reading: The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

Inspirational Quote: “It was impossible to get a conversation going; everybody was talking too much.” -- Yogi Berra

Do you every listen to people? I don't mean really listen to them, like "active listening," or whatever. I mean just listen.

Once in a while, I treat myself to a solitary lunch in the food court of the local mall. I don't go there for the food, although there's a nice sushi place nearby and the bulk store around the corner sells chocolate covered almonds (if you see no value in chocolate covered almonds, then we have nothing more to say to each other). Also, Colonel Harlan Saunders seems to have come up with a recipe for kryptonite that people from my planet cannot resist.

I go there to listen to people. So many different people, so many different voices. I don't pay much attention to what people they say. I listen to how they say it: the rhythm, the give and take of conversation. I've noticed something interesting: few people actually talk to each other. I don't mean, "you gonna eat that?" or, "there's special sauce on your sleeve," I mean the things that people say to each other when they're eating.

First of all, eating's kind of a special activity. It brings people together, loosens them up, gets them talking about things that are less immediate than who ordered the chicken nuggets.

Some conversations consist of a speaker and a listener who never change roles. One person talks constantly, and the other person's contribution consists almost solely of nods, grunts and "uh-huh"'s. The speaker goes on about things at length and in detail, while the listener eats, or watches passersby, or rummages through their shopping bags examining their purchases. I wonder what they're thinking, and I wonder if the speaker ever realizes or cares that their words are just passing by.

Some conversations consist of two speakers. While one's talking, the other one is busy thinking about what they're going to say next. They take turns, usually by interrupting each other with phrases like "Yeah, that happened to me last week when..." or "Maybe, but you know..." and then they carry on with something they said on their previous turn. It's basically two monologues with no audience. It's funny to hear, but listening to them leaves me a little sad.

If I'm lucky and am sitting near some speakers who have a long, close history together, I get to hear the most remarkable kind of conversation. It sounds like two different ones, like each person is talking about something else, but there's a subtext there and the clue to it is carried in the rise and fall of voices. They're talking about the same thing, the same feeling or the same idea or the same experience from different points of view. It's like listening to harmony, but it's harmony of thought instead of sound:
"Sheesh, up at the lake, man, we had this thing."
"Sure. Like that time Happy and I took the ferry and we were looking down at this school of fish."
"The stars up there, y'know? I didn't even know what the Milky Way looked like."
"Big. Sure. Big like giants. I didn't want to move, to scare them. Never mind I was on a bloody big smelly noisy ferry. Ha!"
"Small. Right, y'know? Small like nothing mattered, and big like everything did."

There's a beauty to that kind of conversation. There's a magic I can't capture, but of which I wish I could be a part.

Once in a while, once in a rare while, I'll hear some true conversation: people saying what they mean and meaning something important. It frequently comes out in anger. I think it's so hard to say honest and important things sometimes that people need to get angry before they can have the courage to say them. Of course, a lot of things get said in anger just to lash out and hurt the person at whom the anger is directed. Those things are easy to recognize because they're usually followed by uncomfortable silences as the listener deals with hearing those words while the speaker can't believe they were actually stupid enough to say them. It's the ones that get said quietly, usually while the speaker is looking down, that carry the most meaning.
"I won't be strong enough to tell them without you there."
"I'm so scared I haven't been able to sh*t in two days."
"I don't want to go, but I have to."

When I hear part of one of those conversations, I try to listen to something else. They're too intense, too important for some stranger to hear. It's the sound of people being desperate and needy and honest and human, and I prefer to leave them to it.

On a good day, a very good day, some of these kinds of conversations find their way into my writing. Those days are beautiful because then I feel I've captured character with which a reader might really identify.

No comments: