The sounds of glasses clanking and pinging spring out despite the fully embodied beats of the classic 80s music. It’s a Frida night at at the Velo Fellow and it’s crowded. Young women sporting too-cool-to-care but too short to sit down in attire. They vie for attention from the already receding hairline and the too-old-to-be-wearing-Vans guys at the bar. It’s the kind of volatile scene for introverts who are secretly anxious yet voyeuristic. I scour the crowd for unfamiliar faces, and it’s starting to become difficult.
I love anonymity. I love people not caring about the fact that I am in the room. I like not having to deal with people’s expectations, that they put on me and that I did not ask for. I hate small talk, and I’m not a fan of pretense. I’m the person that makes extroverts nervous while not meaning to. They know I see them, and they know themselves enough to know that this is uncomfortable. I bring out a sort of manic quality in them that neither of us particularly enjoy.
I’m dodging corners of the room, making my way towards the newer corners like it’s a chess game. “If I advance here, I can come up from behind,” I say like a crazy person. I’m hoping for a moment of sincerity amid the circus show. True to the name of the bar, the gang of Velo riders (Old Timey bicycles) has shown up and added to the spectacle. Thirty-something-year-old hipsters with handlebar mustaches, tube socks, and suspenders like it’s a 1970’s grind house.
I notice a small gaggle of disconnected people laughing away from bar. Honing in on my target, I interject myself in my usual self-deprecating and mostly affable way. The girls of the group seem happy to have another join the party. The guy in the group-not so much. He immediately starts antagonizing my, “What have you seen in recent history” question as to change the mood. The girls look at one another and giggle at his pettiness. All I’m hoping for a real answer.
I pray to God it’s not another stupid Machu Picchu moment. I’ve interviewed about 100 people at this point over the last year and a half and I can’t tell you how many times that place has brought up. It’s become sort of a bad gag. People always seem to like to brag how’s they have been there, assuming it’s something you want to hear. Almost like they think no one else has ever been out of the country before, and they desperately need to be told about it.
One of the girls starts to open up, vibrant and so full of energy, dressed to the nines she can’t wait to tell her story. I emphatically pull out my pad and pen to get right down to business. “Well, last year I went to Machu Picchu,” she says with a big grin. I reflexively hang my head and blurt out an unconscious sigh. Realizing my rudeness, I bounce back up to save the moment. “I’ve always wanted to go there!” I lies seep through my teeth while I’m forcing the enthusiasm.
After a momentary pause, she gleefully tells her story. I pretend to take vigorous notes, which were definitely not irritated scribbles. The idiot guy rudely interrupts her to tell me about how he was once out with his friends one night, then some guy with a notepad walks up. I laugh and he looks twice irritated. All the girls laugh as well to diffuse the moment as he sits there absolutely not fuming with anger.
I gingerly explain how I understand the highly unusual nature of this project. That I never expect anyone to volunteer, and I am just happy if they do. They naturally ask me why I am doing this. I explain standing in Firestorm books in Asheville, having studied literature in college, and losing faith in the system. How my life has been upended recently, how I was feeling lost at the time, how maybe I’m just wanting some answers. I explain that you can’t trust yourself in the thick of it, because the head gets too clouded and noisy. That perhaps this is my way of getting out of myself.
Then one of the girls in the group, far more beautiful than the rest but way less interested in her appeal, looks me straight in the eyes as if looking down into my soul. “I think you’re on a spiritual journey,” she says without a hint of cavalier or ironic accusation. This hits me. And it hits me hard. As if everything else in the room drowned out and got quiet. It felt like we were the only two people in the room. I immediately thank everyone at the table for their willingness to participate, even the idiot guy, and get up and excuse myself.
Everyone at the table slightly taken aback by the abrupt departure. I expertly weave through the crowded room like I did many times at the subway stations of Japan. After a fast exit, I pull out my pipe to sit down at one of the outside tables and light up. Familiar faces outside spot me and wave, politely nodding I get back up and walk to the car. I drive around for hours. Drive just to be alone.
When I originally started writing this book I just recorded responses. I wanted it to be pure in that sense. Just blind objective documentation of a random sample of people. But after seeing this girl on this particular night, who saw me in the way that I have seen so many others, I realized that I was taking. I was using people.
It’s worth noting that what was unique about this girl was not her beauty. I have met many beautiful girls, gone on dates, and flirted with many of them. All the while never truly being vulnerable. I was not open to any sort of meaningful relationship. I was cold and detached by choice. And when I met this girl, I was still very much closed off to the idea.. It wasn’t infatuation, what I saw when I looked at her was a mirror of my past self. A sincerity to want to know the genuine truth. It made me realize that this little project had become a game.
It also made me realize it was a lie to pretend as though I could be objective. Everyone approaches everything through the lens of their experience. It seemed to me, at this point, the only honest thing to do was to give back a piece of myself. To be vulnerable and tell my story, just as all these generous strangers have done for me. There is no love without vulnerability. To be invulnerable is to be preserved in stone. I am reminded of the cross. How the greatest love demands the greatest vulnerability.
They have all been my teachers. I don’t even know their names, but their stories remain with me. They are a part of me now. Even though we most likely may not ever speak again, and even if never know it, they’ve reached down into my life and shown me what courage is. By the simple act of choosing to trust a me, a stranger. There is a humility in what they given me that I am indebted to.
They’ve shown me that we are far more alike than we are different. With all of our diverse joys and grief, differing experiences and inclinations; we all universally cry out to be heard. We need to know that we are not alone in this world. It is as though we are all hoping, waiting for a still small voice to whisper back to us the meaning of all of it. The one that will justify all that we have suffered. Some sort of unexpected undeserved grace. It’s compelled me to write this book. To pay back the debt that is owed to all you beautiful people. For me, I’m realizing that this means laying down of my life for the many. Something my greatest Teacher has taught me, along with the help of all of you. Thank you for showing me the way.