Thursday, September 3, 2009

We Walk the Same Streets

Roosevelt Room, 2008

Much of my work is done in rooms like this. Empty vessels, the more neutral looking the better, where I convene groups of people to talk about things. Sometimes innocuous things like hot dogs. Other times serious things, like when life ends. Sometimes the people are selected at random. Other times they’re personally involved in an issue or agitated enough about it to be hostile.

In rooms like this I’ve been successful at getting people with social phobias to talk to one another. During discussions with teenagers about treatment protocols for bipolar disorder I’ve observed some cycle between depression and mania several times in an hour’s time. I’ve had people tell me all about their drug problems when all I wanted to know about was how often they eat chicken.

It’s like having a thousand first days of school. I welcome a group of strangers into a room and make them comfortable enough to tell me about their lives.

Most people who do this kind of work have an informal photo gallery in the back of their mind that showcases some of the more colorful group participants they’ve encountered.

In my case, there was Karl “with a K” from New Orleans, who always introduced himself as “Karl, Karl with a K.”

There was the large, overall-clad man in Minneapolis, whose demeanor and humor was so repugnant to other group members that they physically distanced themselves from him at the table.

There was the “tin man,” an Atlanta aluminum siding salesman who looks like a human version of Foghorn Leghorn. He was a big blustery guy, like John Goodman as Big Dan T in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? He wore a three-piece, baby blue seersucker suit that was a few sizes too small. His red hair stood tall like a rooster's cockscomb. His manner of speech and logic were cartoonish, and blissfully insensitive. In the space of a two-hour conversation about income tax he managed to insult every other member of the group—blacks, whites, Jews, gentiles and women. But he did it in such an innocent and pitiable way that the other group members couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.

Sometimes you encounter people in groups like these whose names you have difficulty pronouncing. Not long ago I moderated a group made up of people with particularly challenging Asian and African names. They were very kind and patient as I learned how to say their names. As I blundered my way around the table, I took confidence in knowing that at least I’d have no problem pronouncing the name of “Chloe,” the young lady who was last in line.

But instead, when I got around to welcoming Chloe, and even made a joke about how I’d get at least this one name straight, Chloe looked back at me with a peeved look and informed me:

“It’s pronounced ‘Cha-low.’ It’s French.”

Okay. Whatever.


  1. People around me are looking at me as I'm laughing. Out loud.

    Best quote I've heard all week:
    I’ve had people tell me all about their drug problems when all I wanted to know about was how often they eat chicken.

  2. Cracked me up. Guess that'll teach you. :)

  3. Your work sounds fascinating Chris. The infinite variety of people you get to meet. I'd love to be a fly on the wall in your meetings. Maybe I could disguise myself as a hostess trolley or a photocopier or something and sit in. Best to be photocopier, I think. In case i get hungry adn my tummy rumbles. Photocopiers are known rumblers. Nobody would suspect a thing.
    You think I'm joking, don't you? I'm not. I'd love to sit on on meetings like these.