The Talk to Strangers Project, One Year Later

I started this project exactly one year ago. To say it’s changed my life would be as obvious as the preceding sentence, given the title of the post. On a quantitative level:

  • I have talked to maybe 200-300 strangers;
  • I have had three girlfriends (Chloe, Jennifer, and Marny);
  • I have gone on dates with at least three other women;
  • I have gone to several parties (more than five, less than ten);
  • I have been beaten up one time;
  • I have been rejected by dozens of people who didn’t want to talk to me (and not all of them were waitresses);
  • I have one dog.

On a qualitative level, I am more observant. I’m a better listener. I am more empathetic. I am far more confident. I am not afraid of talking to people in authority, people at parties, and people just standing there minding their own business. Maybe in the back of my head, the idea that it’s all part of “The Project” gives me the courage to break the societal taboos and initiate first contact. Whatever the reason, I am better able to shrug off missteps and focus on the connections.

I never knew how hard it would be to make friends after college. That being around so many people in a large city like Los Angeles could be so lonely. It makes me sad when I think about all the other people out there feeling the same way that I was, but doing nothing about it. Just sitting in their apartments, hoping someone is going to knock on their door to borrow some sugar. That only happens in 1950’s sitcoms. No one really knocks on anyone’s door. You have to knock on theirs.

Having a “family” of friends is so important. I mean, it’s not like I go cry on Gunther’s couch while we do each other’s nails. But just having someone who knows me makes me feel like I’m part of the world, not watching it from the outside.

Do I wish I had more friends? Sure. Do I wish they were as close as say my friends growing up? Of course. People in the 20’s and 30’s have shit going on and you can’t spend an hour every day in study hall going over the day’s events.

Relationships-wise, I can’t tell you how much it means to be dating again. For a while, my self-esteem was so low, I was starting to question how I had ever had a girlfriend in the past. It’s just hard meeting people. And like I said, inertia is your enemy. I could easily imagine ten years slipping by and being even more lonely and bitter.

It’s not like I’ve made a love connection. I mean, things are going well with Chloe, but she’s such a sweet girl, I wonder sometimes if there’s ever going to be something more… explosive about our relationship. Maybe it’s my pining away for Michelle that makes me unable to see Chloe as a keeper. She’s certainly a lot better than Marny and Jennifer. But even those limited relationships were invaluable in building up my self-esteem and making me feel like a legitimate contender for love.

Besides the connections I’ve made–personal, casual, romantic–I think the most important thing that’s happened over the last year is that I like who I’ve become. I knew this me was in there somewhere and I like that it’s taken over. I’m funnier now. I’m not afraid of saying the wrong thing because I don’t over-value people. I’m not saying I don’t value people, I just value them accurately. I feel like I used to be on eggshells all the time hoping I didn’t annoy or piss off a friend or a girlfriend and lose them forever. Ironically, I’m more likely to speak my mind to people now and I think they like me better for it.

Anyway, it’s not like I’ve achieved some sort of goal. There’s still a lot of work to go. But I am starting to think of my life in interview terms: where do I see myself in five years? In ten? Before, I was in survival mode: How do I cure my debilitating loneliness and get some goddamn people in my life? Now, I feel like I’m out of the woods and I can start to think about where I want to go.

Thanks to all the people who I’ve met over the last year. And thank you to all the wonderful people who’ve written to me, telling me their stories. I feel like I’ve met you, too.

Stay tuned, there’s still a lot of strangers left to talk to.

 

Salad Guy

Went to a new place where you make your own salads. Well, they make it for you, you just tell them what to put in it.

Not sure the idea makes sense as a business model, but there you have it.

The set-up did give me ample opportunity to talk to the salad-maker. He told me you get to choose four ingredients (on top of your lettuce), so I chose tomatoes, carrots, and cucumbers. Then I asked, “What’s the least popular item that people ask for?”

(This, by the way, is one of my favorite questions to ask in restaurants. What is the least-often-ordered item on the menu? Sometimes I ask my dining companion–Marny always hated this question, she always responded irately, “Why do you care?!”–and then we see who’s right by asking the waiter. At Jerry’s Deli, it’s the Romanian Skirt Steak. Since that was the first place I thought up the question, those who know me well will often refer to this as the “Romanian Skirt Steak” question.)

Anyway, the guy said, “Probably celery.” I said, “Not beets. Or baby corns?” He said, “No, people love beets.” The least popular ingredient is not always the strangest, I guess. Sometimes it’s just the most boring.

So I picked kidney beans as my fourth ingredient, and looked at the guy gleefully before saying, “Weren’t expecting that, were you?”

He said, “No, I was totally heading towards the onions. Good call.”

(That book 4-Hour Body says you should eat beans in every meal.)

I added chicken and bacon to make it delicious and we settled on a dressing. Overall, the salad was about as good as a salad bar. I don’t know, there’s just something about seeing it made that makes it not taste as good as a pre-thought-out salad. I mean, I love salads at like the Cheesecake Factory and CPK, but I would never go to the salad bar at Ralphs.

All Good Things…

Marny dumped me.

She said, “I love you” again and when I didn’t respond, she went off on me.

I had to be honest with her. I said, “I really like you, and we have fun together, but I just don’t see our relationship going in that direction.”

She called me an asshole. She said she only agreed to date me in the first place because she thought I was a nice guy. She said she usually dates guys much hotter than me. She said I was bad in bed.

I suppose these insults should have hurt but I didn’t really care and had basically no reaction. Somehow, that made her even more mad. Like she was so insignificant to me that nothing she said could get any rise out of me. Marny is actually pretty perceptive sometimes.

She left and Scott came in, having heard the whole thing. He asked, “Are you all right?”

I said, “Whew. I’m glad that’s over.”

He smiled and said, “Let’s go grab a beer.”

Part-C

The party on Saturday was a blast. Even on late notice, a lot of people showed up. It was a Halloween/costume party/housewarming for Scott and he invited so many people that it was impossible to get from one side of my apartment to the other. I haven’t had a party like that since college.

I was dressed as David, the sculpture. (Don’t worry, I had a gray marble-colored body suit on.) Marny was an Orion slave girl so we kind of matched in a weird way, which was totally a coincidence since I forgot to coordinate with her. Anyway, Scott dressed as a Centaur, but the best costume was Gunther’s Tom Bosley.

Anyway, like I said, it was packed. Lots of women in sexy outfits. I was hanging out with Marny for a while but then she said she had promised to stop by another friend’s party. I couldn’t leave my own party so she took off at around 10:00 and said she would come back later and stay the night.

At 10:01 (it seems) Michelle showed up with Adam. They were dressed as Mr. and Mrs. Brady and it was kind of cute, I guess. I had been drinking (duh) and went right up to introduce myself. Adam is some kind of famous surgeon but all I could think was that he was way too old for her. I talked to both of them for a while until Adam went off to get them drinks.

I talked to Michelle for a long time. But I didn’t make my stupid move there. No, I waited until much later. I was dancing with Monica (platonically) and I kept looking over at Adam touching Michelle. I mean, not like groping her, just you know, putting his hand on her back and stuff. For some reason I was getting really jealous. I know I had no right to be but the alcohol was making me crazy.

At about 1:00 am the party had thinned out and Michelle said she and Adam were leaving. He had rounds or something in the morning. I said, “Can I talk to you in private?”

She went into my bedroom with me and I just blurted out, “I think I’m in love with you.”

I don’t know why I thought this was going to go over well, like she was going to say, “Oh, my, God, I feel the same way.”

Instead, she turned white and said, “I have to leave.”

I said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to freak you out. Wait.”

She stopped and I took her hand. Then I just kissed her.

I know. It was totally stupid. All the signs were pointing toward “Don’t do this.” But I did anyway.

She pulled away. I looked up. There was Adam. He said, “What’s going on here?” and then he just punched me. Hard. In the stomach.

I didn’t throw up but I wanted to. Michelle took off.

And then Marny came back.

I don’t know how I could have fucked this up any worse than I did. I am totally screwed.

Part-A

We are having a party this Saturday night. Officially, it’s to welcome Scott to the neighborhood but unofficially it’s to invite Michelle.

Plus, I have met a lot of people in the past few months and I thought it would be fun to invite every stranger I’ve met. Well, the ones where I got their name and contact info.

Gunther is a given. I’m going to invite Monica as well because I think she’s cool and I don’t care if Gunther gets pissed off. Who knows, maybe the party will make them realize they should get back together.

I’m going to track down Polly, the girl with the three-legged dog. Plus Mario, I’ll text him. I will leave a note today for Hung (wonder what he looks like).

At work, I need to invite Kyle even though he’s a dick. If I don’t invite him and he finds out about it I’ll get a lot of shit. Neil obviously. Also have to remember to invite Janet, the receptionist. And Daphne. And Maria, the cleaning lady? She’s a bit out of the age range for this party, but it’d be nice to drop an invite anyway.

There’s a few others that might be weird to invite like Hector the newspaper guy and Ramon the dry cleaner but if I see them I’ll mention it.

Of course, Scott is inviting people, too, otherwise this party might be pretty pathetic. Maybe his director friend will bring a new girl for me to date after I break up with Marny and before I marry Michelle.

Speaking of Marny and Michelle, assuming Michelle comes, I wonder if Marny will sense that something is up. On the other hand, Michelle will probably bring her boyfriend Kal-El, so maybe I won’t even have a chance to talk to her.

Anyone else out there in L.A. who feels like dropping by a little shindig in Brentwood, drop me an email.

My Story So Far…

Closed on the big deal at work so now I have some time to update the blog. This is where things stand after about three months of the Project:

1. Scott has turned out to be a really cool roommate. He’s like a college roommate, only we’re not in college. It’s nice having someone there when I come home and a default person to do something with on the weekends. Scott met Gunther the other day and now Gunther has Scott convinced that he can make money on eBay like Gunther does, so Scott is thinking about quitting his job at Take a Bao and just trading shit on eBay between auditions. I guess it could work but Gunther seems a lot smarter than Scott.

2. Marny has become increasingly cold to me. First off, she didn’t like the fact that I’ve been working long hours the last two weeks. I think she thinks I’m cheating on her. I wish. Like I have time to sleep around, even if I knew any other women who wanted to sleep with me. Scott thinks Marny is being passive aggressive and what she’s really mad about is that I never reciprocated about the “I love you.” I told him she only said it once and that there’s no way she could be making such a big deal out of that little moment.

3. I haven’t seen Elevator Girl since our lunch but I have emailed her a few times to complain about being at work at three in the morning. We have a good casual friendship going and she’s even opened up to me about her boyfriend, Adam, who’s a heart surgeon. Great, like I can compete with that! Still, I’m going to try to have lunch with her again this week so we’ll see how it goes.

4. Monica and Gunther broke up. I couldn’t believe it when Scott told me. I thought they had what it takes to go the distance. Kind of undermines my faith in relationships. But Scott says that Gunther said “they still love each other, they’re just not in love anymore.” Sounds like there’s something else going on there. I wonder if I can still be friends with Monica.

5. I met three new strangers, even while I was working those insane hours. First, there’s the cleaning lady in our office, Maria. The cleaning crew only comes in at night so I’ve never met them before, but Maria is really nice and she’s got a son in Afghanistan, and two other sons in high school.

Palak is our contact for the bank in India. He’s working on the deal with me so technically not a stranger, but I’m counting him anyway. Palak likes vintage Heavy Metal and thinks nothing’s gone right since Ozzy left Sabbath.

Finally, I met a blind girl named Daphne. She’s a new intern at work. I have a million questions about how she goes through life, but I’m afraid to ask them because I don’t want to seem insensitive. Plus, she’s probably explained things so many times, I don’t want to make her repeat her life’s story. P.S. Daphne is gorgeous and even though she’s blind, she knows it. A lot of men must have told her over the years.

Honeymoon Period

The reason I haven’t updated this week is because I’ve been too busy going out with Scott.

The move was not as bad as I thought. Scott doesn’t have that much shit which is nice and he put a lot in storage. I was worried we’d be at each other’s throats immediately, fighting over using up all the milk and leaving pubes in the shower, but I have to admit, Scott has gone out of his way to be cool.

In fact, we’ve gone out every night this week. Sometimes with Marny, sometimes just with some of Scott’s actor friends. All these guys do is drink, talk about auditions, and hook up with hot actresses. Aside from the narcissism, it’s kind of a cool life. Maybe it’s because a lot of Scott’s friends never went to college, but it sure seems like they’re in a 24-hour party mode all the time.

So last night, we went to shoot pool in this place called Q’s. This one friend of Scott’s, Charlie, has been in a ton of commercials. He’s a good looking dude and he just flirts with every girl he sees. It gets a little embarrassing at times but the surprising thing is how often it works. At one point he started talking to the waitress who was bringing us drinks. She was a edgy looking hot girl with super short (but still sexy) hair. Anyway, long story short, he hooked up with her in the ladies’ room. I know it’s kind of disgusting, and it’s not like I was the one doing it, but there was something cool about hanging out with a bunch of degenerates. Something liberating.

Garage Guy

I was leaving the parking structure in Santa Monica on Saturday night after seeing a movie with Marny.

(We saw The Town. I thought it was stupid and obvious, Marny liked it). It was late and there were no cars behind me so I started talking to the garage attendant in the booth.

“Hey, seen any good movies lately?”

Hey looked at me like, “Who, me?”

I continued, “We just saw The Town. It was okay. But I’m really excited for that Due Date movie. That looks funny.”

He bit. “Yeah, movies mostly suck these days. I don’t know the last time I went to the movies.”

“But you work right here. Did you see Inception?”

“Yeah, that shit was cool.”

I confessed, “I didn’t understand what the hell was going on, but it looked cool.”

Marny put her hand on my arm and whispered, “What are you doing?” That brought me back to reality where people don’t talk to the garage guy.

I wrapped things up. “Next time I go to the movies, you should come with us.”

He laughed and said he would if I bought the popcorn. I didn’t get his name or his info or anything so it was just one of those things you say. But if I see that guy again, I will follow up and really invite him to go to the movies.

P.S. Now Marny thinks I’m a little odd.

Elevator Girl

I finally emailed Michelle and asked her to lunch. I figured it would seem more casual to do it as a spur of the moment thing. So fifteen minutes after asking her, we were at the Houston’s in the mall having lunch.

I know this is going to seem like a shitty thing to say after my last post about my girlfriend telling me she loves me but I have decided that I love Michelle. I don’t know how I know, I just know.

It’s not that she’s mesmerized me with her beauty. I mean, she is beautiful. She has long, curly brown hair and an amazing smile. But it’s more than that. She’s so easy to talk to. I’m funny around her. I find myself liking myself when I’m with her (well, at least in my eighty minutes of interaction so far). It’s just a natural connection.

It’s exactly what I was talking about with Marny. With Marny everything is awkward. She doesn’t get my jokes. She doesn’t get me. With Michelle, we’re just on the same page without even trying.

Of course, there’s one problem. Well, two actually. Michelle was quick to mention her boyfriend.

“Hey, I love your suit. My boyfriend has almost the same exact one.”

I laughed. “Wow, only ten seconds into lunch and you already let the boyfriend bomb drop.”

She laughed.

I don’t care if this sounds incredibly lame but I’m going to marry her one day.

Olive Juice

Last night Marny told me she loved me. I was pretty freaked out.

I feel like I started this whole Project to improve my life, pop the bubble of isolation, make friends, and connect with the world. And in two short months I’ve made huge strides. I’ve got a guy in my apartment complex I hang out with. Taken steps to meet Elevator Girl. Hell, I’ve got a roommate coming in a few days!

But when I look back on that post where I talked about wanting a girlfriend, I feel like I was looking for something else. I like Marny. Don’t get me wrong. But we just don’t connect on some deeper level. It’s weird when you’re in a relationship and you think the other person is feeling the same thing you’re feeling only to find out that their experience has been completely different.

She loves me? Seriously? I thought she was joking when she said it. (Don’t worry, I didn’t laugh or anything.) How could she have those feelings for me when mine for her are so pedestrian?

Then it occurred to me that just as people have subjective interpretations of the relationship, maybe people just have subjective definitions of love. Maybe what I consider love is a totally foreign concept to Marny, a fantasy of lame romantic comedies and Renaissance poetry. Maybe her life experience has just made her more practical and she settles for what’s in the realm of possibility.

Or maybe Marny is just needy and was hoping I’d say “I love you, too.”