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.


Hall Pass

Went to see “Hall Pass” last night with Paul.

The movie mostly sucked. There were a few laughs but the Farrelly Brothers were showing their age. Just seemed like a movie from 15 years ago.

Anyway, the movie didn’t start on time and the audience was getting restless. When it eventually did start 20 minutes late, and after 15 more minutes of previews, the movie turned out to be “No Strings Attached.” People in the crowd started getting up to leave. We checked our ticket stubs and we were definitely in the right theater. Pretty soon people were shouting and eventually they stopped the movie, came out, and explained there was a mistake. They would put the right movie on asap.

But a funny thing happened. After all the shouting to the projectionist, and before “Hall Pass” started, people started talking to each other. It was a cool phenomenon to witness if you’re tuned into these things like I am. Strangers were commenting on the fuck-up with each other.

I have found the hardest part of talking to strangers is finding that shared experience to comment on. If and when I do notice it, it is always a perfect in. It has taught me to be more observant and also a better listener. And it was cool to see it in action all around me.

Scott Has Flown the Coop

Scott moved out. He admits that he owes me for a new TV or at least fixing the screen on the one he broke but he said he has “absolutely no way to pay for it.”

He thinks it’s best if he finds a new place to live so he moved out yesterday.

The weird thing is I don’t know if Scott was ever truly a friend. It seems so juvenile, but I feel kind of used. I haven’t questioned a friend’s motivations since like 7th grade but now I’m left wondering how much I can really trust these people I meet randomly.

Who knows, maybe Scott will pay up and we’ll continue to be friends. But now I’m doubting my own judgment on these people.

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.”

Everything Happens for a Reason

I was all set to break the bad news to Marny. I picked her up after work Wednesday and took her to dinner at Birds in Los Feliz.

Couple of things about that. First of all, I always think of a date as including dinner, but Marny seemed especially surprised and psyched to be going out to eat. I think maybe she doesn’t eat out that much or that the guys she dates limit her to the Super Value Menu. Whatever the reason, she was very appreciative of my old-fashioned ways. Second, Birds is really far away. I hope my next girlfriend lives closer to me.

Anyway, like I said, I was going to break it off after dinner. I was going to say something about how we don’t have anything in common. How I don’t want to lead her on. But during dinner, she said something that made me actually start to like her.

I was talking about how weird it was that we met through a guy I met at the mall and she said, “Yeah, well, everything happens for a reason.”

If you haven’t been following from the beginning, this is exactly what my old girlfriend Amanda used to say and it always bugged the shit out of me. But just as I was about to launch into a tirade, Marny laughed and said, “God, I hate people who say that.” Then she went off on stupid “spiritual” people who believe in mystical forces like fate and destiny. She summed it up by saying, “I guess everything does happen for a reason, if you include random chance as a reason!”

And suddenly, I liked her.

I guess I should have given her a chance. Not everyone makes a great first impression. Sometimes it takes some searching to find something likable in a person. The old me cut her off too quickly. I made up my mind without getting all the evidence. But the new me likes people. And now I like Marny.

So there you have it. Marny and I are officially dating.

A Favor for Bao Guy

Apparently I owe Scott for hooking me up with Marny because he emailed me and asked if I could help him look over his lease. For some reason he thinks I’m a lawyer even though I told him I’m a banker.

(My business card clearly does not say “lawyer” anywhere on it.) Maybe I told him I was a paralegal in New York and he thinks that’s close enough.

His roommates had a big party last month and they broke the Direct TV dish on the roof. Don’t ask me how. But the landlord is trying to evict them even though Direct TV is willing to fix it for free. So now I have to look over his lease and send the landlord a letter or something so they don’t get evicted.

On the one hand, this is really annoying. The last thing I want to be doing is looking over a lease. If I wanted to be a lawyer I could have stayed in New York and gone to law school. On the other hand, I should be flattered that he thinks I’m the best person to handle this. And that we’re close enough friends to ask. After all, isn’t this what I was looking for when I started this whole thing?

My Plan for This Week

I’ve been feeling good about Sandwich Lady all day. So I’m going to try to compliment people again. I don’t anticipate these being long conversations. I need to say something nice and get out before they get suspicious and think I want something. A drive-by love-bomb, if you will. I’m shooting for ten compliments by week’s end.

The Talk to Strangers Project Begins…

What’s the opposite of a “people person”? A hermit? Misanthrope? Sociopath? I’m not a sociopath. I don’t torture cats or disfigure prostitutes. What I am is an average looking, 28-year-old guy, living in L.A., who just doesn’t like people.

Face it. Most people are boring. The average person you meet has a boring job, a boring family, and a boring imagination. If you asked them what’s the most interesting thing that ever happened to them, you’d get a boring story about winning eight grand on a scratch-off lottery ticket or meeting Shaquille O’Neal in the airport one time.

And it’s not just boring people I don’t want to associate with. I also despise stupid people. Like my last girlfriend Amanda who believes that “everything happens for a reason.” And needy, low-self-esteem, TMI’ers who tell you in the first ten seconds of meeting about their ADD, sex addiction, and irritable bowel syndrome (these types are inextricably drawn to reality TV).

But the list doesn’t end there. I also hate: people with shifty eyes, people who Tweet, early adopters, people who refer to professional sports teams as “us” or “we,” people who drive Priuses, people who misuse the reflexive pronoun “myself,” sweaty people, people who talk about golf, reality stars, cat people, people who wear sports jerseys with athletes’ names on them, people who play Farmville, audiophiles, people who don’t signal, people who memorize baseball statistics, car guys, people who started playing poker recently, people who wait until the last minute to merge lanes, people whose mouths are open at rest, people who post links on my Facebook wall, frequent flyers, people who get really mad when their team loses, people who write novels or screenplays at Starbucks, and outdoorsmen.

By now you are thinking, This guy is a dick. What makes him so great to dump on practically every type of person in existence? Fuck him and his holier than thou attitude. To that point I can only respond by saying, “You’re right.” I’m not so special. I’m not better than all these people. Well, maybe I’m better than a lot of them, but I’m sure there are a lot of things about me that people hate, too.

After all, I always correct people’s grammar. I can’t help it. I could see why people might find that annoying. I especially hate when someone makes a grammatical error in the very process of trying to sound more grammatical, like when someone says, “Please return the questionnaire to either Jimmy or I.” That really bugs the shit out of me.

Look, there’s a lot of other things wrong with me which I’m sure I’ll get to in time. My point is, I’m no great prize either. That’s why lately I feel like things have been getting worse for me. People grow up assuming that life is just going to keep on getting better and better. More fun, more friends, more sex, more freedom. But since college, I have a lot fewer friends. I haven’t had a girlfriend in nine months. And my job… well, I’m an associate at an i-bank, and I can’t imagine that this is my career. I mean, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life? Look at spreadsheets all day?

But even more than that, for the first time in my life, I feel disconnected. Isolated. Alone.

I want more friends. I was pretty popular in high school. I’ve had hot girlfriends before. I’m capable of forming close relationships and my friends would probably describe me as not-at-all psychotic. So why can’t I meet new people? Different kinds of people. Expose myself to some new things I never even thought about before, like, I don’t know, bowling or something. I want to have hobbies. I used to like all different sorts of things but now I just watch TV every night or play PS3.

In high school, I used to be surrounded by people all the time. Every class was filled with a different cross section of my school. But now, I live in my little apartment by myself, go to work in my air-tight car, sit in my cubicle, and basically not interact with any human beings.

So I’m sitting here, home alone on a Friday night feeling sorry for myself, when it occurred to me. Maybe I don’t really hate people. Maybe I just need to get to know them better. When you’re five and you meet someone on the playground, you just say, “Hi, I’m so-and-so. You want to be my friend?” Why can’t it be that simple as adults?

The only problem is it’s pretty tough in L.A. to meet people. When you’re out of school, there’s no natural way to make those connections. And I’m certainly not the type who gets girls’ phone numbers in bars or walks into a cocktail party and  introduces myself to strangers.

But maybe I could be. Maybe I could be a people person if I tried. And maybe if I became a people person, things would change for me. Maybe things would get better. Maybe I wouldn’t be so bored. And negative. And lonely.

So I decided. I’m going to go on a journey of self-exploration. I’m going to talk to strangers. Maybe not everyone, but a lot of them. People I run into in my daily life. I’m not going on a road trip here. I’m just talking about meeting the dry cleaner guy so we know each others’ names. I’m going to write about it to chronicle my ups and downs. I’m going to keep it anonymous for now, because I don’t know where this project is going to go and the last thing I need is to get fired because someone at work finds out something weird about me.

But what I can tell you is that for the first time in a long time, I’m feeling optimistic. Like this just might be the best idea I ever had.

So that’s my plan. I am going to start talking to strangers.

Wish me luck.