I am the main character in my story. I rather like being one, since the title gives me good authority to claim that my narrative is the correct one. People come and go, either as side characters or as background actors their paths briefly crossing mine. I am their Stormtooper #10, and they are a blurry face in the noise to me.
As I meander through my life, this main character often likes to imagine what life is like through the eyes of random people she passes by on the street. In the closed reference frame of my eyes, my worries and my problems are everything… yet mean nothing to a vast majority of people. It’s calming in a way, seeing how the tornadoes in my life are spring breezes in the grand scheme of things.
This is a story about a design course I just finished called User Oriented Collaborative Design (UOCD), and how we learned to talk to strangers in the first week of said class.
UOCD wanted us to talk to people in our assigned “user group” to gather information about who we were designing for. My group was street musicians, and I was ecstatic when we were finally able to escape the college bubble and adventure in the streets of Boston to find our musicians.
Our first serious interaction with a stranger was with a man named Floyd at Downtown Crossing. After tracking down the source of the music, my teammate and I had sat for a bit next to the two guitar players. We observed the two without a word, but I was already falling back to my familiar exercise of imagining what life was like for the two strangers. For Floyd, since he had an iPhone 5, neatly arranged hair, and a generally happy-go-lucky demeanor, he was definitely a college grad playing in the subway for funsies on a Wednesday. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that the Floyd playing in the subway was the Floyd I was seeing in my head. After all, as a main character, the story of my life has a single narrative thread, and what I believe becomes what’s real.
In a normal situation, I would have never approached him and would have been perfectly happy to continue on my way with my made up Floyd. However, with the iron fist of UOCD deadlines looming over us, I awkwardly butted in to their jam session and asked if they would be free to talk. Floyd happily agrees, tags off with his partner, and sits down on the narrow bench. “Well, tell me about yourself! How can I help?”, he says, looking us straight in the eyes.
“Well, we’re, uh, college s-students doing a design course at our school.” I stammer, caught off guard by the confident way he met our gaze, and feeling really, really awkward and ill prepared.
“Oh, college huh? I wish I could go to college. I’m 39 and I’ve wasted my life.” Floyd pauses, looking wistful, “You guys are doing a design project? You want to interview me, but I’m not that interesting. I’m just an average Joe.”
Over the next hour, it becomes very obvious that Floyd is not an average Joe as he tells us about his life. He talks about his six siblings and his non-supportive mother. His voice glitters when he talks about discovering Pink Floyd as a 10 year old smoking weed in the backseat of his brother’s car.
“I think to myself, if it’s this amazing to hear music, it must be even more amazing to play it. And if it’s amazing to play it, it must be even more amazing to play for other people.”
Floyd glosses over the middle portion of his life, and we can see shame flit across his face as he tells us about his heroin addiction and his homelessness. But we can also see his determination as he nears the end of his story, as he proudly talks about his recent entry into a halfway house and his efforts on getting a job. Dimitar and I leave the conversation, having completely neglected our list of questions, but somehow feeling like better people.
I feel like I’ve bitten into a raisin cookie in disappointment, only to discover that it was a chocolate chip cookie all along.
I had expected that my version of Floyd might be a bit different than the real thing, but I hadn’t expected that I would be that off-base. I had always had a bit of a smug belief that I was good at reading people, and that the little versions of strangers I make in my head I would be pretty close to the real life counterparts I pass by on the street. However, after meeting Floyd, I’ve come to realize how narrow my understanding of people is. Like the frog claiming he knows the sky by the opening in his well, I’ve lived in a complacent belief that I could understand people on a first look. Of course my version of Floyd wouldn’t be close to the real thing, I had never experienced anything close to what Floyd had.
The coolest part about this revelation is that Floyd was literally a random person we decided to talk to in a random stop on the MBTA. I will be but a blip on the radar of Floyd’s life, and he on mine. I will never know his full story, but the part that he is willing to share stands in stark contrast to anything I can imagine.
The thought that every single person that I see has stories and moments like Floyd’s makes me realize that though I am the big important main character from this point of view, I am an atom in an ocean behind another pair of eyes. That’s a thought that quiets the soul.