The appeal of chance encounters
Early one morning, shortly after we moved to Los Angeles, I was standing in a parking lot when a large man pedaled up to me on a bicycle and skidded to a halt. He was sunburned, covered in grime. The bike was sized for a ten-year-old boy; perhaps it had recently belonged to a ten-year-old boy. The man said in a low voice, “If I made a movie called Revenge City, would you go watch it?”
“If I made a movie, Revenge City, would you watch it?”
I didn’t know what to say. “Based on the title, probably.”
“That’s what I thought,” he said smugly, and pedaled away.
Strangers are fascinating. They’re the best part of my job. I used to find it nerve-wracking, talking to people I don’t know, asking them to tell me things about themselves, but now it’s routine. Different writers have different modes of interviewing. Truman Capote was said to talk so much, the other person felt indebted to share something. Joan Didion would be so quiet, so awkward, sometimes not asking a single question, her subjects felt pressured to fill the silence.
Sometimes I think of people as events, or not an event so much as a series of them, a geological time scale. The more questions asked—the better questions asked—the more bedrock is exposed. My father-in-law, a doctor, is a habitual inquirer. He tends to want somebody’s life story the first time they meet. It makes him a better physician in the hospital, I think, if a slightly forward guest at dinner.
My wife said recently that, during lockdown, she’d noticed herself missing the funny little interactions people have, the workplace dialogues, the throwaway conversations that previously made her groan. A few weeks ago she was in a doctor’s office. A woman in the lobby was talking to a security guard. They seemed familiar, but not acquaintances. “What’s your name again?” the woman said.
“Harrison,” the guard said. “Like Harrison Ford, the actor. Only I’m more handsome, and less rich.”
“Red Mustang, Hollywood, 2012” by Jonathan Castillo
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