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Failed Non-Celebrity Encounters: or, Strangers

Second-string fratboy-looking guy in green shirt: Poodle?!

Me: Standard.

Fratguy: Of all the dogs in the world you could have chosen, you chose a poodle?

(beat)

(beat)

(beat)

Me: I didn’t choose him. (My brain is cross-referencing for humorous responses. I am achingly slow on the return.) It’s housesitting. (It’s housesitting! All riiiight! That ostensibly has nothing whatsoever to do with poodles or dogs in general. It’s awkward and slow and not funny.)

(Fratguy pets the dog, who promptly mashes his thick stupid furry skull into one of the guy’s angry-looking friends, ending the conversation.)

* * *

I have been thinking a lot lately about strangers. Really it’s been a theme for a few months, since I wrote the piece about http://gus.protest.net/MT2archive/000471.html pointless chivalry in elevators in May. My aunt Martha wrote an incredible, impassioned response to that piece, privately, which I would love to post pieces of here, but I didn’t know how she’d take it. Mainly her point was that I shouldn’t wish the days when men will no longer notice me sexually down on my head, as they’ll come sooner than I could possibly wish, but it was a more peripheral point she made in closing which is relevant here. I’ll quote, in this case – this point seemed more philosophical than intimate:

“We, all human beings, must ask ourselves, which strangers do we want to
acknowledge? And why? To be friendly? To reproach? To learn? To teach?
To prove? How many strangers do we have time for? How much energy do we
want to expend? Are strangers our life focus? Why? If they are,
is the street or an elevator a good platform? What’s a better platform?”

(This is the kind of thing that makes me proud of my family. Martha is awesome. Her writing actually sounds a lot like my dad’s, which makes me wonder whether she’s as self-deprecating about hers as he is… I never understood that, my dad writes from the heart and certainly has had enough training to be technically flawless. He’s more emotionally open in his writing than social mores allow men of his generation to be in person, too; and I find myself wondering if this has something to do with the legendarily regular (small-scale legendary, more on scale later) correspondence between him and his father during college.)

Anyway, Martha’s conclusion seemed to be that my writing was a better platform to confront strangers than in person.

I have to keep this short, as I have to be up for another grueling day of comma replacement tomorrow, but I figured I’d start with a few thoughts, throw the floor open to comments, and respond and revise over the next few days (new format for the blog! more participatory! yay!)

What is a stranger, really? In New York I feel like the definition is unusual. There is no opportunity to really avoid other people, so your relationship to them is very different from the one I grew up with in Pasadena – as Elaine http://www.epersonae.com/blogger/2003_07_01_archive.php#105778589877446172 remembered, school affiliation was very important, and in some of my circles people from other schools were uninteresting if not untouchable (that link to epersonae also connects to other thoughts on similar topics of strangerhood or social circles); everything was insanely segregated, to boot; cars are great for isolating commuters and community members alike, etc. Here in New York people say hi. I had to get used to the toothless guy selling the Daily News by the 52nd Street 7 stop; I took a while to be convinced that he really was the neighborhood’s official greeter, not just another guy looking to sell me something. Likewise the neighbors in Sunnyside and the other tenants here on the Upper West. And of course you help the woman with the stroller on the subway.

Now let’s take this in terms of time, not space: Our generation is bound to have a very different concept of strangerhood than past ones. Increasing availability of college educations to the general American populace has to have gone a long way towards connecting people to those outside their communities over the years; I recall being surprised by minimal degrees of separation while tracing the connections of my new Hampshire classmates through high schools and summer camps and other colleges my first year.

And of course the Internet tightens those degrees even more. Teenagers, especially those unsatisfied with their local communities, often seem almost dangerously willing to make alliances with people they’ve never met in AOL chat rooms and over forums (I had one glom onto me recently through the http://gus.protest.net/MT2archive/000131.html Crip Walk website – poured her heart right out to me about the petty backstabbing at her school and her gangster boyfriend. Then again, I have sort of always had this effect on kids… used to have the same thing happen to me in hotel lobbies and on buses.)

And Friendster calls all sorts of definitions about friends and strangers into question. In the past week I have had cause to look up two apparent strangers on the site. One was three degrees of separation away from me through Jessamyn. Granted, three degrees of separation is really a brick wall, when you think about it, but it’s not inconceivable that you’d meet that person at some point.

The other Friendster was three degrees or less from me through five different people from diverse parts of my life. And he’s been reading the DSWJ for a while now because he also lives in Sunnyside and found me on the http://www.nycbloggers.com/ NYC Bloggers map, so even if he has been a stranger to me, I have not been a total stranger to him.

That raises questions of performance. Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Performance is the other thing I’ve been thinking a lot about, since the http://gus.protest.net/MT2archive/000527.html#000527 Kissinger pinata experiment especially. I’ve been thinking that I sort of outed Murder Boy, seeing as I pinned that name on one of the people at the party, and ostensibly anyone who was there could have put two and two together and figured out it was him. What he may not have been aware of, though, was that most of the people at that party don’t read my site regularly. At least, I think they don’t. (Are you out there? Holla.)

Drat, I’m losing my train of thought to sleepiness… So the point is that to the people who were not there, the event did not… there was only the text… I… ok, I’m too tired. More on this tomorrow. or maybe the next day.

No, one more thought. Megnut and Ev and Kottke, people treated them like celebrities. They followed their sites and their lives avidly. I don’t think anyone’s doing that with my site, but I think those patterns of readership change the definition of celebrity. Formerly, a celebrity was the person who was a stranger to you, but an important stranger – someone whose life means something in the context of your own. In a cypher-y kind of a way. I think about legends a lot, and how nowadays I think people tell stories about celebrities the way they used to about legendary figures (J-Lo’s rise to stardom from the Bronx rather than Jesus’s birth in a manger. whoo, there’s a comparison.) Now I think celebrity is shrinking to a smaller scale. People are reading their friends’ websites, and the websites of other people near them. This moves the center of action closer to people’s own lives. I mean, the meaning of the narrative becomes centered on their own lives. I’m losing vocabulary here. it’s late.

I know reading my site seems to change my relationship with people who read it slightly. It brings people who have not been close to me for a while closer. It makes me periodically stop and say “Did you read…?”, which I always presume the answer to is No – I don’t expect anyone to read this site, and it consistently amazes me that people do go read this site rather than all the other thoughtful well-written blogs out there. Or, heh. Or go hunting for the fascinating primary source material and peculiar fusions out there, let’s say. But that’s a digression.

It also lets me live in text, which is maybe not altogether healthy. I do also find myself trying out blog material in conversations, which is close to what Neil was saying about performance, and I am getting uncomfortable with that effect. It also gets me writing in a particular way, and it lets me be lazy. Even if I set out to write about some big ideas, like I have here, there is none of the rigor there is when working with an editor and a publication. I think this is bad for me, and especially with grad school pending I think I may give the site up in favor of something that’s more pix-and-linx-oriented. (Or who knows, I may just end up with renewed purpose.)

sleepy.

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