I had been listening to an audio book called New Stories of the South, a 2005 anthology. I was three stories into the recording when I heard Clairvoyant by Ada Long, a tale that grabbed me by the lapels, pulled me close, and refused to let go. I could smell the carnival food, see the dim light of the main character’s trailer, and I was mesmerized by the central figure of the tale, the self-proclaimed “smallest man in the world.” His commentary focused on the people who paid fifty cents to see him – and realized only when they were inside that he could see them right back. He was thoughtful and weary and full of great sentences and great ideas. I hadn’t made it past that story because I kept starting it over, falling back under its spell.
It was so good that I wasn’t satisfied with the audio version, mere bits of digital information suspended in the ether. I’ve seen too many computers crash, so I wanted something concrete. I went to Powell’s Books on my lunch break and found a paperback version of this out-of-print book for just $2.95. It felt like such a coup that I rushed it to the register before an employee recognized how undervalued it was. I can’t recall the last time I was so excited about a story, and I was brimming with excitement as I boarded the crowded lunch-hour streetcar.
I found a handhold on the stanchion and immediately noticed the couple to my right: She was in her 50s, disheveled but vivacious, doing her best to navigate unfortunate circumstances; her companion was about the same age, notably malodorous and less-tightly tethered to reality, and at a glance, it seemed likely he was one of her unfortunate circumstances.
As the train lurched and halted at the various tops, the woman addressed various people individually with a big smile and warm greeting, no apparent goal except to be friendly in tight quarters. These are the type of people a few of my friends imagine when they justify not riding public transit: rubbing elbows with “the great unwashed” (one friend’s quotation,) sudden conversations with people who put the strange in “stranger,” trapped in a box with someone eager to volunteer their opinions without prompting.
I understand that attitude, but I take the inverse view of these encounters: whatever the conversation, I know I’m only a few stops from a graceful exit, and I’ve often enjoyed these brief, unexpected discussions. Worst case scenario, I get off at a stop that isn’t mine and wait for the next train/bus.
I was listening to this woman’s brief interactions, simple small talk that was met with courtesy and cheer from each rider she engaged. She had no apparent agenda, and issued no financial requests. She was just chatting. Eventually, she got to me.
If anyone on that crowded train was thinking, “Let’s see how this button-downed-shirt guy deals with these homeless people,” they might have been surprised by the outcome. The woman opened the conversation with a simple question, perhaps the worst question she could have asked that day if she didn’t actually want to talk to me: “What are you reading?”
I told her. I was so elated by this book in my hand that I replied with a burst of enthusiasm, jabbering my adoration for the story like a preacher who suddenly saw an opportunity to convert a sinner with the power of the book in his hand. I told her about the main character and how he described his visitors, carefully setting them up as would-be villains only to shine a sudden light that made them flawed and human and worthy of both respect and sympathy. I was glad to share the story, but I suspect I may have come across like an evangelist because two minutes into my urgent description, she gave her partner an amused and awkward look that clearly meant, “Whoa, you never know what kind of nut jobs you’re going to encounter on the train, huh?”
She could have escaped the conversation there, but she dared me to say more by asking how I liked the rest of the book. I explained that I hadn’t heard much of it, how I had it on audio, kept it on “repeat”, how I was ecstatic to have found it at Powell’s, how I wanted to photocopy the story and send it to a friend, how it seemed somehow more permanent to have it in print, how I didn’t feel safe just having it in digital form, how . . . and she gave her partner that look again, and he smiled, and she gave the look to another passenger who seemed equally curious how – or even if – my sermon would end. I recognized the expressions, but I didn’t care, because it’s a great story, in a great collection, and I suddenly realized how those street preachers in Pioneer Square might feel when they talk about the bible: the book moved them, deeply, and they wanted to share it.
“The whole book is about that little man?” her partner asked. I told him it was an anthology of Southern stories, so every story was different. “So it’s like those Lifesaver packs, with all the different flavors?” Frankly, it’s a spot-on analogy for a regional anthology – all similar in some ways, but all different, and inevitably, we have our favorites. With Lifesavers, I hoard the oranges and give away the greens, and Ada Long had written an orange.
That’s probably an apt metaphor for the streetcar, too, except there are a whole lot more flavors on the train than you’ll find in a Lifesavers pack. Some of them might look similar in many ways, but you never know for sure until you actually experience them.
Especially with those button-down-shirt types.