Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Stranger Things That Happen

Despite my most diligent efforts to the contrary, when traveling alone I appear friendly, gentle, kind-hearted, and eager to converse and perhaps make long-term plans with whoever targets me for small talk. This could be because I look like an unaccompanied minor. It could be because I carry a Petal Pink Vera Bradley duffel bag, which, outside of the Southeast, must scream, "Hey! I'm sociable! Let's chat!" Maybe it's a combination of the two, which perhaps gives strangers the impression I'm running away from home.

According to what I'm sure is sound scientific research, if a man approaches a woman and asks her for directions, she is more likely to talk to him. Oh, the pretense! I felt like a saint recently when a confused gentleman asked me if I knew when the next train was due at the NJ Transit New Brunswick station. "8:15!" I replied charitably, and assured him he was indeed on the New York-bound platform. Then, sensing the impending Talk With A Stranger, I turned away and commenced all the faux phone-checking, ticket-shuffling, eyebrow-furrowing avoidance tactics. But, queen of misleading signals that I apparently am, he took my behavior as an invitation to sit next to me and chat.

After a brief version of this conversation, and with no prompting on my part, he told me his entire educational background which involved lots of engineering, computer science, several countries, and an oil rig. And now he is the Venezuelan ambassador to the US. And also a banker. In the banking-oil company. Well, maybe, maybe not, I thought. One thing I ascertained for damn sure was that he did NOT need my helpful directions; he takes the same train every week night! As I attempted to move towards the approaching train, he managed to work in his theory of how "time... it isn't actually REAL!"

I thought, here is where I'm supposed to connect with an interesting stranger whose experiences and points of view are worlds different from my own. I could hear every acting teacher ever harping in my head about the vitality of people-watching, urging me to observe this man's dialect and mannerisms to reprise in a character some day. I'm sure I stood to learn a life lesson at the very least. But I did not wish to. At all. Is it wrong to desire a peaceful train ride? Perhaps my complete disinterest in his life story and bullshit theory was standoffish, but his assumption that I wanted to hear it all in the first place was presumptuous. I don't need to hear crazy from passing strangers; that's what talking to my relatives is for. For true stories of demons, recovered homosexuals, the socialist state of China and the like, I need only have lunch with my grandparents.

I always prefer eavesdropping on strangers instead of interacting with them. Which is exactly what I was doing at the Philadelphia airport when an Auntie Anne's employee approached me, having just finished his shift, and asked where I worked. I answered:

ME- I'm a student. (Defaulted to above-mentioned avoidance behavior.)
HIM- You do not work at airport?
ME- No. (HOW did Vera not tip him off?)
HIM- Where you are from? (Ok, limited English. Good sign. I figured he wanted to practice the few phrases he knew, and that's cool with me. Also, it guaranteed a quick and content-less interchange.)
ME- South Carolina.
HIM- Are you married?

What? And these odd, unsolicited encounters are not limited to public transport hubs in seedy Northeast cities. Once while waiting on an oil change* (before my social reticence set in), a fellow patron and I critically discussed every advertisement in that day's Greenville News. When we landed on Fred Astaire Dance Studio's Discount Ballroom Dancing Lessons, he earnestly suggested we take a class together! Is committing to a six-week course the next step after a harmless conversation about newspaper ads, even if the one proposing it is three times your age? I don't know. I don't know!

Remarkably, my recent twelve-hour stint on a China Town bus from NYC to Greenville, SC, resulted in no such perplexing interactions. The only English I heard during the entire trip was "TEN MINUTES," bellowed by the driver upon careening off I-95 somewhere in Virginia. Groggily I bolted into what I hoped was one of those fancy gas stations with a beer cave. Instead I gazed through bloodshot eyes at a truck stop. Truck stops are part general store, part diner, part strip joint, and part locker room. The only women's bathroom stall was locked and for once I thought better of just popping into the men's. In that moment, however fleeting, I wished for an ally to exchange bewildered glances and forgettable comments with. Instead, I vowed to hold my bladder until the next morning and made a beeline for the bus with four minutes to spare. The man sitting behind me had just purchased a bucket of fried chicken, and the smell reminded me of home.

*Not the oil change when they carded me to settle a bet with the boys in the back, who thought I looked too young to drive.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Who Really Knows What a Communications Major Actually Entails?

I suppose all early 20-somethings are used to having the same conversation over and over with perfect strangers regarding their educational choices and future career plans. These perfect strangers (referred to hereafter as PS) include, but are not limited to, doctors, dentists, receptionists, bank tellers, parents' friends and co-workers, and distant relatives. My version of this conversation invariably goes like this:

PS- So what are you studying way up there in the North?
ME- Acting.
PS- Ooooooooh! How exciting! Following your dreams! That's just great!
ME- Thank you! I really enjoy it.
PS- Now, I didn't realize acting was something you had to go to school for. I thought if you were good at it you just went on and did it.
ME- Well, there's actually a lot to learn and a lot to get better at.
PS- Huh. I never would have guessed. How do I know you're not acting now!?
ME- I'm not. Haha.
PS- Hey, do you know [random high school student whom PS knows peripherally through church]?
ME- No, I'm sorry, that name doesn't ring any bells.
PS- Are you sure? Because [said random high school student] does a bunch of drama and acting. S/he's REAL talented. I bet you know him/her.
ME- Hmmm.
PS- You're planning on teaching, then?
ME- No, I'm planning on acting. You know, in plays and stuff, and possibly films and commercials, depending on what I get cast in. Although I enjoy teaching and will probably do that at some point, too.
PS- Oooooh. Now, when you graduate from this program of yours, are you guaranteed a job?
ME- Hahahahaha!

Then I realize the PS is asking a serious question, not demonstrating a malicious but welcome sense of humor and wit for the first time since we began speaking.

ME- Oh. No, of course not. No one is guaranteed a job when they graduate these days. Unless they get recruited by the NFL, I guess, but I gave up on that a long time ago.
PS- Haha! Hey, do you know [alas, another random young person to whom I have no connection]? He's REAL good at playing football. We're all thinking he'll go pro. You ever seen him play?
ME- No. Um, I mean, yeah, maybe I have!

At this point I am terribly relieved the focus has shifted from my career ambitions to high school football, a safe subject which, like the weather, is always acceptable and interesting to discuss!

ME- You know, my sister's a cheerleader!
PS- Oh, that's just great! Now, when you start this acting business, will you make a bunch of money?

I'm thinking yet again how funny such a remark would be if it was made in jest, but sadly I understand that it, too, is a sincere albeit ludicrous question.

ME- No, almost certainly not. It's an extremely competitive industry and the popularity of live theater continues to decline. Not to mention that I'll work from job to job- getting cast in one show and immediately scrambling to land the next thing. Which is why I want to join or maybe start an independent theater company.
PS- Well, I'm sure you'll be rich and famous. And one day, when you're on TV accepting your big award, you'll have to remember little me, who gave you your first __________ [teeth x-ray, flu shot, pelvic exam, checking account, etc.]!

Since these conversations inevitably occur while I'm undergoing a medical procedure or at the very least while I'm running an errand, sometimes I lie when asked about my field of study and say "elementary education," which is met with a knowing smile and an approving nod. Not because the perfect stranger in question understands any more about the trials and tribulations of a professional educator than they do about those of a professional actor, but because elementary education is a college major that seems to make sense for a girl like me. It doesn't raise any questions and it doesn't sound suspicious, the very things people wish to avoid when making small talk. Oddly, I get the same response when I lie and say I'm a communications major. As if that's a lucid discipline that obviously translates to a 9-5 job upon graduation. I mean, what?

Fortunately for my peace of mind and for perfect strangers everywhere, I've outgrown my righteous indignation phase where theater is concerned (I AM IN CLASS AND REHEARSAL 14 HOURS A DAY, 6 DAYS A WEEK! THIS DISCIPLINE DEMANDS INHUMAN PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL FITNESS! I AM A CREATIVE ARTIST SHEDDING LIGHT ON THE HUMAN CONDITION!), because everyone works hard and no one likes listening to mission statements. Instead of indignant, when I find myself having the above conversation, I simply feel baffled at the bizarre assumptions of those kind or curious enough to ask me what I'm all about.

It could be worse. Like Shawn, I could graduate with a degree in philosophy*. Then I'd have to grin and bear it as perfect strangers unloaded their unsolicited "philosophies" on me, confusing a few generic world views with a critical, systematic method.

The point is, I wish just as much as any normal person that my professional aspirations fit into a familiar category. Namely, the category known as "Easily Explainable, Even During a Teeth Cleaning." I wish my career had a steady path and a certain outcome. I wish I could count on health insurance and an income large enough to repay my student loans and cover rent. While I'm at it, I wish success in the entertainment industry hinged more on skill and less on networking, and that Art would always triumph over Commercialism. Hahaha!

But I refuse to let the bleakness of my professional future get me down. If theater doesn't work out, I'll likely take up goat herding. I'll homeschool my children and employ them like elves to help me spin and dye yarn and produce award-winning chevre. I'll regale them at bedtime with stories of my Drama School days, imparting the same paramount Life Lesson every time: "Major in business, children. Major in business."

*Shawn wishes it to be known, however, that with his BA in philosophy he intends to pursue a perfectly acceptable and legitimate career in law. Because philosophers are no fun at parties.