Young people generally try to avoid making conversation with people they don’t know, for three reasons:
1. They are terrified of a minute or a half-hour of awkwardness, which they actually think could kill them. By the time they reach middle-age, they’ll have had long relationships based on awkwardness.
2. If there is awkwardness, they take it personally, not being experienced enough to realize that there really are some fine people you just don’t click with (and some seriously goofy ones who you do).
3. They haven’t lived enough adventures and misadventures to realize that they have something in common with just about everybody.
Now, if older people are terrified of talking to strangers, it’s because they don’t know how to take full advantage of the things they have in common, to create an instant bond.
On the other hand, I almost feel I take too much advantage, of even seemingly small connections. Like a goddamn salesman, I can become close acquaintances with you in a half hour if you speak English, are not a flaming jerk or a listless drudge and you:
• Ever lived around Detroit, where I was born and visited a lot as a kid and also as an adult. I find the place fascinating and want to talk and hear all about it.
• Ever lived around Cleveland. I grew up nearby, and (like Detroit) Cleveland is not a town, it’s a way of life, and a philosophy and an epic tale all rolled up into one. When someone says they’re from Cleveland or Detroit, you two don’t start talking about fucking restaurants. You start talking about life.
• Ever lived around Chicago. Especially when I’m out of town and run into an ex-Chicagoan—wow! I once had a Chicago ex-pat pouring me wine and reading me his poems about my own neighborhood—in the middle of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. One of my happiest memories—and one of his too, I am sure.
• Love New York. (Or hate it in a compelling way.)
• Have visited Middletown, Ohio, where my dad grew up (and died).
• Have visited Ottawa, Ill., where I spent a happy little hunk of a long-ago summer writing a magazine story.
• Ever owned an unreliable car.
• Ever worked as a golf course greenskeeper.
• Ever heard of the Halifax explosion.
• Ever rode a motorcycle any distance or sailed any distance or ridden a train any distance. We can be brothers and sisters within two drinks. Because those kinds of trips are ways of life and philosophies and epic tales, too.
• Not to mention read any book I ever loved, saw any movie I ever loved, loved any sports team or star I ever loved—or have any acquaintance with any of the many human beings I have ever loved (or loathed).
I can take any one of those common interests or experiences and, with just a little effort on my partner’s part, turn it into an afternoon of conversation, with all the possible associations and tributaries and obvious connections and related stories. I’ll get you going, you’ll get me going and we’ll be telling each other long stories short—but not too short!
And if we’re especially charged up by our chemistry and the coffee or the beer, we’ll soon be having four conversations at once—what another friend of mine calls “concentric conversations.” And we’ll be promising one another, sincerely in the moment, to keep in touch.
Oh, the talk we will have, you and me—whoever you are!