One thing I really enjoy is people watching. It's one of the greatest pleasures of travel - to be in an interesting place full of interesting people and getting to learn about their stories. Inspired by some of the micro stories I've seen shared on Twitter and on travel blogs, I'd like to try and recall some small stories about people I've encountered.
When I was in New York, I made it a point to try to interact with interesting looking strangers on the street. I'd heard it described before that "New York has a higher concentration of people who feel their own potency than anywhere else", and I wanted to see if that was true. I encountered a man selling books on the sidewalk. Normally I'd have walked passed, but something about his energy was compelling.
He was an older man, with tables full of used books piled high. All sorts of books, with emphases on certain topics such as military history and foreign languages. When I asked him his name and his story, he said that people just called him the "Book Man. He lived right here in the public housing neighbourhood, and he said that he made sure that all these books got to where they needed to be. Like some sort of cosmic guide for the knowledge they contained.
I decided to buy one, just a random one that struck me as interesting. The price was excellent, but more than that I was paying for a physical way to store the memory of this strange and quirky book man. Before I left he told me that he'd been doing this for over 10 years, and even had a New York Times article written about him: Maître d’ for the Mind.
Once, when I was taking the train from Chicago to St. Louis, the seats were absolutely packed. I was looking forward to keeping my backpack and some snacks next to me, but unfortunately every seat was taken. Luckily, I had the absolute privelege of sitting next to a brilliant filmmaker.
When he sat down, he looked like a typical teenage boy. In fact, before he sat he asked me "Could I sit here sir?. That's right. Sir? I'm in my early twenties, how could someone call me sir? Then again, he seemed much younger so with faint amusement of course I said yes.
Although he spent part of the trip sleeping, he would intermittently pull out his laptop to work on something. Something involving, from what I could see, scheduling, research, and video editing. I snuck in little peeks, trying not to invade my seatmate's privacy too much, but eventually I couldn't keep my attention away. There were such beautiful, cinematic shots playing on free editing software, they wouldn't have looked out of place in a movie.
Eventually, I couldn't contain my curiosity and asked about his project. Apparently he was a film student going to a school right next to where I lived. He'd been working on this project for a few years, which was an experimental documentary style short film of his own life. A series of vignettes with little plot, meant to convey a mood and vibe more than a specific story. A true passion project.
I was really stunned by the quality and creativity of his film so far. Especially on the tiny budget that he operated on. He hopes to finish it sometime in the next year, and I really hope he does. I never would have expected such soul and passion from his mild-mannered exterior
I have another story similar to the first one, but this in Toronto instead of New York. I was strolling down the street on a typical summer weekend when I ran into the stall of someone selling all manner of knick knacks and art. The prices were incredibly cheap too, just $5 or $10 for some pretty exceptional pieces of artwork in my opinion.
I was really curious about how he managed to acquire such a curious collection at such low prices. Did he paint all of these pieces himself? As it turned out, he somehow got all this stuff from people moving out. At least that's how he described it.
That left me with a whole new set of questions. Was he some kind of predatory landlord, forcing his poor tenants out to the street and then nabbing their store? Did he pick up foreclosed homes for cheap, along with all of the happy memories they contained? Perhaps he was a master thief, sneaking into sold houses and taking only what would not be missed.
Either way, I picked up a nice painting for far less than I suspect it was worth. I still wonder about the fate of the original artist, who'd never know that I had one of his creations hanging on my wall.
I once spent a summer working part time at a techy summer camp for kids, where they learned such modern skills as coding, robotics, and of course the indispensable Minecraft. Some kids were absolute geniuses; I have a university education and professional experience and the tricks they'd use to make their video games work took me some time to understand. Other times they might not understand everything right away but the resolute stubbornness they approached the problem with, that only a child could be capable of, warmed my heart. These children were my favorite.
There was one boy who didn't talk much, and took his time to understand stuff as well. He was stuck trying to make a specific level in his game, and couldn't quite figure it out. Many of the kids seemed to have lower attention spans - if something wasn't working they'd switch to doing something that was.
He never gave up though. For a period of almost 2 weeks he'd come in and work on the same problem and try different ways to understand it. I tried to give him special attention once I realized how persistent he was. Of course there were plenty of moments of frustration that he had to overcome.
But, I remember the moment he figured everything out. He played through the whole level, expecting something to break but nothing would. He wasn't very vocal about his joy, ever the quiet one. But he didn't stop smiling for the whole rest of the day.