Talk to Us

An open invitation elicits perturbation

Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you? -- Walt Whitman, To You

It wasn't as if we expected people to treat us like goddamned prom queens or something when Career Girl and I plunked a couple of lawn chairs down next to the gazebo at downtown Fort Lauderdale's Riverfront complex on a recent Tuesday afternoon. Nor did we expect the wait staff at Max's to huddle around the hostess podium, seeming not to know what to do with us or our white sign that read "Talk to Us."

Do I even need to go into the lunching clientele? They stared at us. We glanced back. They turned their heads to the side not so much to reject our open entreaty for conversation but more like they were pretending they hadn't noticed it -- as if we couldn't see their sneaky, parrot-like eyes behind their sunglasses.

And we're the weirdos? OK, sure.

Everyone else is just coasting through his or her day easy as a summer breeze, no social anxiety whatsoever. And we, we are like that wide-eyed, bolus-spewing freak with no concept of personal space who initiates overly intimate conversations two inches from your face. Clueless. For one lunch hour, we are pariahs, not abiding by the basic tenet of socializing: Don't let on. If you want to make friends or even just hold a conversation, you have to feign indifference.

Oh, and so there we were, two young women, one in a cute skirt and a skimpy top, right smack in the middle of the city's primo tourist trap.

A group of seven businessmen with slight paunches and matching black pants and blue shirts and cell phones attached at the belt -- sporting the glorious SoFla business casual -- ignored us entirely.

"If we were sitting inside at that bar," Career said, adjusting her tank top and digging into her chicken empanada from Argie's Grill, "those guys would be all over us."

But we weren't, you see. We were cooking in the sun with this awkward sign that was our way of trying to insert ourselves, without context, into people's days.

And context matters. Take this little encounter, for example:

Four women walked by in skirt, blousy office attire, beaming with the aura of having happily shaken off the mid-workday ugh with a gossip-filled lunch. This is only speculation, of course, because they didn't stop for too long.

One woman contorted her face and gave me a curious glance as she passed. "You just want anyone to talk to you?" she asked.

"You'll do," I replied.

She laughed, and her tall friend, with a ponytail sprouting from the top of her head, said, "She's got to get back to work."

"Oh, we understand," we replied.

And we did, 'cause, after all, we're not that weird.

Notice the language, though: the anyone is key. If we're not exclusive, why should anyone seek our opinion? If the rabble could chill in the VIP, why would anyone lay a Ben Franklin down for a bottle of Grey Goose?

Better, perhaps, that we all keep our glassy-eyed tunnel vision fixed on the piece of concrete in front of us.

Are we South Floridians, in our paradise, not living the moment? Do we not give our cohabitants enough credit?

A tan young man in dark glasses and a cap didn't seem to mind our shameless accessibility. He circled through the gazebo once, then approached with a smirk on his face. "Hi," he said, as he walked forward, becoming part of the spectacle.

"What's up?" we asked like totally normal, outgoing people.

"Nothing," he said.

"What are you up to?" Career Girl asked.

"I'm bored on my lunch break," he said.

A Hooters waitress walked over to the balcony above the courtyard where we sat and stared at us. Shall I repeat myself for the record? A Hooters waitress was staring at us.

Our harmless little experiment was that strange.

Later, we caught the eye of a middle-aged couple who seemed to be pretending to look through the trinkets at a nearby cart. The tall, mustachioed male half broke away and walked over to us in all his British politeness and said, "I'm sorry to interrupt your lunch. But I just have to ask... what are people talking to you about?"

"Oh," I replied, "they're talking about their lives and their experiences."

"And what are you talking to them about?"

"The same, more or less," I returned.

"Is this some sort of art experiment?"

"Well," I gave him some background, "when I was in Union Square subway station in New York City last year, I came across a couple with a sign that read, 'Talk to Us.' They were doing this experiment in all five boroughs of the city, and I wanted to know what it would be like to do it here."

"Those people probably wrote a book ah-bout it," he conjectured.

Then more men started popping by.

Well, actually, the first rolled up to our lawn chairs on an upright scooter thingy called a Segway. "What are you guys about?" he asked. He had a mild case of the hots, with his nifty eyewear and flyaway 'do.

"We're talking to people," Career put in.

"What's the deal with the Segway?" I asked him, trying to understand this consumer good that may one day eliminate the tedious factor of walking from our lives.

"We give 90-minute tours," he was beginning to tell me, and I was trying to listen even as a big man in a thin, brown uniform appeared in my peripheral vision. And yes, he was coming toward us.

Authority waited one polite moment, then put to us, "What is this all about?"

"We're on our lunch break," Career said cheerily.

"And we're just saying hello to people," I added.

All of this is true. Our presence couldn't have been more benign, except for the possibility that we were making perfectly good people uncomfortable.

He paused, assessing the situation.

We were patronizing the establishment, eating lunch from one of the restaurants. It's OK to be socially awkward if you're spending money, right?

"Well," he said, "I guess it's all right, if you're not harassing anybody and they're coming up to you."

"They are," we insisted. We were just being friendly. Sniffle. Sniffle.

Friendly. Nobody quite knew what to do with that. I was surprised we didn't get the boot.

But the lunch hour was over, and Career had to resume her daily ascent to power, so we packed up our stuff like disciplined street performers and walked off. We ruminated over the discomfort we had stirred.

Alas, it was a relief to have reentered the comfortable bubble of mutual indifference. To not try.

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