I discovered a column called “Character Study” in the Sunday New York Times. Each week, a New Yorker is profiled: the Grande Dame of Staten Island; a female funeral director in Brooklyn with purple finger nails who offers wake packages for $1999; a Queens garbage collector who studies the Irish language between pick-ups.
I have always been fascinated by people who are different from me. I believe that the average, unknown person is where the great stories are–not celebrities and famous people. I have wanted to write some sort of book with stories about ordinary folks that I crossed paths with; to listen to their story and pull the amazing parts together. You can learn a lot about yourself by studying the lives of others. You have more in common with a pierced, blue-haired person than you could ever believe.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked for a short time at a drapery store. A man with extensive drapery and fabric knowledge was hired after me. He had done a lot of work in the Grosse Pointes and I wanted to know everything. Like a sponge, I listened to everything he had to say and truly enjoyed the time I worked with him. He was about 50 years old and wore discrete pearl clip-on earrings—he saved his big, gaudy ones for outside of work—his words, with a laugh. He did dab on a little White Shoulders as well. On one of my last days there, I walked into the stockroom to find him sitting on a box, his shoulders trembling. He looked up through his tears and told me that his dog had just been put down. I went to him and held him against me for quite a while, letting him get it all out.
He was just a man who had lost his dog.
I went back to school a few years ago to finish my degree. I took a few business classes for electives and met a very interesting young woman. She was very smart and obsessed with getting all “A’s.” She was funny and I liked chatting with her. During a conversation I learned that she had been a stripper before she had married and had children—she had the legs for it. We had to give a presentation profiling a possible business. She put together a PowerPoint presentation about her former business—a sex toy shop, which catered to everyone—she carried Lucite stiletto’s to size 13. The instructor was more than a little red-faced. They guys in class loved it.
So you would think that this was all there was to know about Janice.
In another class, she mentioned that she had been to jail when she was 19. Of course I was intrigued. She did 30 days in the county jail for not returning a video to Blockbuster. Her bail was $200, which she didn’t have, so she just stayed. I could not stop laughing. The more I learned about her, the more I was convinced that she should write a book.
Our last class together was Cultural Diversity where we watched a lot of documentaries about different ethnicities and social groups. One day she leaned over and whispered to me, “Did I tell you that my Dad did time in Texas for smuggling illegals in his truck?” Suddenly I was Elaine Benes—Get Out!! Surely she was making that up. He got caught with over 100 people in his semi-trailer and was sentenced to five years in prison. It was not funny but we couldn’t stop laughing.
To see her sitting at her desk, she is like every other 30-something, going to school in hopes of getting a better job in a bad economy. I could have run the other way when I first heard the word “stripper,” but I would have missed out.
One person with such a broad range of experiences—amazing.