Scene From a Waiting Room

Two of my favorite hobbies have always been people watching and eavesdropping, long before I declared myself a writer and could claim such behavior as “research.” In fact, if I watch people long enough I’ll usually give them names, and sometimes even backstories.

For instance: I have a neighbor I named Jim, who I decided works for the water department and recently went through a nasty divorce, after he caught his ex-wife cheating on him with a 19 year old from the Geek Squad. Of course, I have no way of knowing if any of that is true (although it certainly could be), but that’s what I came up with one day, when I saw him standing outside his apartment angrily smoking a cigarette.

So, it is with great delight that I share one of the best conversations I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening in on. This was Friday morning.

A crowded waiting room, full of mostly miserable people. The morning is stormy on and off; many in the cramped sitting area still have rain drying on their clothes. Across from me sit two people appearing not to have much in common: One a young black man, mid-twenties. He’s clean shaven, short hair, wearing beige cargo-style pants and a gray hoodie. He’s holding a hardcover book with a library barcode across the cover. Specifically, it’s The Widow by Fiona Barton. I decide he looks like a Kevin.

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A book that, I find out later, is a New York Times bestseller and came out just five months ago, which leaves me feeling a little embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of it.

The other, a fifty-ish white guy who looks like he’s seen better days. His hair is greasy and slicked back. He has a bushy mustache, his cheeks look like salt-and-pepper colored coarse grit sandpaper. Grease stains and paint spot his jeans up and down the legs. He’s quite tan, with pronounced crow’s feet and deep wrinkles in his forehead. Despite being  rather small, I decide he worked construction when he was young and verile, and wonder if he works now. Possibly a house painter, I think, judging from the paint. I name him Larry.

Kevin initiates the conversation, which for some reason surprises me. It starts, as most conversations between strangers seem to, with the weather. Larry replies amicably, and they exchange observations about the rain that had fallen and what that means in regard to the heat and humidity once the sun eventually comes out (spoiler alert: miserable). Before long, however, it becomes clear that Kevin has a bit of a one track mind.

“I’m reading this book, The Widow, have you heard of it?”

Larry says he hasn’t.

“It’s pretty good so far, I like it. What do you like to read, fiction or non-fiction?”

Larry mumbles something I can’t make out, then says non-fiction. I wonder if his answer is an attempt to politely indicate to Kevin that this is not a subject to which he can easily contribute.

“Oh yeah, non-fiction?” Kevin says. “I don’t like non-fiction too much. I love fiction, though. What’s your favorite book?”

Larry again mumbles something incomprehensible, perhaps as a stalling tactic. I wonder if he has a favorite book. He finally comes up with an answer, which I don’t hear, that apparently is about space travel. Kevin shows interest and asks him a follow up question about science fiction, and Larry remarks how incredible it is that things that seemed futuristic in books when he was a kid are becoming reality.

Kevin nods, then moves on to describing the plot of The Widow, which he likens to Gone Girl, but without all the big plot twists. It’s clear from the look on his face that Larry is not familiar with Gillian Flynn’s bestselling book or David Fincher’s film adaptation.

Larry seems clearly uncomfortable with the topic at hand and manages to turn the conversation back to the weather, saying he rode his bike in the rain to get there. Kevin says he used to ride his bike a lot but turned to running instead. I wonder for a moment if Kevin realizes that for him biking was recreational exercise while for Larry it’s apparently his primary mode of transportation.

There’s a slight look of relief in Larry’s eyes, though, perhaps because he thinks there might be a chance of turning the conversation back to a subject (bikes or weather) he can more easily speak to. There’s a beat of silence, then Kevin asks another question. The relief leaves Larry’s eyes as quickly as it had arrived.

“So, which do you like better, ebooks or printed books?”

At this point I smile, stifling a laugh.

Larry replies with something about “real books.”

Kevin agrees, stating that in his opinion, while ebooks provide a convenience that is unmatched, there is nothing quite like the feel of a printed book in your hands (an opinion I happen to share). He then gushes about the smell of books, and how, above all else, it is that smell which makes printed books superior.

Not long after this (perhaps due to Larry’s increasing lack of response) Kevin finally relents some. He steers the conversation away from books and reading, telling Larry a little about himself. He says that he works full time in the evening and goes to school full time during the day. He’s just gotten his Bachelor’s Degree and is now pursuing his Master’s, with hopes of going on to get a PhD. (I desperately wish I could’ve heard what he does for a living and his field of study at school–for once these are two items I’d rather not make up.) He says he goes to school, goes to work, then with what little free time he has–I’m assuming somewhere around 1 or 2am–he enjoys some form of entertainment, typically a movie or (big surprise) reading. The conversation dwindles, then Kevin’s number is called. He bids Larry good day and walks off. I feel a little tinge of sadness as he goes.

It wasn’t a long encounter, definitely less than ten minutes even with awkward pauses sprinkled in, but it had a pretty big effect on me. I can’t remember the last time I saw an adult–male or female, black or white–show that much enthusiasm for books and reading. It almost thawed the cold, black stone in my chest that passes for a heart (almost). It wasn’t just that he had such passion, it was that he unabashedly shared that passion with a perfect stranger, in the form of Larry. That’s awesome. I wondered if after Larry left his appointment he might think about his conversation with Kevin and ride his bike over to the library to look for a book to check out. I wonder if he’d like The Martian.

Surely there’s something to take away from this encounter, right? There must be.

I guess it’s this: Don’t be afraid to share your passion with people, whatever it is. Don’t worry about what other people are going to think about the stuff you like. Don’t stop yourself in the middle of what you’re saying and apologize, or say “I know, it’s dumb.” It’s not dumb. Who knows, you might make an impact on the person you’re talking to, or the introverted weirdo who appears to be staring with serial killer intensity at his phone but is actually listening to everything you say. Either way, don’t be shy about it. Let your freak flag fly–spread that passion around, and liberally. Be a Kevin.

 

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