Stranger behavior

A few years ago a friend enticed me to see This American Life live. Every part of the evening was fab—Ira Glass is a god, Sarah Vowell a wry diva, and we were introduced to OK GO! But the highlight of the evening was the guy who started Found Magazine—a celebration of discarded and then rediscovered text. It’s a fabulous investigation into the inane and absurd that ends up on pieces of paper in the gutter.

We bought a copy of the magazine and then Lisa, Dave, and I set about looking for gems in our own backyard. Dave scored with an amazing sales packet on magic and mystical skills, but I struck out time and again in spite of my enthusiasm.

Recently, I have started a different kind of collection. Instead of found objects, it’s found behavior. We are all freakish, but we do a pretty good job of covering it up. Except when we don’t:

• A young man travels the Green Line Metro to Gallery Place-Chinatown. It’s 8:30 a.m. and he’s dressed for corporate Washington, but his tie is unknotted. He carefully measures the length of the two sides draped around his neck. He pulls them into position and starts knotting. But the end result is that the back of the tie is too long. He unknots and starts again, carefully measuring and estimating the length that will be left. Again, dissatisfaction. I watch surreptitiously mesmerized by his morning drama. Is it his first day at a new job? Has he never worn a tie before? I sympathize because I too wrestled with this skill as a schoolgirl in an unyielding Catholic convent school. By the age of 8 we had to be self-sufficient in this art. Finally, he achieves a measure of satisfaction after what must be the seventh or eighth attempt. I feel like applauding.

• In a tiny municipal airport a middle-aged man answers his cell phone. He accidentally leaves it on speakerphone so we can hear both sides of the conversation. It’s really loud. We hear his younger sister died in a car crash two weeks ago and, unusually, we hear the caller’s response. That’s terrible. I’m so, so sorry. Oh, that’s so terrible. The inane words are brought alive by the genuine emotion. That’s what life brings, the bereaved responds. You don’t know how long you’re here. He realizes the speakerphone is on and cuts us out.

• On an 18-seater plane, the stewardess is emphatic about the duties of those in rows 6 and 9. They must be physically able and willing to help in an emergency. They must be physically able to help other passengers and follow the crew’s instruction. They will be the last off the plane after helping others. They must verbally agree to these duties. There is only one passenger in row 6; he is in his late 60s or early 70s. As she speaks passionately about the emergency duties of row 6, he stands shakily and places his walking cane in the overhead compartment. She doesn’t see this. She comes down the aisle to get his verbal commitment. Sir, you heard my schpiel, do you agree? Yes, he responds. And sits back.

• A man in his early 40s dressed in nearly regular clothes marches to the edge of the metro platform. He flashes a notebook at fellow passengers. “CIA. Hitler. 1945. ID. Missing women.” Occasionally he flips the page of the notebook to give us the benefit of fresh words. A woman in conversation with her friends becomes distracted as she tries to decode the scene, but understands nothing.

• On a flight, my fellow passenger works for hours on his laptop. It’s a PowerPoint on missile design and deployment. I’m surprised he isn’t more secretive. He’s traveling Economy Plus, he obviously works for a defense contractor, and I can only imagine what comfortable Washington salary he makes. At the end of the flight he pulls down a sports bag and wraps his expensive laptop in a threadbare towel.

• An elderly woman in Provo, Utah, has spent her life hiding a secret. As a 13-year-old girl she was pressured into shoplifting a 35-cent pocketknife from S.H. Kress & Co. Fifty-five years later the store is gone, but she sends a dollar donation anonymously to an institution that holds Kress archives in the hope of assuaging her guilt.

Apparently I’m having much better luck as a witness of odd behavior versus found text. But about six months ago I remembered Found Magazine and decided to scan the ground as I walked to Dupont Circle. My glance caught a piece of folded, ruled paper from a college notepad. I unfold it to reveal a single sentence written in blue ink:

I want a boob job.

2 responses to “Stranger behavior”

  1. Stephanie Wells says:

    Your story about the woman who shoplifted the knife so many years ago reminded me of the amazing book I just saw, PostSecret, where people write their secret shames (all so artuflly!) on anonymous postcards and mail them to this one place that collects them in a book (also a website, You guys probably all know about it but in case you don’t, you must look–it’s even better than Found magazine! Also, of course, I was reminded of that This American Life about the Apology Line, an answering machine where people called in with their anonymous confessions. The one that struck most is not the man who never told his parents that he was the one who killed his infant sibling when he was a toddler, though that’s horrific enough, but the guy who charged his dying mother money–$5, $10–for things like a drink of water when she was too weak to get it herself. Oh, man. As humans, our dark sides are SO skanky.

  2. PB says:

    What I love so much about watching others is that it makes me feel so much more connected, however bizzare the behavior, than less. I feel this intense affection and identification in most tics and repeats. I really enjoyed this post because I think walking through and in the world looking for “found” anything is to heighten the senses in the new way. It is to be truly present–for the light, the dark, and mostly the silly.