The Kindness of Strangers

Every large city has parks or plazas where people in difficulty congregate. Some go there to commiserate with others who feel down and out; others go there looking for escapes from their pain. Drug deals clearly take place in these parks; it’s not unusual to find drug paraphernalia scattered around in some of them. Of course, not everyone who frequents such parks goes to them to break the law; people who gather there are looking for different ways to feel connected with others, to pass the time, to lessen their boredom or frustration or pain.

I rarely see women in these parks. It is easy to imagine that the men who spend their time there often feel disenfranchised and powerless, so when they gather in parks or plazas they often posture in front of others, commenting on the women who pass through their midst, calling out to females in the cars that drive past and generally making us feel, if not unsafe, then at the very least uncomfortable. There is a noticeably macho atmosphere in such places, so showing respect to women is less common there than are displays of sexual attention and bravado.

In Seattle, there are several downtown parks like this where a woman walking alone during daylight hours might feel uncomfortable. When I walk past them I don’t feel endangered, just conspicuous. When women walk by, all eyes turn to us. The men there make comments when I walk by, just as they do to most women who pass within a half block.

Last weekend I was in the part of the city that gave the world the term “skid row”—what is now Yesler Way in the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle was originally a “skid road,” a path along which timber workers skidded logs in the 19th century. This part of town boasts many attractive Victorian buildings converted into art galleries; it also has many bars and missions that serve the large numbers of homeless and poor people in the area. While I was in a Pioneer Square building, I became flooded with difficult memories. I was so overcome that I needed to walk outside to avoid drawing attention as my face crumpled and tears began to well up in my eyes. There was no nearby alley to duck into, no public restroom, no bench to sit on or doorway to enter that wouldn’t expose me to strangers who would notice my distress. But there was a park a half-block away, and I walked toward it in hopes of finding an open bench where I could sit for a few minutes until I regained my composure.

This park is an open plaza without much in the way of benches since public seating tends to encourage homeless people to look for a place to sleep, and city governments tend to discourage such behavior. The only place I could find to rest that wasn’t taken was a large flowerpot with a rim big enough to lean against. I saw that there were clusters of men in the plaza but I assumed that if they saw me with my head down they wouldn’t bother to speak to me. I was wrong. One tried to make conversation with me from a distance but I didn’t look up from my handkerchief. He sounded slightly offended when I didn’t respond, as if he thought I’d entered his territory and then hadn’t had the courtesy to acknowledge him. He came closer and made another comment, this one about my looks. It was not unkind but not what I wanted. I realized that I’d entered his turf and I was the odd one out in that situation, and that if I didn’t respond in some way I might attract more attention or hear negative comments about what might be seen as my arrogance or contempt. So I wiped my eyes and looked up.

I said, “Sorry, I’m having trouble today.” With that, he and another young man walked up to me and immediately said how sorry they were, and how they hated to see me crying. One walked close to me, and as he spoke I saw that he was missing his two front teeth. He couldn’t have been more than 25 years old; the other, taller man was about the same age. The toothless man said to me that he wished he could cry, but that he couldn’t anymore; he had clearly seen so much pain that he felt all cried out. I wiped my eyes and told him I was so sorry that he was hurting. He thanked me and nodded. I said, “There must be a lot of pain in this park, huh?” And he and his friend nodded and said, “Oh yeah, a lot of pain.” Then he said that I needed to know that things were going to be getting better, and that there were people who were going to be there for me, and he spread his arms wide, swooped in and gave me a big hug. I told him I wished things would get better for him soon and that I hoped he’d find comfort. Then he smiled and walked away, and his tall friend came closer. He said that he could see that I just needed to have faith, and that he could tell that things would be better for me soon, and he blessed me. I said “Thank you, sir, for your help. Bless you, too.” He said he was glad he could be there for me, and he wished me well as I walked away.

I keep thinking about those exchanges, and how for those moments in time, our ages, our races, our genders, our economic circumstances made no difference to us. These young men saw me hurting and came to comfort me. I acknowledged that their attention was kind, and they gave me respect and courtesy. They treated me not like an outsider who didn’t belong but as a human being who deserved dignity and help. In many places in this country they would be reviled and assumed to be thugs or criminals because of their appearance, but the men I spoke with were gracious and gentle. They’d seen trouble and understood sadness, and they didn’t judge me or assume that my difference in personal circumstances made me undeserving of sympathy. Our exchange was all about honoring the humanity and dignity in each other, recognizing that we have no right to judge what causes others pain, and that we can all do something to help others to bear their burdens. I felt a little embarrassed showing pain in their presence because it’s not hard to imagine that the circumstances of their lives have brought them more suffering and frustrations than I am ever likely to know. But not for one moment did I feel that they judged me unworthy of their compassion, nor did they ever show the slightest bit of disdain or outwardly assume that my troubles were less pressing than theirs.

These young men showed empathy in its purest form. They didn’t ask why I was sad; the reason didn’t matter. They didn’t need to figure out whether I was worthy based on my situation. To them I was worthy of help simply because I was a human being. They gave me, a total stranger, the most beautiful gifts they could: honor and compassion. Merely acknowledging the people around me in a public park elicited such kindness from them. I’m grateful that they were there for me and that they reminded me that my troubles were temporary, and that there are good people all around us.

At the end of Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois descends into madness, and as she is being led away to the insane asylum, she famously, pitifully says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

Don’t we all?

Even those of us in penthouse suites or gated communities, ivory towers or walnut-paneled boardrooms depend on the social compact to keep strangers from breaking down our doors or threatening us on the street. To stay safe, warm, well-fed and employed and to get around and go where we must we depend on strangers not only to avoid harming us but to go out of their ways to help us do what we need to do. We worry about violence and tut over stories of criminal behavior that we hear on the news, but for most of us, being a victim of crime is an uncommon occurrence. We are sheltered, we are lucky, we are, most of us, trying hard not to hurt others or be hurt ourselves. We all depend upon the kindness of strangers. We just don’t realize how much effort is made by others every day to make room for us in a world that is more theirs than ours. We are each only one of seven billion, after all, and nearly all the others in this world have less invested in our health and happiness than we do. Yet, we we live alongside each other and make way for the needs of strangers every day.

This weekend two kind strangers proved how much invisible goodwill surrounds me. I was humbled by their kindness, but also elevated—by looking up into their faces I became part of something greater than myself. I felt disconnected and hollow when I walked into their park; they reminded me that even on Skid Row, one can find connection, beauty and mercy.

Beauty in the Breakdown: The Music of Imogen Heap

You may have heard Jason Derulo’s song “Whatcha Say.” It went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2009 and was Derulo’s first big hit, but the song was built around vocoded vocal samples from the song “Hide and Seek” by English singer, composer and producer Imogen Heap. The popularity of Derulo’s song was much greater than that of the song upon which its based, and to my mind that is a great shame, since Heap is one of the most inventive and appealing artists recording today.

Imogen Heap (or Immi, as she is often called by fans) is surprisingly little known in the U.S. despite having received four Grammy nominations and won one Grammy. As half of the musical duo Frou Frou she also had a song on the soundtrack to the popular indie movie Garden State, which also won a Grammy.

Before becoming known as a solo artist, Heap and then musical partner Guy Sigsworth recorded as Frou Frou. Their song “Let Go” was one of the best things to come out of the 2004 Garden State soundtrack. It’s her warm and breathy vocal you hear over the rich layers of electronica. With her lush washes of intricate sound, she gives the lie to those who think electronic pop must be cold and soulless. She often incorporates unusual effects and ambient sounds into her mixes, and since leaving Frou Frou she has composed, produced and performed on four solo albums.

As a teen Heap taught herself sequencing, music engineering, sampling and production as well as guitar and percussion instruments such as the Array Mbira (an expanded version of the small African original mbira with a more bell-like sound) and the Hang, a hollow steel percussion instrument. With these tools and her compelling, intimate voice and gift for beautiful melodies and intricate harmonies, she has built an interesting repertoire of songs and a passionate fan base.

In return for her fans’  devotion, Immi gives exciting concerts featuring not only her hits but also on-the-spot improvised compositions created with looped sounds that she records of her own singing and playing as well as with sounds generated by the audience in concert. I saw her perform in Seattle during her 2010 tour and was moved by her decision to invite local musicians from every stop on her tour to audition with her. She then chose a few musicians from each location and had them open her concerts for her and perform a song alongside her. She also created a song with the audience at each venue and made every song available to help raise funds for local charities. She’s quite philanthropically minded and often raises funds for favorite charities around the world by holding benefit concerts featuring her music and that of others musicians.

Among her influences Heap lists Annie Lennox and Kate Bush, two other powerful singers from the UK with huge charisma, distinctive voices and strong associations with inventive electronic pop. Like them, Immi has created electronic music with great passion and soul. Her 2005 album Speak for Yourself is her most accessible album, full of lyrical, catchy tunes, and 2009’s Ellipse, which features the lovely song “First Train Home,” comes in two versions, the standard and a deluxe version which includes instrumental versions of all the tracks.

Of her work, Immi says, “I just love crafting and shaping sounds. Actually, many of the sounds that I work with start off as organic instruments — guitar, piano, clarinet, etc. But I do love the rigidity of electronic drums… I would record live drums, and then I would spend a day editing them to take the life out of them. I like to breathe my own life into these sounds, and I do try to keep the ‘air’ in the music. Some people think electronic music is cold, but I think that has more to do with the people listening than the actual music itself.”

Only the Shadows of Their Eyes

I just watched the last 15 minutes of Midnight Cowboy, a movie I have admired for decades and seen a half-dozen times, but which brings me pain each time I watch it. It’s one of those films that I cannot turn away from if I happen to run across it while changing channels, so powerful are the performances and so unflinching is the focus on captivating yet repellent characters.

Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight are natural, believable and awkwardly honest in their roles (which are among the finest performances of their careers); John Schlesinger‘s direction is unflinching and powerful. Schlesinger was unwilling to turn away from the sorts of intimate, painful moments that other directors tend to cut away from in order to soothe audiences and tie up loose ends. He avoided palliative measures, trusting his audiences to handle the pain and unfairness at the heart of his characters’ worlds and sit with their devastation and disappointment even as the final credits rolled by.

The film begins with what sounds superficially like an upbeat tune with an ambling gait, the song “Everybody’s Talkin‘” sung by Harry Nilsson. The song, which won a Grammy and was a million-selling single in 1969, is deceptive; listen to the lyrics and you’ll see it’s about an overwhelmed man who can’t handle or comprehend the needs and conversations of the people around him  and longs to move far away to a place without cares, “somewhere where the weather suits my clothes.” He sings:

Everybody’s talking at me
I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’
Only the echoes of my mind

People stopping, staring
I can’t see their faces
Only the shadows of their eyes

It’s easy for the casual listener to notice only the upbeat qualities of the song and the positive fantasies of the young man as he imagines himself moving lightly through the better life that awaits him:

Banking off of the northeast winds
Sailing on a summer breeze
And skipping over the ocean like a stone

The song suits the story of handsome but none-too-bright young Texan Joe Buck (played by Jon Voight) who leaves Texas in a hurry and moves to New York convinced that he’ll be a big success as a gigolo wearing his cowboy hat, boots and pretty-boy grin, and as he walks around Times Square in his fringed leather jacket he seems to be just a sweet, overgrown, oversexed kid. And he is, at first. Full of hope and confidence but leaving a disturbing and misunderstood past, he soon becomes overwhelmed like the man in the song. He longs to escape his life, first running to New York, then to Florida with his friend Rico (played by Dustin Hoffman). But in this story, there is no easy, rambling way through life or around trouble, and there’s no way for Joe to stop the cascade of horrible lessons that come with being too trusting, hopeful and needy while living among broken, wary people.

Midnight Cowboy is an exceptional film which captures the disturbing power of the fine novel by Leo James Herlihy upon which it’s based. Indeed, the movie, the only X-rated Best Picture Oscar winner ever, was a huge critical success despite its reputation for grim, mature subject matter, and it won Oscars for best picture and best direction. While the story is gritty, it isn’t by any means pornographic; the X rating was misleading. But the story is adult in nature, ultimately cynical, tragic and hopeless. The main characters are hustlers, professional liars at the bottom of society who are not very bright and are willing to take advantage of people in pain. Yet the story is told in such a way that, although we cringe when the principal characters harm themselves and others, we cannot help but feel our own hearts break as we watch their hopes go down in flames.

So why do I come back to this film, and why do I love other devastating Schlesinger films about unrequited love and loss (like his beautiful, faithful adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd and the 1971 drama Sunday Bloody Sunday with its exquisite performances by Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson) and of moral decay (like Marathon Man) so much? I suppose it’s because Schlesinger was a masterful storyteller who managed to focus  on difficult, broken and fearful people, people on the edges of society, people who are willing to live in shadows. He let us watch them lash out at others in desperation, flail and grasp for meaningful connection with other people, and then have to live with their losses and failures. There are few redemptions in Schlesinger’s stories, but there is great humanity. Schlesinger helped viewers get under the skin of his characters and understand their pain without whitewashing their behaviors or putting them on pedestals. He loved flawed people and stories full of heartache, and he made a career of getting the intelligentsia to peer more closely at and care for stories about the very people those same people might cross the street to avoid in their daily lives.

Schlesinger, who was gay, incorporated homosexual themes into several of his films and teleplays, sometimes portraying gay men as self-loathing (as he did in a disturbing scene in Midnight Cowboy) but also including one of the first depictions of a successful, honorable, well-adjusted professional homosexual man in modern cinema (in Sunday Bloody Sunday). He treated his characters’ sexuality with the same straightforwardness he showed toward their other characteristics; it was simply another facet of their lives. This matter-of-factness, which made Sunday Bloody Sunday particularly advanced for its time, was part of a wave of naturalism in film also seen in the work of other important directors of the late sixties and seventies such as Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet and Peter Bogdanovich.

It may seem odd that some human beings (like me) seek out stories of loss, failure and emotional pain like this one both as forms of entertainment and as cathartic experiences. Such films shine a light on the human condition and help viewers like me to understand and empathize with the misbegotten and seemingly cursed people of the world in a way that feels especially visceral and real. Films like Schlesinger’s are, however, at enough of a remove that film lovers who appreciate a good dose of angst with their drama can feel safe sidling up to the misfits, losers and dangerous people who inhabit the underworld that Schlesinger created. There’s a voyeuristic thrill at getting so close to the people and emotions that scare or excite us, followed by a shock when we realize how close they are to ourselves.