We Buy Conversation
If a couple’a stubble-faced young guys came up to you on the street waving dollar bills and shouting that they wanted to buy your conversation or a secret you’ve never told anyone, what would you do? Today, at Bryant Park in Manhattan, that was Andrew Marantz, Ben Brown, and me. We were the New York Conversation Exchange—picking up the human pieces of the mess left by that Stock Exchange further on downtown, one stranger at a time.
- $1 for a secret
- $1 for 2 minutes of conversation
- Recession special: $6 for a walk around the park holding hands
Most people, on the usual New York stimulus overload, didn’t even look up. A few pointed and laughed and kept walking. But after three hours or so, we had given away all of the $100, mostly $1 at a time, of our grant from some tiny entity with “creative philanthropy” in its name. Some recipients clearly did it for the cash but almost all, in the end, for the pleasure of conversation. Nearly every secret was about sex, including two who each slept with his wife’s relative. The single largest payout was for a fellow who took me on an hour-long walk around midtown to talk about theology. At the end he gave me a pamphlet and a handmade card that says “peace” from left to right and שלום (shalom) from right to left. At the very end, one woman, a lawyer in the financial sector hit by the meltdown, asked us if we were hiring.
Back in 2005, I started The Row Boat as an effort to start conversations among strangers. The idea was for it to be more of a community blog, a place where people could get to know each other and share ideas. In the end, when I was unable to generate a critical mass of contributors, it became a more bloggy personal soapbox. But there is still so much appeal to me in that dream of getting people talking, of creating a fluid medium. Doing it on the internet is one thing, but standing on a busy street corner on a freezing day in January is quite another. Afterward, sipping hot drinks in a cafe, surrounded by our piles of gear and telling stories from our day, the three of us couldn’t stop laughing.
UPDATE (1/19/08): Ben Brown has edited the film into a fantastic little clip that needs to get some love on YouTube. Enjoy!
tags: conversation, New York City, The Row Boat