CBS News once had what seemed like a cool idea for a segment. With the idea that "everyone has a story to tell," they threw a dart at a map of the U.S., then headed to whatever town it landed on to try and find the first schmuck they could who was willing to talk about themselves.
I happen to be a firm believer in the idea that everyone can be interesting, but — and this is a big but — a lot of people need help finding their narrative. In the hands of a good writer or a good director, maybe the Jeff Smiths of the world can be fascinating. Left to their own devices, however, they can be quite dull. And that's pretty much how the segments rolled out, one dull story after another about people you didn't know before and cared even less about when it was over.
Not to belittle all Jeff Smiths. One man with that name was known as the Frugal Gourmet, and he got hit with seven lawsuits from men who said he molested them as teenagers back in the 1970s. Another Jeff Smith was a Missouri state senator who went to prison in '09 for obstruction of justice. These are the people in your neighborhood! They're the people that ya meet, when you're walking down the street!
I was out to find my Jeff Smith at the Chieftain at the corner of Howard and Fifth. Some people go out with a buzz in mind, others want to get laid. I just wanted to see if I could coax a fascinating story out of someone.
The Chieftain is an Irish pub with decent food and a nice staff. It's the kind of place you take someone to fire them, or to let them down easy, or to simply punish your liver out of low self-esteem. Sorry guys, but the joint can be a bit depressing. For a people who dance jigs and find riches at the end of rainbows, the Irish sure can bring you down. It's small, full of dark wood and last night's disappointment. That's why leprechauns are so happy: They made out pretty good in the "Being Stuck in Ireland" sweepstakes. All they do is hoard their wealth, make shoes, listen to U2, and avoid men named Liam who might grab them and squeeze for wishes.
On the CBS show, the host opened up a phonebook and pointed at a name to find his prey; I decided to sidle up to whoever was there alone and looked the most like a leprechaun. Well, gentle reader, there was no one there but mountain men-looking mofos, an '80s rocker guy with his guitar (please god, let me leave before he starts playing it) and biggest groups of people. One guy in flannel could conceivably have been wearing a Scottish plaid, and that was close enough.
I pulled my seat up next to him at the bar. He was drinking some sort of bourbon and fiddling with his phone. Age? About 38. Height? I'd say 6-foot-2. Weight? 200 pounds. His flannel was lined with a heavier material, like the kind laborers wear. Oh, the stories this man could probably tell. The dull, boring stories.
I was bored just sitting there next to this guy. Damn, was he a flatliner. Suddenly he looked up at me and sort of smiled.
"Hi!" I said, perhaps too enthusiastically.
"Yo," he said, giving the thumbs up sign. Ah, so he thought I was being ironically excited to see him. Poor, hapless man.
"So, what's your story?" I blurted out.
"Painting," he said with a shrug of his shoulders flaying his left hand. His hands did indeed seem to have primer on them. "On a break."
Exciting! My dad has a theory that painters are all alcoholics. Since this guy was drinking hard stuff during his break, my father seemed again to be right. With heavy drinking comes drama. I had to dig deeper. I needed to do or say the thing that would get this walnut to crack.
"What's your story?" he shot back, before I had time to probe. I paused for a second, then decided, fuck it. "Well, my father ran off on my mother and me when I was a baby; never saw him again. I was raised by her and my stepdad, who was an alcoholic. I developed eating disorders in high school and then became morbidly obese in my 20s. I had surgery to lose the weight and then became an alcoholic. I've never married because I find available men unattractive and have been having an affair with a married guy for over six years."
He just looked at me and then cracked a grin. "Nice yarn," he said, obviously thinking I had made the whole thing up. I hadn't.
"I was born a poor black child ..." he began, laughing at his own stale joke that probably seemed extra funny under the influence of booze. The Tom Petty Pandora station in the background served as a moody blue-collar backdrop.
We were at the critical time where I could say, hey, I was telling the truth. That's my life story up to now, so how's about you give me all your dirt in one fell swoop? But something in the delivery of his joke, and the way he held his glass, and his drinking on the job made me doubt that he would tell me the truth. And if he did, it would probably be boring. His significant other probably had the better story, anyway.
The bartender motioned toward his glass in a "have another?" way. The painter stopped, thought about it, then declined, slapping his hand down on the bar as he got up as a way to remind himself of the task at hand.
"Nice getting to know you," I said. This time the irony was lost on him.