To have conversations with strangers in an unknown place gives one a better understanding of the surroundings. It offers a small glimpse into the stranger’s world of experiences and knowledge. Together, strangers can offer one another so much, even if the conversation is a brief one. It’s funny how quickly another individual can enter and exit one’s life. Before meeting, one is absolutely incapable of telling what will come out of a conversation, what someone’s history and future hold, or even the most basics about who they are.
My partner Ben and I have started an amazing adventure together. We left our home and our jobs behind, moved out of a familiar city and are spending our savings on a ten-month road trip across the United States and Canada. So far, we’ve only been gone for seven days. A tiny fraction of our long and beautiful trip. However, within those seven days we have been able to spend some time with a handful of wonderful people at different moments, in different places.
Marlee and John live in “the birdhouse” in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They have a collection of real birdhouses on their porch, and when you step inside their home, their living room ceiling is adorned with leaves and branches. Their home is filled with the work of artists, baskets of knitting projects, and numerous plants — all of which create an inspiring aura of creativity.
While we were in Grand Rapids, Marlee allowed us to stay in her artist residency space at the back of her store, Have Company. We wanted to make Marlee and John dinner to thank them. The four of us talked about a lot of things. Since John is a musician, we spoke about the independent music scene in Grand Rapids. For the past few years, he’s helped organize a small music festival that’s located in different people’s living rooms, including in their own. John described how the events help promote the knowledge of local musicians to local residents as the entry fee remains low and accessible to the neighbourhood community.
Sure, Marlee and John are married, but they don’t necessarily fit the suburban capitalist mould. Marlee owns her one store, welcomes artists (loosely defined) from all over, runs workshops, and sells things that most of us can only find online. John is a freelance photographer and videographer, and mostly works with other musicians. Their vision of the world provides a refreshing alternative to hyper consumerism – they’re not it in for the money, but they have an eye for beauty, for quality alternative art forms, and they take care in the work they do – for themselves and for their community.
That same evening, Ben and I went to a downtown pinball bar called The Pyramid Scheme. We were told to go and try some Michigan beer from a craft brewery called Shorts – a beer only available in Michigan. A smiling bartender took our order and we decided to stay at the bar in hopes of some good company. As the drink orders slowed, the bartender gave us a sample of his famous mixed drink. “Do you like coffee?” he asked. The drink was excellent. Smooth and just the kick that we needed to keep us going for a few more hours. “Who should we give credit for this drink?” I asked. “Julius. Julius Hayes” he responded.
Julius was born in Grand Rapids, spent some time in the south, but eventually came back. He works two bartending gigs. One at the Pyramid Scheme and the other at Founders, a well known brewery from Grand Rapids. He was quick to point out how rare it is to find a black bartender in Grand Rapids – he might actually be the only one. Michigan is a white-dominated state and Grand Rapids is no exception. Julius spoke about how lucky he was to be a person of colour with a job. Most black folks are born into poverty and the intersections between race and class are clear. He likes working at the Pyramid Scheme because it’s one of the only places in Grand Rapids that you can find a diverse crowd of people.
Julius’ shift ended at 9:00pm, so we met him for another drink at a bar across the street. He’s a storyteller and we loved listening. Julius is also a musician – part of Convotronics. He told us about one of the songs he wrote. It was about a vegan woman he was seeing and how challenging it was to cook her dinner. He had no idea at the time that Ben was also vegan.
We left Grand Rapids the next day – our hearts full with the hospitality from these strangers. We drove all day, ending up in Lexington, Kentucky – an adorably small city. A friend of an uncle of Ben’s opened his apartment to us and let us stay the night. He wasn’t in town so we didn’t get the chance to meet him, but we did meet the partner of the downstairs neighbour. His name is Steve. He was in town from Michigan for the college break. He teaches German at a college in the northern state.
Steve got us settled in, then we all went out for a drink at the craft brewery conveniently located a block away. We planned on staying for one drink, but extended it because the conversation kept flowing. It could have probably lasted until well into the next day. Some of his academic background focussed on the shifting borders of Europe so we got into talking of the political, social, and cultural ramifications of arbitrary borders. I told him of my father’s experience as a Greek Cypriot, originally from the Turkish occupied north. Ben spoke about his family origins in what is now known as Belarus. Conversations with Steve ranged from his upbringing in Michigan, to the significance of limestone in Kentucky, to the struggles of post-secondary education in the US and Canada and the pervasiveness of education privatization.
These conversations can’t be extrapolated to assume local patterns, nor can they offer any sort of generalization, but they do allow us to say that there are good, humble, critical, intelligent, creative, and kind people in these places. None of them had to take time to sit down with us, they didn’t have to share their stories, but they did and we are so grateful. Hopefully our trip will allow us to connect with others in different places, and to have many more meaningful conversations with good people.
There are good people everywhere.
Note: All of these folks have allowed us to share our experiences with them and they have consented to use their real names. Thank you Marlee, John, Julius, and Steve for allowing us to take up a moment in your lives. You’ve given us laughter, smiles, and knowledge.