After months of eighty hour work weeks, waiting tables, bar-tending and making burritos (not to mention some procrastination) in Bar Harbor, the stories are finally edited and on the website.
It was so hard to choose from the seventy two wonderful interviews I collected, especially because I have a personal connection with everyone I interviewed. I tried to choose a good assortment of interviews on various themes, collected from all over the country.
I'm moving to San Francisco in a few days and I'm going to try to be a better blogger from now on. Thank you all for your patience and support!
Lauren Rideout takes me in--Branson, Missouri
I'm sure I sound like a broken record at this point, but the amount of kindness that was shown to me, far exceeded the amount of stories I've collected about kindness (and I interviewed about 50 people). I rarely needed to ask for directions because people would ask me if I was lost before I got the chance and not only because I constantly looked confused. I had my breakfast paid for in a diner in Memphis by a guy who said I reminded him of his daughter, got a ride to Harrison Arkansas, a couch in Branson MIssouri all from complete strangers. Not to mention all of my friends and family who put up with my last minute couch requests and everyone who made this project possible in the first place by contributing to my Kickstarter. So, THANK YOU! All of you! For everything!! I'll write more about the whole trip, but I wanted to take the time to thank all of y'all first!
I got off the train in Browning, Montana with only two other people, onto a dusty platform. It's so flat that you can see for miles and miles beyond the trailers and small homes, beyond the casino and the few gas stations. Other than El Paso, this was the only place that I was so intensely warned against. I also stuck out "like a sore thumb" according to a man I talked with at the Museum of the Plains Indians. Browning is the home of the Blackfeet Nation reservation. In the summer there are some tourists, but not so much in the winter so I was the only outsider wandering around. This stop was challenging on a few levels. It is difficult to be an outsider and I honestly felt kind of like a jerk with my fancy recorder and my neon bright backpack, walking amongst the stray dogs and garbage blowing with the tumbleweed. I waited with the railroad attendant, named Dewey Butterfly, on the morning that I was to get back on the train. He spoke out against the white people who put them in this economic situation. As a white person, there's no way I can actually relate to his struggle so figuring out what to say in response was often hard. It's this horrible cycle, many people on the reservation can't get jobs elsewhere, the economy plummets, tourists are scared to come to the reservation, and the economy gets even worse. The train station (a room with a bench) was to be demolished soon, and Dewey said I could be one of the last people to ever wait in the station that was built in 1907. This was also an incredible experience, I was completely out of my comfort zone, which was the point of the whole project and it really made me examine the way I see this country, for bad and for good.
I visited my brother, Ned in Steamboat Springs Colorado. We drove all over, he picked me up in Denver, we drove to our friend's in Carbondale and finally he drove me back to Denver so I could continue on my way to San Francisco. I was driving his white Subaru Outback way up in the mountains between Steamboat and Denver, in the middle of the high desert when suddenly a puff of smoke comes out of the engine and hits the windshield. At first it looks like a snowball, but upon using my brain for a second, considering there was so snow up there, and with Ned telling me to, I pulled over. Immediately, the guy driving an SUV behind us pulled over and takes the initiative since we have absolutely no knowledge of cars, he pops the hood and tells us what he thinks is wrong (a broken radiator hose), tells us about where we are and makes sure we have cell service before driving off. It was a beautiful sunny day and we happened to be broken down alongside some beautiful fields, the only sign of human activity being hay bales, barbed wire and the road itself--so at least we had a nice view.
In the hour or so that it takes for the tow truck to come and drive us to the nearest town, about six concerned motorists stop to see if we're okay. Each one makes sure we're safe, have cell reception, have help coming and then make some general small talk. This is one of those situations in which people would probably not answer that they stopped out of kindness to us, they would say they stopped because it's their 'duty' as humans. I see these two as inextricably tied; it doesn't matter which one of these terms, duty or kindness, was the initiating factor, the outcome is the same: Ned and I felt a huge amount of kindness was bestowed upon us in that hour on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere Colorado.
On a 16-hour greyhound from Dallas, Texas to Las Cruces, New Mexico I ended up sitting next to Peter from Dallas who, after introducing himself, said he was visiting his fiance? (he said it with the question mark in his tone) near Las Cruces. He went on to tell me all about how he 'sort of accidentally proposed' to his now fiance....there was some wine, some talk of marriage, and there happened to be a ring in his pocket... We spent the next 13 or so hours talking about his predicament: Did he really even want to marry her? Was it either break up or get married? Was he too young? They were pretty typical pre-marriage freak out questions ('typical' being of my vast knowledge of romantic comedies). This conversation was a godsend to me as it was an amazing distraction from the recently released felons sitting across the row from me, hacking up a lung. When we were about to get the bus, at first light, Peter hugged me and told me that he would never have figured this out without someone to talk to and that I was definitely going to be invited to the wedding that he decided he was pretty sure would be ensuing in the next couple of years. This was one of those situations where two strangers made a serious connection, I learned way more about him than I ever thought possible of a random greyhound man, and he was able to spill his guts and get a completely non-partisan perspective on the subject. He made the trip enjoyable for me and I made this situation easier for him, just by having ears and the ability to nod.
Tornado damage in Branson, MO
I somehow, semi-randomly ended up in LIttle Rock, Arkansas--a place I only knew about in terms of being a symbol of desegregation in the late 50's. I needed to kill some time between my stay in Memphis and my friend's wedding in Dallas, so I looked at the map and Little Rock is basically the only place between the two. I stayed with a guy named Jake I met on couchsurfing
. Over a beer at a bar called Stickyz, he told me that since I'm already in Arkansas, I might as well check out the Ozarks and he immediately started calling his friends he knew in the area. No one was responding, but the next night he had 'overbooked' his couch and two girls (who are fourth cousins), Daisha and Lauren and I had a slumber party on Jakes floor. Turns out, they both live in the Ozark area, Daisha in Harrison, AR and Lauren in Branson MO. So, after Lauren ran the marathon that they were in town for, the three of us bid farewell to our host and drove three hours north to Harrison AR, which happens to also be the hometown of the leader of the KKK. I spent two nights up there, the first with Daisha in her home next to the church she attends. We went to the annual 'wild game night' fundraiser for the youth group where we ate fried frogs legs, wild boar sausage and lots of deer, all hunted and cooked by members of the congregation. Early the next morning, Daisha drove me thirty minutes to Branson, to spend the day and night with Lauren. Lauren let me use her blinkerless car all day to wander and interview people, before taking me out to a local Irish pub.
My point in sharing this string of events is to show that in three days I was shown countless acts of kindness by multiple people. Jake and these girls, with no hesitation, offered me a ride, a place to stay, conversation, even the keys to a car. More than that, though, they offered me three completely different perspectives of these places; Jake, a grad student going for two masters degrees; Daisha an uber religious, rock climber, pre-teen youth group leader; and Lauren, a wanderlusty and wonderfully fun recreation manager at a resort in Branson, MO. All of us, though very different, were flung together and now have a connection, even a friendship, that was sparked by the kindness they shared with me and with each other.
Oxford, Mississippi Court House
On Sunday I went to get a tea at Square Books, a bookstore in the center of Oxford, Mississippi. I had just come from the Sunday service at the First Baptist Church, in which its ‘revival week,’ with my friend and wonderful Oxford host, Owen. It was possibly the most intense thing I’ve ever sat through; a visiting preacher yelling at the congregation about how they need to be saved, but how even if they are saved, they might still go to hell. Anyway, I’m at this bookstore and start talking to the store clerk because there are Eudora Welty quotes all over the store. Due to my curiosity about Eudora Welty, mostly because of our name similarities, I ask her the significance of Eudora in relation to Oxford (turns out the famous southern writer is from Jackson, MS which is just south of Oxford). The clerk’s name is Susie, she’s a grad student in Southern Studies at Ole Miss and she’s very interested in pursuing a career in oral history. We talk for about ten minutes, and when I mention that I’m trying to get to Memphis but that there’s no bus there and no one has responded to my rideshare plea, she offers to take me the hour and a half to Memphis.
Today I took her up on that ride and we ended up making a wonderful connection; talking about Kickstarter has made her think about trying to pursue an oral history project and she inspired me to think about oral histories in my future as well. She’s hoping to come to Maine this summer to visit, all based on a ten-minute conversation in a bookstore, a car ride and talking over lunch in a (wicked good) BBQ spot in Memphis. It’s crazy how two people can be complete strangers one minute and thinking about traveling across the country to visit each other the next; all because of a split second decision to help someone.
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I decided to go to Birmingham, Alabama last minute, while still in DC, to visit my friend Elizabeth-Anne. Elizabeth-Anne is an amazing planner; so about ten minutes after she picked me up, we were at the Lovelady Center (TLC), a home for women struggling with addiction, homelessness or women who are court ordered there after or instead of prison. The whole center is ‘Jesus based’ as our tour guide put it. We attended a luncheon and a graduation ceremony for women who have completed the program. There was ‘praise dancing,’ interpretive, very emotional dancing to Christian pop songs. I cried during the luncheon when the women lined up and walked, one by one, across the stage holding signs with how they saw themselves before TLC on one side and how they see themselves now. We were introduced to a woman named Tracy, a staff member who went through a similar program herself years before. After hearing about my project, she literally approached every woman she saw and asked if they had a story of kindness to share. After the tenth or eleventh story, we were ready to head out, but it took us another hour or so to leave because she was so excited about getting me stories. Three of the woman tried to save me while being interviewed, which was an interesting experience in itself, but even more bizarre knowing that I could listen to my awkward response later. The kindness I saw between the women and between the women and the staff was incredible. Not only did I get some amazing stories, but also the experience shifted my perception of a very religious group from one of uncertainty to one of respect. While the women didn’t succeed in attempting to ‘save’ me, they did succeed in showing me that there are many, many ways to help people—and this one works incredibly well in creating a cohesive and loving community.
I went into a pub a few blocks away from the capital building in DC and I felt like I was walking into a small appalachian town bar. There were mounted deer heads, and the quintessential older drunk men arguing over my query as to the age of the 'Tune Inn,' (it's either 1947 or 1955). There were political guys in suits at a booth, a young couple celebrating Valentines day and a very loud Scottish man in the corner having an argument with the bartender about the correct usage of the word 'pie.' The bartender was an older woman, with a gray bun on top of her head and a Valentine's Day themed sweater, complete with heart-shaped pin. When I told her about my project, she immediately went into a story about the day a few weeks ago when she, her daughter and her granddaughters were moving into a new house. Her car stalled out and when her daughter attempted to get out and push two men appeared out of nowhere and moved her car into a parking lot. Two days later, she was driving her daughter's car, when she stalled out at a stoplight, and she said that she stopped and prayed. Immediately, a woman came out of nowhere and called a bunch of people over to push her out of the road. She told me that her prayers are almost always answered immediately because she stays positive. I suppose I've found the same thing is true on this trip, the moment I think I won't get a story, I won't have a place to stay or I can't get to where I want to go, a ride comes through. a couch opens up or I meet an interesting character to interview. I think along with attempting to stay positive, people really do just want to help. The only way this trip has worked so far is because of people's kindness, not my positivity; without the people I've met and stayed with along this trip, I'd be sitting on the side of the road somewhere.
I left Portland for my adventure on Superbowl Sunday insanely excited about the trip, but doubting my ability to meet and interview lots of random people. I was scared about interrupting people, being rude and generally freaking people out. About twenty minutes into my very first bus ride of the trip headed to New York City, on the crowded upstairs of a Megabus, I met my first interviewee--an Israeli man who was also traveling the country. After that I realized that all I have to do is talk to people. This just kept happening during my five day--completely wild-- stay in New York, I’d start talking to someone at a diner in the Lower East Side or a bar in Bushwick or in the J train and almost everyone I’ve asked have opened up immediately and have been happy to share their story with me and my recorder. New Yorkers may be pinned as cold, but I found that the only cold people were ones I hadn't talked to yet.