Content to be a Stranger among Strangers.

There I am, talking to strangers in Haiti with travel editor Jerry Flemmons, right, just before we rode the Tap Tap bus over the mountains. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford.
There I am, talking to strangers in Haiti with travel editor Jerry Flemmons, right, just before we rode the Tap Tap bus over the mountains. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford.

I STOOD BEFORE the friends of the library, a lovely little lady in a purple dress asked me a question that hit me right between the eyes.

“What have you done for most of life?” she asked.

My mind immediately began to sort through the years.

I had a job, more than one.

I earned a paycheck, some larger than others.

But nobody cared.

Then it struck me.

I had thought for a long time I was a writer.

Maybe I am.

Maybe I’m not.

That has been debated from time to time.

I’ve written for newspapers.

And I’ve interviewed:

Mayors.

Winos.

Bums.

Rodeo riders.

Murderers.

Grieving widows.

Gunshot victims.

Policemen.

POWs.

And Presidents.

I’ve written for magazines.

And I’ve interviewed:

The oldest men I could find whittling and whistling on a courthouse lawn in small town America.

Politicians.

Hot Rod drivers.

Environmentalists.

Movie stars.

Country musicians.

TV evangelists.

Radio pitchmen.

And ghost hunters.

I’ve written nonfiction books.

And I’ve interviewed:

Old time cowboys.

Oilmen.

Chefs.

Actors.

Helicopter pilots.

Native Americans.

Texas Rangers.

And prospectors.

I stole their memories.

I told their stories.

But did I know any of them?

No.

I didn’t until I sat down with them for the first time.

And mostly that was the last time I ever saw them.

I wrote about them, so I guess I’m a writer.

But that’s not what I’ve done for most of my life.

I answered the lady in the purple dress with one simple truth.

“My job is simple to define,” I said.

“I go where I’ve never been before.

“I go where I’ll never be again.

“And when I get there, I have one assignment.

“I talk to strangers.”

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  • Don Newbury

    Should be a goal of all writers, this matter of talking to strangers….

    • Caleb Pirtle

      The more I talk to them, Don, the stranger I get.

  • Roger Summers

    Stranger than fiction. And then, eventually, maybe it becomes fiction.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Roger, in my case, it starts out as fiction and eventually becomes the truth.

  • I love talking to strangers. I do it whenever I can.

    My problem is that I seldom leave the house.

    It embarrasses my daughter no end how I will talk to ANYONE ANYWHERE ANY TIME.

    I think I’m starved.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Alicia, I believe strangers are a better source of good information than encyclopedias. I wish you could talk to them more. It’s the greatest entertainment around.

  • Carol Toberny

    My favorite people once were strangers!

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Without strangers, Carol, I might not have any friends.

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