Joined: 19 Dec 2002
|Posted: Fri Feb 07, 2020 10:48 pm Post subject: A Confederacy of Chance Encounters
|A Confederacy of Chance Encounters
After college in Kansas I traveled through Europe and ran into just the kind of guy I’d hoped to avoid. Six months, six thousand miles and one passed-around paperback later, he’d help me through a quarter-life crisis.
Narratively | Robert Weinstein
I’m sitting in the common room of the lone youth hostel in Holland’s Hoge Veluwe National Park with an American named Chad, a tall, gangly guy with a mop of messy brown hair. I’ve just met him a couple minutes ago, but our lack of familiarity with each other doesn’t stop us from completely grilling Avi, an interesting Israeli traveler in his early twenties who just walked in with a very noticeable limp.
“How long did it take to recover?” I ask Avi.
“Three months of healing and six months of physical therapy.”
Avi spent some time in the Israeli Defense Force. Chad and I are getting as many details as we can about his decision to once fill a duffel bag with fifty pounds of army equipment, hoist the bag onto his shoulder and hop on one leg until he injured it beyond repair, earning Avi an honorable discharge.
“And your friends, your family? Did you tell them what you did?” Chad asks.
“They were disappointed but they understood that it was my choice. They respected it.”
Youth hostel common rooms are petri dishes of traveler chitchat, where conversations produce traveling tips and really great stories. This is a fascinating one, and Chad thinks so too.
He follows up, asking Avi: “It’s a tremendous risk though. Why did you take it?”
“I have no desire,” Avi explains, “to go to war with people I have nothing against.”
I realize I like Chad. He asks great questions and is as intrigued as I am by the rationale behind Avi’s curious actions.
But I’m going to try to avoid Chad as much as I can once this conversation’s over.
This was the summer of 1993, and I had just completed my undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas. I grew up in West Bloomfield, Michigan, living a fairly sheltered existence in a suburb built to house the upwardly mobile citizens of a rapidly decaying Detroit. This trip was my first time outside the United States, and I wanted to know what the world was like elsewhere.
The plan was to travel through Europe and then find a theater job in London — acting, house managing, selling tickets; anything that would get me in the door — where I would work for six months before returning to the states for my brother’s wedding and begin my career as an actor and writer. Meeting Chad was cool, but he felt too familiar, too American. Getting the most out of this experience meant spending more time with people like Avi. I could always meet another Chad when I returned to the States.
On my last night at the hostel, Chad and I were reading in the common room. He had just finished his book and I’d completed “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole. Instead of filching from the hostel’s library, we traded, inscribing our names in the front covers.
I left Holland the next day, connected with my friend Lisa and spent the next three months on the road. We watched puppet shows on the streets of Prague. We played miniature golf with Bohemians and slid across marble floors in museum-issued slippers in Karlovy Vary. We got a crash course in modern Hungarian art and were almost mugged by a one-legged man in Budapest. (“Why don’t you touch my leg?” he said rather menacingly. “I don’t want to touch your leg!” I replied rather nervously.) We dined with the family of a very nice man we met on a train and spent my birthday with a group of Australian journalists in Warsaw. We saw a parade marshaled by then-President of Poland Lech Walesa and traded cigarettes and stories with vacationing Polish teenagers in Gdansk. And we got lost after nightfall behind the barbed-wire fences of Birkenau. (Don’t do it people. Trust me. It’s creepy.)
The traveling energized me. Lisa and I became adept at finding our way through each new city and miming our way through conversations with non-native English speakers. I was introduced to what the world had to offer. I couldn’t wait to get to London to start taking advantage of it.
One morning at a hostel in Antwerp, Belgium — our last stop before London — Lisa and I were talking to an American woman who I noticed was reading “A Confederacy of Dunces.” “A friend of mine gave it to me,” she said. “He didn’t like it very much.”
She passed it to me and when I opened the cover to read the introduction, I saw my name inscribed in the front cover. She and Chad were childhood friends and they’d recently met up in Paris. He said he’d gotten the book from “some guy” in Holland who “seemed okay,” but the book “didn’t do much for him.”
I laughed at the fluke and didn’t mind being labeled “okay.” After all, he was just another Chad.
The next six months were much, much harder, as it turned out. Finding a job seemed to take forever. The longer I looked, the more I began to understand that my theater degree and work experience in accounting offices and as a Sandwich Artist at Subway did not endear me to potential employers. Money became an issue as well. Traveling had taken a toll on my bank account that my enthusiasm couldn’t replenish. London was expensive, which meant I couldn’t do much while out of work. I spent days looking for jobs and nights wandering different areas of the city, looking at places I couldn’t go while watching people I didn’t meet. This loneliness eroded my confidence and I felt completely isolated from the city.
I did eventually find a non-paying job: four nights a week as a bartender in a small room on the second level of a Clapham pub. A week after that I found a paying one as a salesman for a specialty toy store in Knightsbridge. The wage was lousy and the hours were long. As an added bonus, I began the jobs at the end of October, just as the holiday season began assaulting our senses. The requests for drinks and toys increased as the season progressed, which meant my bosses needed more from their staff to meet this great — and entirely justifiable — demand.
By the first week of December I was working eighteen-hour days, six days a week. And on the seventh I worked a six-hour shift at the pub late into the night. I willed myself into seeing a few plays (Alan Cumming as Hamlet!), met a few movie stars at the toy store (Nicole Kidman, Tom Hanks), and got to know a couple of very generous regulars at the pub. But by New Year’s Day I was empty. I had never felt more sad, lonely and burned out. I hated London. And I hated myself for falling into this kind of life.
I saved some money, and two months later, I left the city and hitchhiked around Ireland for five weeks, regaining some — but not nearly enough — of my humanity.
I returned to the states in time for my brother Jeff’s wedding in California. On the way to his bachelor party — a barbecue on his friend’s deck in the Oakland Hills — Jeff told me about something he was dealing with at his job. He worked as a manager for Peet’s Coffee and had hired someone who was having trouble adjusting. Jeff had sat down with the guy to discuss his status and in the course of the meeting he felt there was “something” about him worth keeping. He was inexperienced but smart, and Jeff felt that with a little time, he would be fine. As a way of making him feel like a part of the company, Jeff invited him to the bachelor party. On the heels of my London experience, I felt overcome by a strong urge to hug this nameless, faceless employee and buy him a hot chocolate. I was glad my brother decided to give him another chance.
When we walked into the party, someone shouted my name. It was Chad, who was shocked to see me. My brother was shocked too: Chad was the employee he had been telling me about in the car on the way over. Jeff also told me that a few weeks earlier, Chad had walked into the store, dumbfounded by a postcard he’d received from a childhood friend of his. This homemade postcard was a photograph of her and this guy she met in Antwerp. On the back she wrote that she had run into the guy (me) who had given him (Chad) the book that he (Chad again) gave to her (Chad’s childhood friend) in Paris.
Jeff, Chad and I stood there, astonished. I finally broke the silence in true Midwestern fashion.
“Wow.” I said. “Jeez.”
Chad and I spoke for several hours that night. We initially focused on our travels but then began talking about the transition from college to work. He’d planned on making a life as a writer and laughed while admitting he hadn’t expected to find coffee shop work so difficult. It wasn’t so much the job as the pressures surrounding it. He didn’t realize how little he’d be making and how much he’d need to live in California. He understood the transition would be a challenge, but underestimated the toll it all would have on his ability to complete simple tasks, like finding an apartment or brewing coffee. He’d been so excited for the writer’s life but now that reality had created obstacles, he had forgotten what to be enthused about. He wondered if that excitement would ever return.
I loved Chad’s story and when he finished I told him mine. He listened closely and asked great questions: “Why didn’t you ask for a break?” “What did you like about working in the pub?” “Why did he ask you to touch his leg?” It was the first time I’d talked about my demoralizing time abroad, and I felt relieved to get the difficulties of the experience out in the open.
It seems simple and silly now, but I was grateful to know that I wasn’t alone. And even though I didn’t know him well, the similarities in our stories, our responses to them and the accidental run-ins made him feel — at that moment — like an old and weathered friend.
I spoke to Jeff about that night recently and he still marvels at the million things that could have prevented that meeting from happening: I originally wasn’t scheduled to be in Oakland until after the bachelor party; I was exhausted from traveling when I arrived in Oakland and didn’t decide to go to the party until the last minute; Jeff might have fired Chad; Chad might not have accepted my brother’s invitation to the party.
Chad and I did not speak to each other much after that night. I got a job at a different branch of Peet’s Coffee (nepotism!) and we periodically saw each other at company-wide parties. We tried getting together several times, but our schedules never meshed and we eventually lost touch.
I’ve always had a deep appreciation for him, though. I’ve had fistfuls of horrible jobs and experienced more severe bouts of loneliness and isolation since my time in London, but Chad was the first person to give voice to the struggle of post-college life. His words provided a vocabulary and a perspective that allowed me to recognize the normality of the experience, and for that, I’m forever grateful.
Robert Weinstein is a writer, actor, improviser and librarian living in Brooklyn, New York. He has been featured on The Moth, worked on an award-winning television pilot and periodically blogs about his love of – and relationship to – movies. He performs as a monologist for The Armando Diaz Experience at The Magnet Theater. Other than his wife, family and friends, that show is his favorite thing in the whole entire world.
This article was originally published on August 18, 2014, by Narratively.