“May I join you here?” I asked the group of three people on the second floor of a university coffee shop, by way of starting a conversation.
“We’re all doing a Masters’ of Business,” one of the two men said. “What are you studying?” asked the other, who was wearing a red button-down shirt.
“I’m a middle school drop out,” I said. I held my smile through the predictable moment of silence that followed. The surprise I elicit when I say this would be easier to bear if it was not also accompanied with a sense that the moment of silence was a moment of mourning. Others seem to start questioning how best to find a compassionate reply, and I mourn a potential collegiality I fear pointing out our cultural rift typically causes.
“So,” they said, breaking the momentarily uncomfortable silence, “where are you going?”
“I’m on my way to Massachusetts where I’ll be giving a presentation at a conference on Internet privacy, and how having it can help stop sexual assault,” I said.
Another momentary pause, this time without the obvious surprise of the first.
“You know, you happen to be near the capitol of sex trafficking in America,” the red-shirt man said.
“Really?” I asked. I’ve had this conversation before, and I knew exactly where it was going. I sighed internally but, sensing opportunity, smiled outwardly, as he continued to share what he knew about the situation with me.
The man told me that he had once been shown a video of a “rescue” effort produced by Destiny Rescue U.S.A., he cited reports of massage parlors being raided, and told me of a recent grant the US Department of Justice gave Ohio-based agencies to fight human trafficking.
Conversationally, I was friendly. I even felt I was being smooth. But I didn’t know how to shift the conversation.
“Well,” I said, “my background is technology, so I did some research about this back a few years ago when Craigslist was being accused of supporting sex trafficking. Do you remember that all going down?” He nodded. “I was really disappointed in a lot of the media coverage because, well, it was just factually wrong.”
I tried to go into some depth but felt like I was losing them. Conversations about “issues” seem so hard to keep “friendly.” I backed down, said I didn’t want to keep them from their studying, and that it was nice to meet them.
I retreated to a corner of the café with my computer, watching the sunlight drain from the sky. Darkness. It so often seems like darkness—sunlight or not.
“Hey May,” the red-shirt man said. “You want some Mediterranean salad?”
“Uh, sure,” I said. “You don’t want it anymore?”
“He had some of the hummus,” said the other man. “But it’s cold. That’s why he doesn’t want it.”
“Yeah, I’m done,” the red-shirt man said.
“Well, thanks!” I said as he handed me a tray.
“Is there a fork anywhere?” I asked. I always carry utensils with me, a plastic spork or a set of camping silverware, but I wanted to appear more “normal.”
“Well if you want to use the fork I used,” the red-shirt man said, gesturing to it on the table.
“I mean, if I’m going to eat your food, I might as well,” I replied.
“That’s a good point, right there,” the other man said with a grin. I made a mental note of the absurdity of the situation: being offered food, but not silverware, because sharing food is socially acceptable while sharing silverware is, what, gross?
Back at my computer, I started compiling the following list, with the Internet’s help, about the issues the red-shirt man and I discussed:
While hunkering over my computer in the corner, I punched the above links into URL shorteners and wrote them all on my card above the short message, “Check out these links! =)” Then I walked over to him and, with a smile, said, “Hey, I wanted to give you this. Check ‘em out whenever you have some time.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“Sure!” I said with enthusiasm. “I’ll let you get back to your study, uh, thing? Study group. It’s a study group, right?”
“Eh, more like a bickering group now,” he said.
“Well, whatever,” I said. “There are lots of ways to learn.”
I do this sort of thing a lot these days. I believe it makes a difference.
Many people I talk to talk about feeling powerless in the face of overwhelming issues like misinformation. But it turns out spreading accurate information is pretty easy. All it takes is a conversation, a pen and paper, and maybe some courage.
Everything I am, everything I do: it’s all available to you, too.
ADDENDUM: ”Are these all links?” the red-shirt man came up to me to ask.
“Oh, yes, I’m sorry if I didn’t make that clear enough,” I said.
We talked. He asked me about dropping out of middle school. Taking a page from non-violent communication, I told him brief versions of my story, answering questions in 40 words or less.
“You said you dropped out of middle-school?”
“Well, I always thought school was for two things: teaching me stuff I didn’t know, and showing me how to socialize with people. But I was always that kid other kids threw rocks at in 1st grade—literally—so I was like, well, this place doesn’t work for me!”
“How do you hear of these conferences?”
“I usually get invited. Oh yeah, that reminds me. I was invited to a conference about futurism in LA to speak on the intersection of technology and sexuality in a few months. I need to get back to Rachel about that….”
“What got you started in that?”
“I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and so I started learning about neurochemistry. I eventually made a website about it, and then got a technology job as an assistant network administrator at, ironically enough, a school! So, since then, I’ve been employed in the tech industry.”
And on, and on.
“I love hearing people’s stories,” the red-shirt man said with a smile as he walked back to his table to collect his things. His genuine interest had me smiling, too.
“Well,” he said as he approached me on his way out the door, “If you ever need a place to stay ‘round here, let me know.”
“Wow, really? Thank you!” I said.
“Yeah,” and he offered me his name and Facebook profile.
And that, dear readers, is how I survive without home or hearth. :)
(This was originally published on my other blog.)