Well… no one said it would always be easy. This whole tour has been a learning experience for me, in so many ways. Here in North Carolina, I am finding both new and old challenges.
Brian and I headed out to Chapel Hill and Durham today, hoping to find a “sweet spot” for me to sit with my sign.
Chapel Hill was first. On this humid day of 95 degrees, we set out in my aunt and uncle’s car (thankfully equipped with GPS) to look for Franklin Street, which is a quaint business district and social hub for students and community around the University of North Carolina. Perhaps partly because of the weather, we didn’t see much foot traffic on the street, and the people we did see were moving pretty slowly, in contrast to the bustling masses I had encountered in Boston and New York. I set up with my sign near a bus stop, facing what foot traffic there was… but got no takers. I sat for only 15 minutes, but it felt like much longer. One passerby saw the sign and smiled at me, but others either walked past without looking, or eyed me and/or the sign with puzzlement and/or suspicion. I felt awkward and out of place. I reminded myself that part of what I have intended to do on this tour is to challenge myself and push my comfort zone in situations such as this. So, I continued to sit, and to smile at people as they walked past.
Still, I sensed that even if I sat for a full 90 minutes – my optimal amount of time – I might not get any takers. The size of the town (I whipped out my phone and discovered the population is only 58,000) and the fact that most students were gone for the summer were not working in my favor. My aunt and uncle and their friends had suggested some other locations in the area that might work well, so I decided to try elsewhere.
We got back in the car and headed for Durham (population 279,000), home of Duke University. We had heard that Ninth Street was the “hippie part of town,” so I thought I might find a receptive audience there. When we arrived, though, the street seemed even more deserted than Franklin had been. Again, school was not in session, and in the heat and humidity, even those folks who were patronizing the businesses on that street were indoors, luxuriating in the air conditioning.
We drove through campus, to see if we could spot any groups of people. Nope.
I decided to Google the Durham public library, since the Portland library had been a good spot for me. We found the address, and headed toward downtown to check it out in person. The building we encountered was much more modern than the Portland library, appearing to have been built around the 1970s. It was surrounded by a large parking lot. I was dubious that there would be enough foot traffic to work well, but thought I should give it a try.
I found a spot in the shade, near the door, but not on the path into it, since there were no steps leading in. Brian went inside to explore the library, and I set up my sign. Once again, I felt somewhat awkward in this setting with not many people. There was a somewhat steady stream of people going in and out from their cars, but they didn’t seem interested to stop. One middle-aged man looked at the sign, smiled, and walked past. Later, a middle-aged woman asked, “What is empathy?” When I answered, she said, “Oh,” and walked past, asking another man if he had a light for her cigarette. One other group of women walked by and smiled, but I couldn’t tell if they were responding to me and my sign, or just enjoying a joke or happy experience amongst themselves. Most people who walked past, if they read the sign, looked puzzled and/or dubious, and did not interact with me.
I became very aware of my feelings of awkwardness, and some of the factors that contributed to them. I noticed that a certain level of activity seems to be necessary for people to be interested in stopping. A certain distance from people seems socially comfortable; too far, and it becomes a real commitment for someone to approach. Public transit – or at least the urban density that makes public transit workable – seems to be an important factor. Here in the “research triangle” of North Carolina, there is a lot of sprawl, and no light-rail or subway system. Hence, the places feel different, with more room for cars and less for people. Also, the heat and humidity seemed to encourage people to move more slowly, and to spend more time indoors rather than stopping to talk to someone outside.
I spent another 15 minutes – which again felt much longer – at the library, then decided to pack it up. We drove to another area that seemed like it might be promising, but found almost no one there either. Dark storm clouds began to portend the electrical storm that had been forecast, and we decided to head back home. (On our way, the storm hit, knocking down a large evergreen over several lanes on the highway and causing us to drive over the median to avoid it. By the time we arrived home in the evening, the storm had passed, and the forecast indicates that tomorrow should be sunny and pleasant, in the mid-80s.)
So… once again I was disappointed that things did not flow as smoothly as they did in the beginning of the tour, and that I wasn’t able to contribute anything meaningful to the residents of this area. But, hope springs eternal for my last day: We will go into Raleigh (state capital, population 500,000) and do our darnedest to find some folks who would like some empathy!
I do want to take this moment to make a plea to anyone reading who may have wanted to contribute financially to the tour, but who hasn’t done so yet. I am down to less than two days remaining in my Indiegogo campaign, and I have raised $1205, just $45 shy of halfway to my $2500 goal. I would love to at least hit the halfway mark before the campaign is over; I need to cover travel expenses and lost pay, since I am taking two weeks’ unpaid leave for this trip. Every dollar counts… and perks include Happy to Listen and/or Dream Into Change sessions! If you’re interested in contributing, or spreading the word to your friends on Facebook, the link is http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/east-coast-empathy-tour
Meanwhile… stay tuned to see what happens in Raleigh tomorrow!