An Interesting Encounter

A little over a month ago, a huge storm rolled through overnight. It woke me up once and Zeke too. The other dog, Oak, slept through the whole thing, deaf as he is. The next morning, my apartment courtyard, the sidewalks, and the cars parked in the street were littered with leaves, twigs and hailstones. I fed the dogs and took them down the green and white sidewalks to the small park a block from my apartment. As they did their business, I watched a man with a bicycle stop a young guy across the street. They were looking at their phones together. I heard the young guy say, “Sorry, I can’t help,” and walk away. The man took his bicycle and walked it across to my side of the street. Oak was just pinching off a turd.

“Hey, brother,” bicycle man said. He walked across the grass to me.

“Watch it,” I said and pointed to the ground and Oak’s pile that the man was about to step in.

He looked down. “Man! It hailed last night, huh?” Before I could reply he said, “I wonder if you can help me. I got a new phone and I don’t know how to text someone.”

He pulled out his phone and showed it to me. “I want to send a text to this guy,” he said, pointing at a name in his contact list. Then he went back to the home screen. It said For Emergency Calls Only. I was about to tell him that the problem was that his phone didn’t have service. But before I could say anything, he hit the text app icon. The guy he wanted to text had sent a message before. So I walked him through replying. I figured it wouldn’t work, and then I could point out the warning on the home screen. After showing him to hit the blue triangle to send the text, it looked like it went through. He gave me a big smile. “Thanks, brother. Now how do I get back?” I showed him how to both go back one level and also how to go straight to the home screen. A big smile from him again. “Thanks, brother.”

I picked up Oak’s pile in a plastic grocery bag and threw it in the black steel trash barrel. I started to head back to my building. The man started to head the opposite way with his bicycle, but he stopped.

“Hey, brother. I’m putting on an event over in RiNo*. It’s on June fifteenth. It’s a concert. Miller is playing. It’s going to make a ton of work for people, the people that want to work. I like to create jobs for those people. Not everyone wants to work, but some do. It’s better than them sleeping in this park while you’re trying to walk your dogs. Right?”

“It’s not that bad usually. Everyone pretty much keeps to themselves,” I replied.

“Yeah, you’re right. It is better when they want to work. And that’s why I’m putting this concert on, so I can give jobs to those who want to work. Look, you live in this neighborhood. I’m moving out of this neighborhood. But you should come to my event. I’m friends with the owner and putting this concert on so I can give people work. If they want to work. Remember — June fifteenth in RiNo.”

“I’ll try to remember,” I said as I turned and walked down the green and white sidewalks back to my apartment.

“Great! See you there. Thanks again, brother.” He headed south with his bicycle, the opposite direction from RiNo.

This interesting little scene has stuck in my mind. Oddities always do, especially when you have the perfect confluence of events. In this case, the neighborhood looked a bit surreal with the aftermath of the storm, which couldn’t have produced a better backdrop for my interaction with bicycle man. And…there’s something else about the whole situation. Something that seems meaningful. Yet I can’t put my finger on it.

What do we have here? A familiar environment made strange. A man who wants to do something that should be impossible (sending a text on a serviceless phone), but it seems to work anyway. And this man walking a bicycle proclaiming to have a big plan to help people when he’s clearly just a homeless guy. (Note: many of the homeless around here use bicycles to carry their stuff around. They stash their belongings somewhere, go out with an empty bike, and then scrounge around for whatever they can find. Then they tote it all back to their cache on the bike.) In other words, we have a situation where nothing happens the way it’s supposed to.

I don’t have an answer yet. But for now, this little scene can serve as an example of the genesis of good writing. Sometimes a great piece of writing does start with some big idea. But not always. Other times it comes from remembering an experience, a situation, a person. A good writer stockpiles these little things. An experience can turn into a plot device, a situation into a setting, a person into a character.

My first though is to use this encounter for an ad. It seems ads today always show some idealized portrait of our lives, and of course how such a utopia is only possible with the advertised brand. Shiny cars, good food, sunny days, smiling faces in trendy, clean clothes. Everything is happy and bright. But sometimes life sucks. Sometimes it’s just weird. Why not show this in our ads? I mean, really, who determined that some obviously fake perfect world would resonate more with an audience? Why not show how life actually is sometimes? Why not let your spokesman be a presumed homeless guy with a new phone going around inviting people to fake concerts?

It could work. It’s a quirky scene, memorable. I’m sure there’s some product or business that it would fit. Maybe a startup. It all starts with a dream, like a little concert. Most people won’t believe you. They may think you’re a little nuts. They’re probably right. But maybe this guy really is putting on a concert. It doesn’t matter if I believe him. If the story is true, a concert will be held regardless of my belief. If the story isn’t true, maybe him telling it could help him someday want to make it real. There’s some parallels between bicycle man and an entrepreneur. You don’t need everyone to believe in you to make a great company. You just have to ignore the hail and piles of dog crap. When someone won’t help, you find the person that will. You just go do it and tell everyone what you’re doing. Could make a nice origination story for a company: “I had an idea, something no one else had thought of. Everyone thought I was crazy. No one believed I could do it. Then I did it.”

But the real point is that you never know where an idea will come from. And when an idea does come, you still need some basic raw material to flesh it out. And you’re not going to get that raw material sitting around reading stupid blogs like this one. You’re not going to find them while studying best practices or pouring over the latest data on your digital performance metrics. You’ll only find these ideas by going out into the real world, observing people in real situations, talking to (or eavesdropping on) people in coffee shops and bars. You’ll only discover these ideas by helping a homeless man send a text on a phone with no service and telling him that you’ll go to a concert he’s putting on with the owner of an entire city district so he can give jobs to other homeless people (but only those that want to work).

Do I have the making of a good story, a poem, an ad? I don’t know yet. But I know I’m now one step closer. So to bicycle man, wherever you are — thanks, brother.

*For anyone unfamiliar with Denver, RiNo is the nickname for a neighborhood called the River North Art District, which lies just northeast of downtown.

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