Small Talk

I sat next to a man at a diner who gave me no other option.

I of course had could’ve said “no” but the bar seating was crowded and I’d signaled (with my body angle and position) I was claiming one of two seats, each next to a different man. The man on the left was larger, which meant he’d take up more of my space, but he looked quiet, and I was aiming at that seat. The smaller man on the right, who was chatting up one of the line cooks in a particularly domineering way, paused, looked me in the eye and said “I was saving you a seat!” I responded “thanks” and he said “I- I didn’t know you were coming, but I saved you a seat!”

I resigned myself to the unwanted conversation I was about to have. I initially took out a book to read, to signal busyness, a lack of availability, but it was impossible to focus on reading. This small, 57–62 year old man was in my space, and loudly pursuing a set of questions with the latino line cook about the cook’s daughter. She had evidently been serving the older man that weekend, and he asked about her. “What’s her name?” “Victoria.” “Victoria?” “Yes.” “A-and how do you say that, is that how you say it in Spanish?” “Yes. Victoria.” “Victoria?” “Yes.” “How, how old is she?” “Fifteen.” “Sixteen?” “Fifteen.” “Sixteen?” “No, no. Fifteen, with a five.” “Six-” at which point I broke in and was able to communicate to the older man our line chef was saying “Fifteen.” The older man thanked me and pointed out that I should be an interpreter. I smiled politely.

Which brought his attentions to me. He began conversation by asking me how often I come to this diner, Five Points in Asheville. “About once a month, or once every other.” “Ah,” he responded, “I come here just about every day!” He explained to me this diner is superior because the chefs cook breakfast ­all day whereas most restaurants say “NO MORE BREAKFAST!” after about eleven, which he did not quite understand. He started to explain that he knows it has something to do with the stovetop or something, at which point I, who had actually worked in a kitchen, started explaining mise en scene and how prep works, but the man’s falling face told me he did not actually wish to know, and so I kept the explanation to my vague allusions.

He asked me what I do. I told him I’m currently looking for work, but I’m primarily a writer and editor. He responded with a story about his coworker, also a CPA, who was a Marine but got a start in writing because he knew how to type. A superior officer asked his cohort if anyone could work a typewriter, and it became his job to transcribe the words of senior officers and edit them. I started to speak on how precise comprehension and expression is a specific, technical skill, but his face fell again, so I waved away my thought with a hand.

Then his eye fell on my book. Propaganda. His eyes lit up. “Oh, it’s about propaganda, huh? You mean like-” he took a dramatic pause “FAKE NEWS!?” I paused to consider my response. Simply saying yes would’ve selected for a line of conversation on American conservative talking points in which I have no interest, but “no” was an incorrect statement. In the ensuing silence, he started to speak, but I found this the correct moment to cut him off, “as a subset of propaganda, the news is discussed, certainly.”

He took interest in the particularity with which I spoke and began to discourse. “D-do you know Walter Cronkite?”

“I know of Walter Cronkite.”

“You know, back in the day there were only three news networks. The news was different. Not like how it is now. You know, the media, people complain about FOX News but it’s all-” A familiar line of conversation with known ends. I’d no desire to converse about how old media worked with this man using exact words I’d heard come from at least tens of mouths. My face looks young, and while, as time passes, the aged are less-inclined to offer opinions, unsolicited advice, or experiences to me as a matter of course, they still get started at it when I present an opening. Which I stopped by pointing out, “actually, this book was published in the 1960s! He is talking about that era in media, about how centralized media can work to make propaganda ubiquitous.”

When you preclude the frame within which an individual wants to present a topic from encapsulating the conversation, it allows for many potential things. In a way, I test people with this mode of interaction. I attempt to learn what a person actually wants to talk about. What is their capacity to talk about a given subject? Do they simply want empathic small talk because they’re bored or lonely? Do they genuinely want to talk about ideas? An irony in this is that many people who kind of want to small talk very quickly leap into politics, a topic which encourages wedge statements and misunderstanding, conflict between definitions and frames of reference. I prefer to try getting people to talk about history or interpretations that are outside of mass discourse while permitting its discussion. It eliminates the emotional charge involved in discussing topics from directly within their own terms and reactive framing. Often, contemporary issues are discussed in provided terminology without deviating from widely popularized terms and talking points. This creates a predictable set of conversational turns which likely end in frustration given most conversationists’ lack of expertise, knowledge, capacity for independent pursuit of understanding, or real care over issues versus consensus and validation.

Since polite confusion is a preferable state to boomer discoursing and conflict, I follow up with what I know will be a further-perplexing statement. “The author was actually a member of the French resistance in World War II, became a professor after the Nazis’ defeat, and developed an interesting mode of criticism as he explored Christian Anarchism.”

The man smiled and furrowed his brow. “Christian anarchism? Those are two words I’ve never heard together.”

Ah, a moment to tread carefully. “Yeah, actually Christians have been deeply involved with anarchist thought for a very long time! Radical interpretations of the Bible sometimes take an anarchist tone. Anyway, Ellul mistrusts the entire notion of the state, and for me that makes this book a particularly interesting analysis.”

Silence.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll find a job. You don’t meet many people who talk like you.”

I smile. “Thanks, I know I’ll get one.

“I better get back to mine!”

He puts on his jacket, leaves $2 on the counter, fondles his money clip for a second before finding it a pocket, then says “I guess I’ll see you next month!”

“Certainly!”

He leaves the diner, and I try to read, but now I can’t. The hollandaise on my benedict is perfect. Ask my waitress to complement the man who made it. She smiles, says “Definitely”. One of the line cooks turns around, grins, winks at me. I grin warmly. First wave of caffeination is euphoric. I finish my plate. I tip $3.

-11.30.2021