Talking to Strangers
“I wake up every day and create this world…how you likin’ it so far?”
Phil Doubet wears a self-designed t-shirt with the quote above. These are the words of Willie York, a well-known homeless man in Peoria, Illinois, who Phil once talked to at a gas station on Monroe Street.
In 2005, Phil talked to 333 people. He honored them through self-publishing their stories word-for-word in a 600 page book entitled My Pryor Year: A 333 Soul Anthology. His inspiration was a book from his own childhood, called Pioneers of the Ozarks, written by his great uncle Lennis Broadfoot. Lennis lived in Dent County, Missouri and his life work was to compose character profiles of the Ozarks pioneers. He “would go to different villages and draw people in charcoal and then listen to their stories.”
Phil did not carry the charcoal that his great uncle carried decades before. He carried a tape recorder. “When I decided to go out and talk to people, I really didn’t have a plan in mind. I went out to restaurants. I went out to bookstores. I went out to people on the street. Random people at random times.”
Phil wanted his book to be “Central Illinois-centric.” He sought to define the area through other people’s words: Caterpillar Inc. employees, Michael Reagan, Richard Pryor, Jr., Arlo Guthrie, tamale salesman Willie Smith, and mortician Joe Hott, to name a few. “Whether they are famous or the average person on the street, or people who don’t even have a home, he found out what was important to them,” says Fitz Doubet of his father’s project.
When he approached a stranger, Phil told them that he was writing a book and then asked, ” ‘Can you have a conversation with me?’ And they would,” Phil says matter-of-factly. “One of the first guys I talked to was Harold Quinn. I was at a restaurant in Farmington and this guy dropped his pack of cigarettes, so I picked them up and we got to talking. I asked him if I could record our conversation. He told me a story about getting his hand mangled in a corn picker.”
“You know how some people won’t really tell people who are close to them certain things, but they’ll tell total strangers intimate details?”
Sometimes Phil asked specific questions, surprising people in their daily routines. He remembers a moment when he was standing in the entryway of Barnes & Noble. Just waiting. “This young girl walked in. I didn’t say anything to her except, Ã«What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?’ She looked up in the sky and told me a story about going fishing with her father and watching the sunrise. And then I told her what I was doing.”
“What was your purpose in writing this book?” Fitz asks.
“I was looking for answers without really knowing what the question was. I was just having a rough time in my life then. I just wanted to learn more,” Phil says.
Learning about our own lives through the powerful act of listening… as a StoryCorps Facilitator, I seek to be as courageous as Phil Doubet by opening my ears to words of wisdom in every crevice of every conversation.
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