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talking to strangers and oth er essays

michael ardan

talking to strangers

talking to strangers and other essays

michael ardan


This is an unedited proof not intended for sale or to be quoted in review.

Copyright © 2012 by Michael Ardan All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the written permission of the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in review. Published by: Grand Street Books An imprint of Tribeca Publishing 154 Grand Street New York, NY 10013 Author’s note: The events described in these essays are true. Some names and identifying characteristics have been changed. COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY STEPHEN MITCHELL BOOK DESIGN BY HYPE&BOND

I SB N - 1 3 : 9 7 8 - 1 4 5 6 4 0 4 8 1 9 I SB N - 1 0 : 1 4 5 6 4 0 4 8 4 1 FIRST EDITION

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This is an unedited proof not intended for sale or to be quoted in review.

For my parents; and for Tad G.

“Your life would not make a good book. Don’t even try.” —Fran Lebowitz

talking to strangers

happy endings

Sometime midway through my junior year of college I went through a very short-lived “running phase,” during which I would get up every morning at six o’clock and go for a vigorous jog through the park. This lasted for approximately two weeks, and by then “every morning” had become “twice a week,” “six” had become “eleven,” and “jog” had become “lie down in the grass.” The point is I’m not so great at following through with things. This is probably why my parents paid no attention when, three years later, I told them I had decided to quit my job and move to New York City. There were no big pep talks about embarking on my own in the big city, nor were there any questions on their part about whether I knew what I was getting myself into (I didn’t) or if I had enough money saved up (not really),

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or even if I knew where I was going to live once I got there (nope). At first I was a little bummed that they didn’t seem to be concerned at all with the fact that I was making a huge, life-altering decision, let alone that I was going to be moving halfway across the country, until I realized that it wasn’t that they didn’t care; they just didn’t believe it would ever actually happen. I guess this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. At this point I had been living back at home for a few months after a summer internship I’d taken in Washington, D.C., didn’t lead to the exciting career in the Capital that I’d expected, and in that time I had started and subsequently not finished no less than ten home improvement projects around my parents’ house. A chest of drawers I had decided to strip and varnish had been sitting for weeks with all but one drawer completed (to this day it sits unfinished in my parents’ bathroom, a constant reminder of my inadequacy to anyone in need of a guest towel). A box of new tiles for the kitchen was placed, unopened, on the dining room table and then forgotten. Perhaps most glaringly, an upstairs bedroom I’d decided to paint mint green remained a work in progress after I took a break for lunch and forgot to go back to complete the job. “I think I’m going to rent out my friend Mark’s apartment in Queens while he’s out of town next This is an unedited proof not intended for sale or to be quoted in review.

month. At least until I can find a place of my own,” I said to my parents over dinner one evening, as if to prove to them that I was serious about this whole moving thing. “Uh huh,” my mom said. “Oh, how’s the paint job upstairs coming?” My dad’s reaction was more subtle, but equally impassive. “Have you seen my fingernail clippers?” he replied. To their credit, my parents have never exactly discouraged my wild ideas. They always just kind of let me do my own thing, even when they thought I was being stupid (like when I called them from my freshman dorm room to tell them I’d decided to doublemajor in English Literature and Acting, or when I decided to fly out to Los Angeles on a whim to audition for The Bold and the Beautiful. If you’re wondering how that turned out, let’s just say I am not on The Bold and the Beautiful.). All in all, they’ve always been pretty cool as far as moms and dads go. The other thing about my parents is that they’re really kind of polar opposites—she is bold and unfaltering while he is calm and cool and subdued—yet they always seem to see eye-to-eye. As a child I didn’t fully understand the dynamic of their marriage until This is an unedited proof not intended for sale or to be quoted in review.

popular culture taught me about the intricate minutiae of successful relationships. For instance, I remember being ten years old and contemplating the totally illogical pairing of Jessie Spano and A.C. Slater on Saved By the Bell, one of my favorite childhood television shows. On the surface, that relationship made no sense it all. What could have made Jessie, the überfeminist straight-arrow (unless, of course, you count her brief and destructive addiction to caffeine pills) fall for Slater, the misogynistic jock? Was it because he was the so-called “bad boy?” Perhaps, but even at ten I could tell that he was pretty vanilla as far as bad boys go. Was it a purely physical attraction? Maybe—mind you, this was the nineties, so no one seemed to notice or care that he wore his hair in a Jheri curled mullet—but a purely physical attraction can only get you so far, right? Well, whatever the reason, these two opposites managed to keep the love alive for four seasons, so they clearly had something real there. Now, for the record, my father is not a misogynist and neither of my parents has a Jheri curl, but you get the idea. They complimented each other, even when it seemed like their personalities were made to clash. And never were their differences and similarities more evident to me than when it finally began to sink in that for once I really wasn’t going to flake out on my plans. This is an unedited proof not intended for sale or to be quoted in review.

I’m not sure when it fully registered, but at some point after I’d bought my plane ticket to LaGuardia, was fully packed, and had made arrangements to crash on a friend’s couch in the city, my mother stopped making not-so-subtle comments about my inability to follow through with things and instead began making not-so-subtle comments about how I was definitely going to get murdered if I moved to New York. “Someone got killed in that city on Law & Order again last night,” she said on one occasion. “This time it was with a hammer. Can you imagine? Getting beaten to death with a hammer?” I assumed this was her way of saying, “I love you.” My dad, on the other hand, took a different approach. One night, a few days before my flight, I found him sitting out on the front porch drinking a beer and taking in the silence of the little Kansas town where he and my mother had lived for the past five years. “What are you doing?” I asked him. “Just sitting,” he said. “Want a beer?” “Sure,” I said. That was essentially the end of the conversation, and for the next hour or so we sat together in relative silence. It wasn’t uncomfortable, though; no words were needed. We were simply a father and son drinkThis is an unedited proof not intended for sale or to be quoted in review.

ing a beer under a clear, starry Midwestern sky, neither of us knowing when or if we would get to do this again. In the moment, I remember having an overwhelming feeling that things were changing. There was a definite sense that something was inexplicably ending and beginning all at once. Later that night, I found myself lying in bed wide awake at around one in the morning, my mind flooded with thoughts of big changes and fresh starts and endings and beginnings. Unable to fall asleep, I slipped out of bed, grabbed some supplies from the storage closet under the stairs, and put a fresh coat of mint green paint on the walls of the upstairs bedroom.

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the great train robbery

For all new residents of New York City, there is a rite of passage, and with that comes a moment when we can at last say “I’m a real New Yorker.” For some, it’s finally being able to navigate through the underground labyrinth of the subway system. For others, it’s the first time telling a tourist to please walk faster or get the fuck out of the way. For me, it was when I got mugged. Actually, “got mugged” is kind of a misleading term, and not entirely accurate. I wasn’t held up and gunpoint, and there was no knife fight or anything wacky like that. In fact, the events leading up to the crime happened like this: it was a hot Friday afternoon in May, and I had just finished a grueling week at my first real New York job (more on that later). As I made my way down to the Lincoln Center subway station, I

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A memoir. Kind of. Whether he’s being berated on the phone while working as a telemarketer, getting robbed by a friendly mugger on the subway, or bombing onstage performing a one-man show, Michael Ardan knows the risks of talking to strangers. But he also knows that life is all about taking risks. In his first collection of personal essays and pop culture anecdotes, Michael takes on a familiar subject—moving from small town America to the big city—and turns it into a sweet, funny, and surprisingly original story of the adventures of a young man searching for new experiences and meaningful personal relationships in an increasingly disjointed world.


Michael Ardan is a writer, performer, and playwright. He has frequently appeared onstage at the DLounge in Manhattan’s Union Square and at various dive bars around New York City. Follow him on twitter @michaelardan.



Talking to Strangers  

An excerpt for 'Talking to Strangers,' by Michael Ardan, available Augsust 2013 (Grand St Books)

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