She was sitting in front of me. A cute happa girl. Reading a book and generally minding her own business.
He came on carrying a long wooden stick and worn rucksack. Blonde dreadlocks and goatee. The weathered look of a traveler, or at least of having been outdoors a lot.
There were lots of free seats, but he decisively choose the one next to hers.
“Mind if I put this next to you?” he asked her of his long wooden stick.
She looked up from her book. “No, not at all.”
He gently placed it against the wall.
“What is it?” she asked.
“A rain stick,” he said. “It allows me to carry the weather with me. To practice what I preach.”
She lowered her book. “Oh?”
“I teach yoga,” he continued. “The rain stick is an instrument of peace and relaxation. Hearing the rain, listening to nature is the penultimate way to connect and feel everything around you. To be with and along and a part of everything. To be holistic, mentally and spiritually, with the world.”
“Wow, I’ve never thought a rain stick could symbolize that much.”
“It is the sky and the clouds and the water cleansing the earth. Cleansing all of us. You ever wonder why the sound of water is so peaceful? The sound of ocean waves or the falling rain?”
She turned to him. “I never wondered about it. It just is.”
“Exactly. It just is. It’s because it is a part of nature, as are all of us. A part of nature. A cyclical part of this world. What comes down goes through us and returns back to the sky. The rain stick is a metaphor, then, for all of us, for the cycle of life, and for peace.”
I groaned in my seat and considered putting on my headphones. But at the same time, I couldn’t turn away. I was fascinated.
“That’s pretty intense.”
He laughed. “That’s my trade. I’m still trying to find my place here. I just moved up from LA, where I had a bunch of celebrities as my students. Some are totally new age, so I guess some of that has rubbed off on me.”
“Oh, you’re from LA? How do you like San Francisco so far?”
“I love San Fran!” (First chink in the armor Ted. I think I saw her cringe a bit. Tip for non-San Franciscans: the locals here don’t like it when you call this city “San Fran.”)
“Why did you move up here?” she asked.
“The whole vibe of this city. It’s such a mecca of the creative, the artistic, the soulful and the community. For me, as a yoga instructor, I can also find a lot of work here. A lot of places are hiring. I just need to find one that speaks to me as much as I can contribute to them. Do you do yoga?”
“I try to. Sometimes I work so much that I don’t have time though, but I really should. I really should.”
“I’ll give you some free lessons to ease back into it. This art can be as quick or time-consuming as you need it. Truly, it’s very flexible. Even just a little yoga in your schedule can strengthen your body and relax your soul. For someone who works a lot, I think you would find it tremendously helpful.”
“Wow, thanks. I can’t accept your free lessons, but…”
“No need to pay me at all, really. Since I’m new in town, what would really help me out is a tour guide. This is my first time in San Fran…” (cringe) “…and if you’re willing to help me orient myself in this wonderful city of yours, I would be eternally grateful.”
The bus lurched to a stop. Great, it was my stop. Just when the conversation was getting good. I got up just as she was giving him her business card – and presumably, her number. I never knew a rain stick could be a good pick-up tool, but, hey, I guess it can. Smooth, Mr. LA Yoga Instructor, smooth.
She got onto the bus before her mother did. Five? Maybe six? She jumped right into the first seat she saw, mother in tow.
Her little legs dangled from the seat. Big, wide eyes took in everything around her. All the strange faces, ragged smiles, hipster clothing. The San Francisco Muni can indeed be a colorful place for the uninitiated.
A few stops later, another little girl got on. Also five? Maybe six? Her mother held her hand and walked her over to a couple of seats. Right next to the first girl.
Girl #1 looked at Girl #2. She smiled. The other girl looked away. Then back. Then away. Then back.
Girl #1 said, “Hi.”
Girl #2 looked at her for a moment. Then, “Hi.”
Girl #1 said a few more things. I didn’t catch them, but it looked like quite an animated message. Her little hands flailed about excitedly.
Girl #2 smiled. Her arms stayed at her sides while she answered. She gripped her mother as the bus rocked and lurched.
This conversation continued throughout the ride. Eventually, Girl #2 released her mother and started waving them about. Then Girl #1 pulled a book out of her bag and showed it to Girl #2. The mothers smiled as their daughters pointed and laughed at pictures in the book.
Their little legs dangled and their laughter expanded throughout the bus.
Then came Girl #2’s stop. Her mother got up and took her arm. The little girl frowned. “I don’t want to go,” she told her mother.
“But this is our stop.”
“I don’t want to go,” Girl #2 repeated as she dutifully stood up.
The two girls exchanged sad glances. The mothers smiled. “How cute,” said Mother #1. “In just thirty minutes, they’ve become the best of friends.”
Girl #1 and Girl #2 said their goodbyes. Then the #2’s departed. The little girls waved at each other as the bus pulled away.
I love conversations. I love having them, being a part of them, listening to them, and writing about them. Looking back at all the essays I’ve written here, a large number are of conversations I’ve had or overheard. That’s no accident. Whenever I’m struck by writer’s block, I think back to an interesting conversation. Then the essay practically writes itself.
The challenge, of course, is in remembering exactly what was said. I don’t recall them word-for-word. Chalk it up to too much electronic gadgetry dependency. Therefore, much of the conversations I write employ generous heaps of creative license. Aside from compensating for a poor memory, this also helps story flow.
Ever record and transcribe an actual conversation? They are usually awkward to read. When you’re there, in the heat of the moment, every “um” and “uh” is forgiven. Forgotten, even. Our minds are great at ignoring filler words and concentrating on the main message. Within reason, of course. For some people, “ums” and “uhs” leak out like sand in their hands. But for most, “ums” and “uhs” are filtered out.
A speech or lecture is different. A speaker on stage can be severely curtailed by too many filler words. That’s why practice is so important for public speakers. The best public speakers sound like they’re reading from a well-crafted piece of paper because of constant practice. They’ve trained themselves to avoid filler words.
Fortunately for us non-professional speakers, general conversations don’t have this worry. When you’re getting coffee with a buddy or drinks with a group of friends, it’s all about the gist of the conversation. Not the mechanics of grammar or well-structured sentences.
That’s why real-life conversations look so awful on paper. Just ask any journalist who has ever given an interview. Though there’s a debate between representing an interview subject accurately (word-for-word) or editing for clarity, most interviews you read about have some level of editing. They have to. And as someone who’s been interviewed, it’s much better that way. I’d rather a journalist make me sound more grammatically correct than I actually sound.
When I’m writing about a conversation, my mind is editing it for clarity and story flow. I care less about the reader remembering the exact words of a conversation than I do the emotional connection and reaction to the back-and-forth of a conversation. It’s more fun to write that way too.
In case you’re thinking it: no, I don’t want to carry around a tape recorder or anything. Nothing kills the spontaneity of a conversation faster than knowing it’s being recorded for a blog somewhere. Maybe Tucker Max can get away with this, but not me.
I hope you enjoy reading conversations as much as I enjoy having them and writing about them. If not, give me a call and let’s have a conversation about it.
“I was refugee in Hong Kong for one year,” said Hiep the barber. “I no speak any Cantonese. Some Mandarin, but no Cantonese.”
“Are there many Vietnamese in Hong Kong?” I asked.
I waited until he removed his shears before shaking my head. “That sounds rough.”
“And you know, I get job. With no Cantonese, I still get job.”
I looked up at him. “How?”
He smiled. “I walk into office and ask for it. I speak some Mandarin and I…” He waved his hands around, trying to find the right words.
“Ad libbed?” I asked.
He continued waving his hands around. “I point, I move hands…”
“Ah okay. So you communicated with your hands and with a little Mandarin.”
“Yes!” he smiled again. “That is how I get job.”
He crossed behind me with an electric razor. The buzzer mumbled his next few words.
“…job in factory. I make motors for blenders. Little motors. Engineering work.”
“Pretty impressive for having no Cantonese,” I said.
“Yes. I have no experience to make motors. But I learn. Just like I have no experience with Cantonese. But I learn. I do what I have to do.”
I nodded. “That is pretty amazing. A lot of people would have a hard time doing that.”
“I have no. I need job.”
He circled around me again and started buzzing my sides. I watched him carve the wild hairs down.
“I get job for my brother too,” he continued. “All brothers. I bring them to factory. They get job too.”
“That company must have loved you then.”
“Yes. But then – I leave!” He grinned and straightened his back proudly.
“I leave factory! I get another job. I get another job make more money and do something else.”
I chuckled. “That’s pretty cool. Did the factory mind?”
“No, they no mad. Brothers no mad too. I get bored, want to learn something new. I saw another job, ask them to teach me, then get job.”
“Did your brothers go with you?”
He laughed and shook his head. “No, they like factory to make motors. They stay.”
The shears came back and sliced away a few errant hairs. One fell on my nose and I blew it away.
“What did you do at your new job?” I asked.
He looked around his barber shop, then pointed at the chrome handle of a chair. “You see shiny? This shiny?”
I paused. “Shiny. You mean the chrome handle?”
“Yes. This.” He tapped the handle. “I take this, dip into chemical. Make shiny.”
“Ah, so you put chrome on these materials.”
“Yes. Dip into many chemical. Not just one. Need many to make shiny. I have no experience to do this. I have to learn on job.”
I nodded. “That’s pretty impressive. Sounds like had to learn a lot there. Cantonese, a new country, new jobs…”
“Yes. Because I have to. Sometimes, you have to do what you have to do. If you have to learn, you will learn. Me, you, anyone can.”
“Starting a business is easy,” Hiep the barber told me.
“Yes,” he nodded. He looked at the back of my head, then trimmed a little off the side. “Being nurse or doctor, that hard.”
“I have to agree with that, but many people don’t find it easy to start a business,” I answered.
He mulled over my statement and my hair for a beat. “Business,” he started. “Is hard. Yes. Not easy to start business. But if you think this, you never start.”
He walked around to the other side of my head and pulled out the electric razor. “Better to think business is easy,” he continued. “Because if you no think this, you never start.”
“Ah, I see what you mean.”
The buzzer hummed as it started to mow my sideburns. I watched him flick the comb over my hair and trim the strands that stuck out.
“I start as delivery driver,” he said after he shut off the buzzer. “I drive truck all day. That my job before this.”
“That sounds like hard work.”
“Yes. Hard work. Then truck company cut back hour. Cut my hour to five hour a day. I start work at seven in morning. By twelve, I done. What I do then, huh?”
“Relax and watch TV?” I asked.
He laughed. “I tell you, being busy is good. Not busy lead you to trouble. I tell my sons that too. You must always be busy.”
“How did you keep busy then?”
“I tell you. I always want my own business. So I talk to friend one day. Friend wearing white coat. I ask, ‘Are you a doctor?’ Friend say, ‘No, I’m student in cosmetology school. I learn to be barber.’ I say, ‘Where school? I want to learn too.’ So I learn.”
He motioned to the clock and continued. “For one year, I drive truck from seven to twelve, then attend school from one to six.”
“It took a year to get your cosmetology license?”
“Yes, because I work too. Otherwise, only nine month. But I part-time, so one year for me.”
He picked up a spray bottle and misted my hair. Then he grabbed a pair of scissors and began to chop away. “I work as barber for many year. But shop far away. Long drive. So I save money and open up this shop here, to be closer to family.”
“Wow, so you learned enough about the barber business from that other shop to open up this one?”
“Yes. And I do everything myself. This whole shop, I do myself.” He pointed at the mirrors on the wall. “I put these up.” He pointed at the tiles on the ground. “I put these tiles in.” He took a step back and scanned the tiny shop. “When I first get shop, it look very different. I put everything except…” He pointed to the neon sign in the window. “I hire someone to make neon sign.” His gaze moved to the back of the shop. “And plumbers, electricians. I hire them too. I no can do that myself.”
“Wow, that’s quite a bit you had to do yourself!” I enthused.
“Yes. Lot of cleaning. Lot of painting.” I watched him smile as he surveyed his shop. “Lot of things, I do.”
“That’s a lot of hard work.”
He turned his gaze to me. “Yes. But hard is good. If easy, everyone do, right? When I open business thirteen year ago, not many barbers here. Now, more. But before, not so many.”
“That’s very true,” I nodded. “A hard business to get into means less competition.”
“Yes. Starting a business is hard. But hard is good. Tell yourself business is easy, so you start. But choose a business that is hard, because hard is good for business.”
“Raising children need lots of patience,” said Hiep the barber. “Must have patience.”
“Oh, I’ll bet,” I answered without nodding my head. The buzzer grazed the sides of my head, vibrating my ears.
“I tell you example. When my children say, ‘I don’t know,’ I hate it. I hate it.” He shook his head vigorously as he spoke. “I hate those words the most. ‘I don’t know.'”
“Instead,” he continued. “I tell them, ‘You know. You go find out. Then you know.'”
“Ah, so you want them to learn how to find the answer themselves, instead of giving them the answer yourself.”
He nodded and smiled. “Yes. They know. They need to learn. That is what I must do as father, you understand?”
“Yea, totally makes sense.”
He switched to the other side of my head and starting buzzing again. I struggled to hear every word he was saying through the noise of the buzzer.
“But I don’t tell them what to do because I am their father. They must know what to do themselves. Not because I tell them. Understand?”
I wrinkled my brow. “Hmm. Not sure. What do you mean?”
“Okay,” he paused and stopped buzzing for a moment. He stood at the mirror. I could see his eyes darting back and forth as pondered. “I don’t want children to do as I say only because I am their father. I want them to do because they want to do. If they don’t know it themselves, they will not learn. So they must know it themselves, not because I tell.”
“Ah,” I nodded. “You’re saying you don’t want your kids to blindly listen to you. You want them to understand what you’re saying.”
“Yes. They do because they know it is right, not because I tell them to. This is how I teach.”
Hiep cleared his throat. His eyes locked onto mine.
“In Vietnam, there is saying. If you don’t teach children, life will teach them worse. You understand?”
“Because life is tough. If I don’t teach them, they not ready for life.” He smiled to himself, then turned the buzzer back on again. “Then life will teach them much worse. Much harder.”
“Those are wise words,” I said.
He smiled. “You will see. One day, you have children, you will do same.”
“Someday, I speak to you in Vietnamese, and you hear me in English, through your phone,” said Hiep the barber. “Technology already there,” he continued. “Someone just need to build.”
“I’m sure someone is already trying,” I nodded. “I’ve seen lots of on-the-fly translation apps already. I’m sure someone’s working on an on-the-fly audio translator too.”
He nodded emphatically. “Yes! Someone of course building already. It so obvious. It needed. It make money. So of course someone build.”
“I watch Discovery,” he continued. “Read Science magazines. I know about technology. They make man to live long life, very long. Thousands of years. Even forever.”
“Yes.” He stood back to examine the sides of my head as he spoke. “Sometimes through machine. Sometimes through new organs. They will find way to make live forever. You know why?”
“Think: how long it take to go to other planet? Long time, right?”
I nodded. “To get to Mars, I believe it takes somewhere inside of a year. Any other planet, much further.”
“Yes. And other solar system? Long, long time. Many years.” He pulled out a pair of scissors and began snipping away. “So man need to live longer to travel to other solar system.”
“Ah, I never quite thought of it that way.”
“Yes,” he smiled. “That what I read.”
Hiep brought out a hair dryer to blow away some lingering hair around my neck. Then he buzzed my sideburns and examined both sides in the mirror. Out the corner of my eye, I saw issues of Scientific American and Popular Science in his magazine rack.
“I tell you,” he continued. “When I come to this country, there are no cell phone. Only regular phone. I tell friends, ‘Someday, we will have phone we carry, talk whenever we want.’ Friends say, ‘No, you crazy idea.'” He stood back and beamed. “But look now! Everyone have cell phone!”
I laughed. “You actually predicted cell phones?”
“Yes! I did. I tell friends now, ‘See, I told you.’ I don’t know what phone look like exactly. I just know it would be convenient to have phone we carry.”
“Pretty smart thinking there,” I replied.
“Yes. Reason I think that: because is convenient. And make money. If convenient, make life easy, people will want. If people want, will make money. If make money, someone will build.”
I sat up slightly in the barber’s chair. “You know, I think you nailed it. That is exactly what drives business. If there’s demand-”
“-then someone can build it and profit from it. Very smart thinking.”
“Yes. That how I think. People need cell phone, so we have. People need to translate, we will have. People need to live longer, we will have.”
I smiled. “You know, if you have any more of these predictions, let me know. Maybe I’ll go build one of them.”
“Haha. Yes, I tell you.”
“You here for a reason,” Hiep the barber said. “Here, in San Francisco. This shop. This seat.”
He stopped cutting and stood back. “I don’t know why,” he continued. “But there is reason.”
“Ah, you mean like fate?” I asked.
“Yes, fate.” He paused again and gestured to himself. “This what I believe. I do not make others believe too. This just what I believe.”
“That’s okay. I happen to agree.”
He smiled. “I not always like this. I grow up religious in Vietnam. But this what always make sense to me.”
“I tell you a story,” he continued. “It sound crazy, but it true.”
He cleared his throat and focused his gaze on me through the mirror.
“When I was boy in Vietnam, uncle take me to fortune teller. He tell me I must come. But I don’t believe in fortune teller. I think: waste of time.”
He cut a few more snips. Though this haircut was taking longer then usual, I didn’t mind. It was a fascinating conversation.
“The fortune teller was blind. Cannot see anything. She take my hands and tell me my past, my present, my future. What she told me about past, I do not believe. I say, ‘That not true. You make it up.'”
His gaze narrowed. “She say, ‘Talk to your mother. You will know I am right.’ So I talk to my mother. She ask me how I know these things. I tell her fortune teller tell me. And you know what?”
He paused. Eyes fixed on mine.
“Everything true. Fortune teller know things no one else know. Even me. Only my mother know.”
He sighed and started trimming my sideburns.
“But still, I don’t believe in fortune teller. But tell you what. When I come to this country, I go to friend’s party. They have fortune teller. My wife go and talk to her. I don’t go. I play cards instead. Because I don’t believe.”
Hiep paused and used the blow dryer to whisk away some loose hairs. Then he continued.
“The fortune teller tell my wife, ‘Bring your husband here. You must bring him here.’ She come get me. I say, ‘No, I don’t believe. I want to play cards.’ But she keep tell me, ‘Come, come, the fortune teller say bring you here.'”
He shook his head with a smile. “She stubborn like me. So I go. But I don’t go into room. I stand outside, tell fortune teller, ‘I don’t believe you. I don’t want listen. Stop telling my wife to bring me here.’ Fortune teller say, ‘Okay, you stand there. I don’t care. You just listen to what I say.'”
His eyes widened. “And she tell me same thing first fortune teller tell me. Fortune teller from Vietnam. Exact same thing!”
I blinked. “Are you sure? The first fortune teller was many years ago, right? How can you remember all that?”
Hiep shook his head. “I remember. I remember because her prediction all come true. Future, what she predict, come true. I don’t want to believe, but it come true!”
“This fortune teller want to tell me more. She say, ‘I tell you future.’ I say, ‘No. No. I tell you why.'”
He stood back again. Cleared his throat. Focused his eyes on mine.
“I don’t want to hear fortune teller because I don’t want to know future. I want to be surprised. Understand? I don’t want to know when I die. Not meant for me to know. When it happen, it happen. I cannot change it. Knowing only make worse. Understand?”
I nodded. “I do, I do. You do believe in the fortune teller’s predictions, but you don’t want to acknowledge it, because you would prefer to be surprised. So it’s not that you don’t believe in her, it’s that you do, but don’t want to.”
Hiep smiled. “Yes. I cannot believe. But I know it. I cannot change prediction. Whatever will happen will happen. So why know?”
“So you don’t believe in free will? You believe that everything is preordained?”
He smiled again. “Yes, there are choice. Some choice. But we not meant to know. We cannot know. Why you here, in this chair? There is reason. Maybe to hear this talk. Maybe for me to have this talk. I don’t know. We cannot know. But it happen for reason. That all I know.”
I waited until he finished trimming the back of my head, then nodded. “Whatever the reason, I am glad fate gave me this talk. It is very interesting.”
Hiep beamed. “For me too. I am glad to fate for this talk too.”
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Oh, sure, sure. We have tsunamis in Hawaii all the time, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. I feel so bad for the people in Japan though. What a horrible earthquake, yea?”
“Yea, it’s horrible…” I switched from the phone to my earpiece. “Do you know anyone in Japan? Distant relatives or anything?”
“Oh, no, no. Our family came here so many generations ago that we’ve lost touch with any distant relatives who might be here.”
“The news said almost a thousand have died, yea?”
I rubbed my eyes. “Yea…”
“Could have been so much worse though.”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you hear how orderly the Japanese were when the emergency alarms sounded?”
“The Japanese, you know, are very obedient, yea? Our neighbors were telling us how hundreds of Japanese heard the emergency alarms and started evacuating. No one stayed in their homes or anything like that. They just up and left.”
“Wow, that probably saved a lot of lives.”
“Yea! And you know what the locals here did?”
We chuckled. “Surfing. Well, can’t blame those Hawaiian boys, huh? When they hear that waves are coming, they gotta surf ‘em.”
She continued laughing. “So foolish! Not everyone did that of course. Our neighbors down the street went out to their boat and took it out to sea.”
“Out to sea? In a tsunami??”
“Yea, that’s what you do. They ride it out in their boats.”
“It’s not that bad. The waves, you know, they’re not so bad out in sea. Our neighbor even told us it was beautiful seeing all these boats out there with their lights on, bobbing up and down.”
“I would get seasick.”
She laughed. “These are fisherman. They are used to this.”
“Well, I’m glad none of them were hurt.”
“No. But imagine if that earthquake hit Hawaii? And alarms sounded? You think everyone would be so obedient? Some go to their boats like they should, yea? And others, they go surfing.”
“American culture isn’t as respectful of authority as Japanese culture, I guess,” I shook my head.
“Yea. No, it isn’t. That’s probably what saved so many lives too.”
I scratched my chin and paused for a moment. “At the same time,” I eventually replied. “America’s individualism can be a good thing if the leaders are corrupt. Blind obedience probably saves lives in an urgent disaster if the person giving the orders is correct. But if that person is incorrect, it’s probably better to question authority.”
“Yea, yea, that’s true. And you know, it’s a good thing Japan is so used to earthquakes and tsunamis. The emergency people, they know exactly what to do. It’s a good thing their people listened to them. The emergency people know their jobs well!”
I nodded. “Yea, no doubt. And aren’t the buildings in Japan among the most earthquake-proof too?”
“Oh, sure, sure. To those poor people, earthquakes are a fact of life, yea?”
“Oh, and you too!”
“You’re in California! Don’t you have earthquakes all the time too?”
“Oh yea, that’s right.”
“So are you going to blindly obey your emergency people?”
“Heh, I suppose I’d better!”
Taking the bus is always an experience ripe with quotes. Here are a few choice lines I’ve overheard recently.
- On the phone: “I’m going to kill you, bitch… Uh huh… Uh huh… Okay, love you too.”
- Little kid to Mom: “I have to go! I have to go!” Pause. “Okay, I don’t have to go anymore.”
- Woman to another woman: “I sexed him. Ohmigod, I mean I texted him. Autocorrect fail!”
- Young guy to old guy: “Where do you go for good weed? Because Mom won’t let me at hers anymore.”
- Guy to another guy: “Ohmigod I’m so gay, I want to jump the bus driver.”
- Middle-aged woman in suit: “I can’t. It’s way past my bedtime. My Daddy will be angry.”
- Teen on phone: “You are such a douche… No, it’s true. I’m a douche too.”
- Guy to girl: “Everyone does it. I masturbated right before coming on the bus. Here, smell my fingers.”