This Is Extreme Hot, and That Is “Minnesota Hot” (#6 of 100 Interesting People)

“This sauce is extreme hot,” she said, rolling her “r”s in her beautiful East African accent, “and this over here is only some hot. We call it ‘Minnesota hot.'” Every farmers market has vendors selling hot sauce. There’s nothing interesting in that. But when the vendor comes from East Africa, is wearing an orange-and-yellow dress and a turquoise headwrap, and has seen war, drought, famine, and prosperity on her way to Minnesota … well, that’s interesting.

“What makes your hot sauce unique?” I asked “Ayan.”

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Very Cool … He Did It Because He Wanted To! (#5 of 100 Interesting People)

MagicianSometimes it would be rude to ask the question you want someone most to answer. That was the case when I met “Dave.” In a family of high-wealth, high-power overachievers, why was he a clerk in a magic and costume store?

When I opened my wallet to pay for the nun’s habit (that’s a different story), Dave noticed my Rotary Club card. “You’re a Rotarian?” he asked. “My wife is, too.” I felt an instant connection as I learned that his wife is in the insurance and financial services industry and licensed for securities and variable products, as am I. He continued, “She doesn’t understand that I can’t go to a two-hour Rotary lunch meeting to sit around and talk with people every week, because I have to be here at the store.”

He tried her job one time. In his forties, he got his insurance and securities licenses and began selling. “They tell you to start with your ‘lateral network,’ people that you know who are at a similar stage in life. It might have been easier when I was in my twenties or thirties,” he said, “but I was in my forties. The people I knew already had their life insurance, already had their financial plans. I could close any deal set in front of me, but prospecting was hard for me, and I hated that part of the job.”

I could relate. I owned an insurance agency for two and a half years, and I had a high closing ratio. Because of my product knowledge from fifteen years of product management and actuarial work, and because of my sincerity and concern for the people, they felt comfortable with me. They trusted me. “I’m glad you’re going to be my agent,” they told me, and they referred their friends to me. In some cases, they said they drove past other agencies run by men, being more comfortable with female agents, because they thought women are more likely to be concerned and empathetic and service-oriented. Yes, I could close those deals because I cared—but I hated prospecting. I could relate to Dave.

What about the difference in income? His daughter is a lawyer and earns a healthy six-figure income. “She is in her thirties and has children at home, but she works sixty or seventy hours a week. I don’t want to live that way,” said Dave.

His brother-in-law owns a successful financial services agency. “He is the typical sell-ice-to-an-Eskimo kind of guy. Whenever he goes to a party, he is off in the corner getting someone’s contact information, setting appointments. It works for him, but I don’t want to be that guy! I want to enjoy the party.

“So I left that business and I came here, to be a clerk in a magic and costume store. I always loved magic, and I love this job. I do what I enjoy every day. My wife can’t say that.”

Not many of us can say that, Dave. I admire you for it. How many of you will have the courage to do the same thing?

The Vagabond (#4 of 100 Interesting People)

After the show, “William” asked me for a ride to Midtown. Talking to a bushy-haired, scraggly bearded man in a busy coffee shop is one thing; getting in a car with him is something else entirely. I would have refused if my husband had not been there, and if I hadn’t had friends who knew William better than me and assured me that he was safe.

He had just finished playing guitar and singing “The Handicapped-Accessible Restroom Blues” at the coffee shop’s open mic, as he does just about every month. After that, he sang “The Vagabond,” about people stepping over a homeless man, no one noticing him on the sidewalk as they hurry on to their important destinations. I wondered how many times he had passed by the man before he wrote the song. He packed up his things in his duffel bag and pulled it toward the car.

“This will be good,” I said. “That way you won’t have to haul all that stuff down the street.”

“Well, no more tonight, anyway.”

What did he mean?

“I have to haul it around wherever I go,” he said. “I lost my home last year, after my wife died. I’m trying to save up enough to get an apartment at the Salvation Army.” His wife died last year from complications of diabetes. They had been together for twenty-six years, except for a period when her friends convinced her to leave him. But she came back, and they had been together ever since.

When she had to be admitted to a nursing home, the staff tried to separate them. He refused, insisting that he was responsible for her care, and he would not let them take her away. “She was my rock,” he told me. “She meant everything to me. When I read poetry at these open mics, those are the poems that she wrote, and I wrote these songs for her. This is how I remember her.”

He told me that he still had problems, although he had been clean and sober for seven years, as was his wife, right up until the day she died. He described himself as having “schizo-affective disorder,” although I was unsure if he had been diagnosed as such by a psychologist, or if he had self-diagnosed.

“But I’m going to be all right,” he said, thanking us for the ride. “I’m taking classes, working on my degree. I want to be a psychologist so I can help other people with their problems.” He hasn’t been able to find a job, but between playing his guitar, selling CDs, and applying for financial aid for school, he said, “I’m going to make it. And when I graduate, I’m going to be a doctor!”

I thought about his song, about people stepping over the vagabond without noticing him. I had seen him at the coffee shop four or five times, and this was the first time I had spoken to him, had taken the time to get to know him, the first time that I understood he was the vagabond and I had been the passerby. Not any more, William. I am not the passerby any more.

Good luck with your classes, William; and I promise that I will clap louder than everybody else when they announce your name for your diploma.

He Had a Good Wife (#3 of 100 Interesting People)

“Jack” had just finished reciting some of his lyrical poetry. I was pleasantly surprised to hear poetry from someone who was obviously a construction worker or manufacturing employee because of his physical size, his large hands, his pitted, weathered face, and his rough clothes. I knew it shouldn’t have surprised me that a manual laborer writes poetry. When will I learn not to judge people based on their appearances?

After my performance, Jack asked me, “Can I tell you a story of my own?”

“I would love to hear it!” I said.

“It was years ago, when I was studying for the bar exam.”

“Wait, what?” I asked. “You’re a lawyer?” If the man whom I had judged a construction worker that wrote poetry was instead a lawyer who wrote poetry, what other surprises did this man have? How many other things had I misjudged?

He said he had been working a temp job while he waited for the results of the bar exam. On the day the university published the results, Jack had to go to the university after work, find his secret number on the list, and get his pass/fail score. He told his secret number to his wife, saying, “Please don’t do anything with it. I know I didn’t do well, so I’ll have to take it again, but I’ll go over there after work and check it anyway. I’d like to go out after that. I’ll need to drown my sorrows.”

While he was at work, she went to the university, checked his exam results, called him at the office and said, “You passed! You passed!”

As his coworkers and his manager congratulated him, he said, “Yeah, but still, she didn’t do what I wanted her to do. What if I had failed?”

Taking his hand in both of hers, his manager said, “Jack, she was a good wife. Instead of doing what you wanted her to do, she did what was good for you!”

* * *

That’s good advice for husbands and wives both. I suspect I’ll be using that line on my husband whenever I do what he doesn’t want me to do.

And if I ever need a lawyer, I’ll call Jack. Quick judgments based on first impressions are rarely accurate, but I misjudged him more badly than usual. What if I had blown him off? What if I had rushed out of the coffee shop and not taken the time to listen to his story?

I would have missed out on meeting another interesting person.

The Woman on a 50-State Challenge (#2 of 100 Interesting People)

Boise, IdahoThe man walked down the aisle of the plane looking for an open seat. He paused as he approached our row, eyeing the middle seat between me and another woman. I spread out in my seat and shifted my laptop, hoping he would not want to sit next to someone who was going to work throughout the flight. I wasn’t feeling very welcoming; it was a boring business trip, to Idaho, of all places. What fun could I have in Idaho?

After he moved on toward the rear of the plane, the other woman leaned over to me, smiled, and said, “I really was hoping he wouldn’t sit here because I wanted the some extra room; but still, it makes me wonder … What’s wrong with me, that he didn’t want to sit here?”

I could not pass up an introduction like that. Continue reading

Life Is Like Colorado (#1 of 100 Interesting People Challenge)

ColoradoWhen a man sits next to you on a 6:50 AM flight and orders shots of whiskey, he will not be boring. He will be either entertaining or obnoxious. “Luke” runs a printing press, plays in a band, has traded classic guitars, and is studying to get his degree in web development—although he might change his major to political theory. How can a man with such varied interests be boring?

He was eager to share his story when I explained that I am a storyteller Continue reading

The 100 Interesting People Challenge

When we played duck, duck, goose in Mrs. Bridges’ first grade class, the other kids pumped their arms as they ran around the circle. I spun my arms in front of me like propellers, certain that they would make me fly faster than an airplane. Being the slowest kid in my class never shook my faith in my propeller arms.

During Homecoming Week in high school, when the other kids wore sunglasses on Hats and Shades Day, I wore a window shade. They wore camo shirts and pants on Camouflage Day, and I painted my face and wore branches on my head.

When my composition teacher assigned us to write a “how-to” paper on pet care, for which other kids wrote about how to walk their dogs, I wrote, “How To Bathe Your Pet Mosquito.” Continue reading