Trying to ask a stranger about their life story is like walking across the golf course on a sunny day: you have no right to be there, but it’s nice outside, so why not? Sometimes I get strange looks, other times old men yell at me — but then I just apologize and enjoy the walk because I’ve already gone so far, and there’s no point in turning back now. The act of trespassing is intimidating, yet imbued with a sense of childlike naivety. When I walk onto the front porch of someone else’s life and ask them a deeply personal question, I cross some boundaries, but also spark an interaction that may not have occurred otherwise.
Doyin Teriba, Graduate Student, Art & Archaeology: “I feel like I’m not complete without a hat, a bow tie, or in some cases, a tie. I like the structural qualities of a bowtie, how you manipulate the fabric, in such a way that it comes up almost like a flower bouquet. It makes me look professional and serious. Serious in the sense that you don’t have all the time in the world and there is a proper way of doing things.”
Nathan Isa Skeightz Pacheco, Princeton U-Store: “I had the heart of skating back in 1999, but then I got into the streets. Back eight years ago, I got my hands on a large amount of money and I was asking myself what I wanted to do, so I got another pair of rollerblades and I haven’t stopped skating since. Me growing up without my father, I had to learn to be a man of my own. At a certain point I had to look at the man in the mirror and realize, hey, this is not who I want to be. I do not believe that where we’re born at, or what people think, or circumstances in life determine who we are.”
In Princeton, I spend a lot of time passing people by. There are many familiar faces, people I smile at and wave to, but who I walk by without saying a single world. Restarting Humans of Princeton was an attempt to look up every once in a while — pausing others, but also pausing myself to ask a question and to hear a story. It’s incredibly daunting, yet, I believe, a necessary change of scenery. I often find myself having to push back against the comfort of maintaining a one-track mind. Yet in the steam engine machine that is Princeton, to put a break in someone else’s day, to remove them from their list of things to do, struck me as somewhat inconsiderate, if not rude.
When I walked into the Office of Religious Life and saw a girl sitting at the far end of the room with no one else in sight, my self-conscious mind told me to retreat before I embarrassed myself. But I stayed. I meandered up to her, pretending to look for a chair to put down my things on, until I finally stopped in front of her seat. I blurted out the introduction that I had been nervously preparing all day in my mind, stumbling over the words, speaking far too quickly, asking her if she would be willing to share a story or two. When she finally replied, she simply said, “no, I’d rather not,” as she plugged her earphones back in her ears, and lowered her gaze back onto her laptop.
I had to learn, the hard way, not to take a stranger’s rejection personally. Part of what I found to be so liberating about talking to strangers was that there were hardly any risks involved. If they decide that they no longer want to have a conversation with me, they simply avert their eye contact when they see me in close proximity, and we continue walking past each other as strangers, as we always have been. But sometimes, just sometimes, a conversation turns into a nod, a knuckle punch, a dinner with a nephew, or an invitation to a film screening — and these are the moments that remind me that a story never ends the first time it is told.
A few days after my initial failure, I decided to pick up my camera again. It turns out, trespassing into other people's lives was something that needed to be practiced. As I was walking out of the dining hall that day, the woman who who works as a card swiper in Mathey College waved goodbye to me. After an internal debate about whether this was a suitable moment (What if other students swiping in distracted her? What if her boss found this inappropriate? What if my question was unintelligible?), I walked up to her, smiled, asked her what her name was, and then introduced myself.
At that moment, I didn’t expect that Maritere’s story would revitalize Humans of Princeton, and that over 14 people and organizations, including the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students and the Carl. A Fields Center, would repost the photo on social media. I didn’t realize that, because of how many people would later go up to her and show her the photo, that she would end up starting a Facebook account to follow the Humans of Princeton page herself. I didn’t imagine that I would have an opportunity to talk to Maritere about her son’s Zumba classes or what she did on the weekends. I most certainly didn’t expect that, just as I had interrupted her that day to ask about her hometown, she would later interrupt me as I was rushing to get from the dining hall to my next class, asking me what my favorite color was and giving me a doll for Easter.
Maritere Bolanos: “I came to this country from Guatemala 34 years ago. I’m living in Trenton, next to Princeton. I have four kids. I was married in this country. I am most proud that my four kids all went to college. I never thought that it would happen. This country is amazing, to do whatever you want. I tell my kids, ‘you follow your dreams and you look for your opportunities in this country— you will find them.’ I’m very happy in this country.”
Granted, interviewing strangers doesn’t always work this way. Half the time, they tell me that they have a phone call that they are waiting for, or that they have an event to attend, or a child to take care of. Regardless, I’ve started to realize that perhaps interruptions in our daily schedules are ways of practicing unrehearsed humanity. Asking complete strangers to take five minutes out of their day was, and still tends to be, a stretch, but also an essential extension of oneself. Instead of ‘interrupting strangers,’ I’ve started to see this thing that I do as recognizing people, acknowledging the moment when our stories collide, and our shared experience as Humans of Princeton.
Andie Ayala is a co-leader of Humans of Princeton, a student group started by Chanyoung Park. There will be a Humans of Princeton live event at the East Pyne Lecture Hall 010 on Tuesday, May 9 from 5:30 – 7:00 p.m. The event will feature from different University members, including undergraduate students, graduate students, service workers, professors, administrators, and faculty telling true stories on the theme of ‘Best Friendship.’ Like the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/humansofprinceton/ for more stories and details.