Friday, December 08, 2017

COLUMN: Sinatra Stranger

Well, there's another Halloween survived. No tricks, a few treats, and most importantly: No awkward dialogue with people in costumes.

Last week, I mentioned in passing how much I hate it when grown adults dress up for Halloween. A couple of you e-mailed wondering why I had to be the All Hallows Grinch. Sorry, it wasn't my intention to rain on anyone's spooky parade. I actually really love great Halloween costumes. Did you guys see Dave Grohl dressed up like David Letterman when he guest-hosted Kimmel on Halloween? It was amazing. The internet is full of hilarious costumes and Halloween hijinks, and I eat it up like candy.

My problem isn't your costume. It's having to talk to you while you're IN it.

I'm a socially awkward person. I've never been great at making banal small talk. I'm usually the nervous weirdo who won't make eye contact and can't think of a single worthwhile thing to say because I'm usually too busy telling myself, "YOU'RE ACTING WEIRD. DON'T ACT WEIRD. BE NORMAL, WEIRDO."

Face-to-face small talk is awkward enough -- please don't make me do it when one of those faces is caked in zombie make-up. I can't discuss the weather when fake entrails are spewing out your chest, sorry. That's almost panic attack territory for me.

I dunno, maybe I'm not as bad at small talk as I think. But an instance happened a couple weeks ago that cemented my self-worth when it comes to normal human interaction, and it wasn't pretty.

I was in Chicago, taking advantage of a rare chance to see one of my favorite bands, The Trashcan Sinatras. They might not be a household name, but these unheralded kings of Scottish indiepop have been wowing their diehard resilient fans for decades. When they announced an all-acoustic career-spanning tour, it was a must-attend. At the show, I met up with some old friends and familiar faces from Trashcan shows of yore. Then there was the one face who saw me, beamed with a smile, and came straight over.

"HEY!" he said with enthusiasm. "I didn't know you liked this band, too!"
"Oh, totally," I replied. "Been a fan since day one. How have you been?"
"Not bad," he said. "I haven't seen you for years! Are you still...?"
"Doing my thing?" I interrupted. "Absolutely!"
"Man, it's good to see you!" 
All things told, not a bad piece of small talk. There was just one problem: I had NO CLUE who this guy was. I have friends and acquaintances from all walks of life, but this guy wasn't one of them. I was talking to a complete stranger. "Doing my thing?" Did I REALLY just say that? I suppose it wasn't a lie. I do things.

When he went away, I breathed a sigh of relief. Then came intermission (and yes, I'm now old enough that I see bands who take intermissions.) Of course, who do I end up next to in line at the bar but this same stranger -- and the awkward dance continued.

He told me about his job. His girlfriend. He talked about the weather. I complained how difficult it was to find parking on the same night as a Cubs game. The more we talked, the more I was certain we'd never met. Finally, the clincher happened.

"It's... Frank, right?"
"Nope, it's Shane," I replied, pretty sure I'd just sent the conversation spiralling.
"Oh, sure, Shane, that's right."

Seriously, dude? Must we continue this phony conversation? SURELY he had to have realized by now that I wasn't who he initally thought I was. I wanted to put this sorry encounter to bed.

"How long HAS it been?" I inquired to put the nail in the coffin of this conversation.
"Oh, I think the last time I saw you was at the Beautiful South concert."

There are a whole lot of bands in the world. On any given night, dozens of them are playing in Chicago. I might drive up for two or three per year. I didn't know this guy. I'd never spoken to him before this night. But against all odds, I had been at that Beautiful South show.

It didn't change the fact that he had mistaken me for another random chubby guy, quite probably named Frank, who must look as ruggedly handsome as me and who must also have pretty decent taste in music. At some point, probably when I mentioned that I lived a stone's throw from Iowa, I think he realized he was talking to a total stranger. By then, though, it didn't matter, because we had one thing in common.

I'm bad at small talk about weather or the workday or current events. But talk to me about MUSIC and suddenly you're in my wheelhouse. We spent the next ten minutes debating the best Beautiful South records, comparing favorite Trashcan songs, and sharing reviews of our top records of the year. We certainly weren't old friends, but I may have met a new one by the time it was all said and done.

So please, if you see me out and about, don't hesitate to come say hi. I won't have a panic attack, promise. But if you see me fishing for words or awkwardly dodging your glance, all you need to do is blurt out something like, "Quick, what's your favorite Beatles album?" and we'll be fast friends. Just don't do it in a costume. And don't call me Frank.

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