“That’s a nice place for a smoke”
One of Jon Cotner’s Spontaneous Society walks, Elastic City
From The Faster Times:
Is it possible, in this age of earbuds and smart phones, to spread “good vibes” among strangers on the street through something as simple as conversation? The poet Jon Cotner thinks so. That’s why Cotner—who, along with Andy Fitch, co-authored Ten Walks/Two Talks—created Spontaneous Society, a walking tour designed to create “gentle interventions” aimed at “replacing urban anonymity with something bordering on affection—even if it’s fleeting.”
The premise is simple: to each participant, Cotner gives two very simple, very basic lines to recite to passersby. The lines (which Cotner lovingly describes as “oceanic”) are, generally and in essence, positive observations about something that passerby is currently doing as a means of initiating a brief, but positive, social exchange. For example, “That looks like a good spot for a picnic,” said when passing someone eating on a bench, a blanket, or doorstep; or “It’s a good day to have the feet out,” said when someone approaches with a carriage in which at least one inhabitant is shoeless.
One of the members of our group, Lou, a poet, observed a shortish older woman staring wistfully at a wall of orange juice cartons. Lou intervened, gently, politely asking if she would like any help. He pulled a small carton of orange juice from the top shelf and handed to the woman. “Is this a good date?” he inquired, and the woman said yes, smiling and thanking him.
Although, at times, a few of our given lines felt a bit unnatural—the most poorly received line was, easily, “That’s a nice place for a smoke,” which, in the two instances of Cotner’s utterance, received medium-to-highly negative responses; one of the responses to the line was so negative, it actually led to a man sprinting up behind the group, demanding, almost violently: “What the fuck is that supposed to mean? What you mean by that?” (After the encounter Jon posited, generously, “He must have been having a bad day. Something besides us must have been bothering him.”) But even these kinds of encounters seemed part of the larger (and, I would argue, delightful) unpredictability of human nature.